Washingtonians get intimate meeting with Neanderthal

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The Independent Online

The National Museum of Natural History in Washington is celebrating its 100-year anniversary with a show on human origins featuring Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon skulls for the first time outside Europe.

"It's about everyone, about who we are as a species," said Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the museum, standing next to a life-size bronze statue of a Homo Sapiens holding a piece of meat.

The museum's new 20.7-million-dollar exhibition hall, dubbed Hall of Human Origins, provides visitors an "opportunity to connect their personal life to the evidence that human species evolves over million of years," museum director Cristian Samper said as he unveiled the wing on Wednesday.

Visitors can gaze into the eyes of reproductions of Homo Erectus and Australopithecus who populated the planet for millennia. A photo booth transforms a curious onlooker's traits into those of a Homo Floresiensis (Hobbit) or Cro-Magnon.

Among the 300-some objects, including more than 75 exact replicas of skulls, are two prestigious guests loaned for three months by the Museum of Man in Paris.

"They are among the most famous fossils in the world and it's the first time they are on display in the US," said Potts as he stood before Cro-Magnon fossils that date back 27,000 years.

They were discovered in Dordogne, southwestern France in 1868, barely 10 years after Charles Darwin published his "Origin of the Species."

Next to them, lies a Neanderthal skull, which is around 50,000 years old and was found in the same French region in 1909.

It was just a year later, in 1910, that the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History opened its doors on the Mall, the grassy esplanade leading up to the US Capitol building in Washington.

Samper noted that 100 years ago, the human fossil record was scarce with only about a dozen specimens. "Now there are more than 6,000 fossils from whole skeletons to single teeth," he added.

Dabbling in Darwin's theory of evolution, which remains controversial in the United States, Potts said "you are surrounded by the evidence that the human being evolved over million of years in response to a changing world" at the exhibition hall.

But he was careful to note the museum also welcomed creationists.

"We offer a respectful and welcoming place for all people. People are able to see the evidence on their own," he said.

The hominid relics hailing from Les Eyzies de Tayac village "benefit this exhibition considerably by presenting original specimens you can meet just like regular people," said Alain Froment, anthropology collection director at the Musee de l'Homme (Museum of Mankind) in the French capital.

"They lived and died for real."

The Paris museum, currently closed for renovations, may get a little inspiration from its American counterpart's "monumental presentation and spectacular reproductions," the French anthropologist conceded.