The Museum of Natural Science is best known for its dinosaurs. You know, the ones they ‘ve found in Bernissart in the south of Belgium. But we’ve seen this bunch of extinct scoundrels so many times by now, that they wouldn’t be surprised if we invited them for tea. Really! So this time we decided to explore the museum’s new wing: the gallery of humankind.
It consists of two main areas, one about the human body, the other about human evolution. We decide to go for the exhibit about our seven million year evolution from Sahelantropus to Homo sapiens. ‘Look, monkeys’, Lucy chuckles. With great care we study the family portrait on the wall: a Homo sapiens accompanied by six of our twenty-four known ancestors. Undeniably, there are some monkey-like features about them. On top of that, this is a typical case of Photoshop, because our ancestors all bit the dust a couple of million years ago. So technically it’s impossible for them to all be in the same picture.
Skulls and teeth
‘The first humans that looked like us, lived in Africa’, our guide Jeroen explains. ‘About 45.000 years ago they left Africa and came to Europe.’ ‘How can you possibly know this?’ Mirtha wants to know, clearly wondering how anyone can remember a trip from so long ago. But Jeroen already has an answer ready for her. ‘Scientists found fossils like bits and pieces of skulls and teeth, that explain all of this. The oldest fossils were over 200.000 years old.’
‘We’re all Africans, we just lost our color a bit over time’
These numbers don’t mean much to our girls, except that it sounds quite a long time ago. ‘Why did they leave Africa?’ Lucy wants to know. ‘There where just too many of them, that’s why they started to migrate’, Jeroen replies. ‘In fact, we’re all Africans, we just lost our color a bit over time.’ It’s not a case of washing at the wrong temperature: our skin got more and more pale because there’s a lot less sunlight over here. A dark skin is an absolute necessity in Africa, as it stops the ultraviolet light. But in the much colder European climate, it’s not. ‘So we’re all chocolate colored, it’s more a question of white and dark chocolate’, Jeroen concludes.
We bump into a redhead with a long flat forehead and remarkably thick eyebrows: the Neanderthal. ‘His brain was a bit bigger, but we are smarter’, Jeroen explains. We are after all the Homo Sapiens sapiens, the Smart smart human. Although you wouldn’t think so if you look at some of our contemporary specimen.
‘So we’re all chocolate colored, it’s more a question of white and dark chocolate’
‘This lady’s name is Lucy’, Jeroen introduces us to a rather smart looking little dame. This historic Lucy already had children when she died, and yet she’s one complete head smaller than our Lucy. ‘She’s quite small for her age’, Jeroen sums it up. Mirtha and Lucy inspect the remains of the hip of this impressive lady, roughly 3,5 million years old and belonging to the Australopithecus afarensis species. When you look at her teeth, you can find out what she ate. Those little scratches reveal that she liked harsh plants, leaves and tree bark, a bug now and then. A little bit of meat was also on the menu. ‘No sandwiches with Nutella for her, we’re quite sure of that’, Jeroen says.
Lucy in the sky
‘Did her mummy name her Lucy?’ our Lucy wants to know. ‘No, scientists did that, she was found in the seventies in Ethiopia, and was named after the Beatles song Lucy in the sky with diamonds.’ Maybe her real name was Rita or Monique and her mummy would be a bit cross if she knew somebody gave her a new name.
We say goodbye to Ethiopian Lucy and stroll to the next guest. It is beginning to look like a cocktail party for human species now! She might not be the most glamorous one, but Ardipithecus was also invited. Her arms go way down to her knees and her feet look like hands. She’s got a small head and almost no neck. But to be honest, who needs a neck if you could play Beethoven with your feet?
‘We eat fries in Belgium because of Siberia.’
‘Can a grain of sand from Africa reach us? Lucy wonders. All these difficult questions are starting to give Jeroen a small headache. But nonetheless he stays strong and tries to answer them one by one. ‘Sure it can’, he says. ‘From the Sahara. In fact, we eat fries because of Siberia.’ How come? He explains how clay from Siberia came to Western Europe, blown by the wind, and made our soil suited for growing potatoes. While we reflect on this, a stranger in the back is trying to get our attention.
We shake hands as she introduces herself as Homo habilis. No hips, a bit square, but nonetheless she looks like a really nice girl. Her toes are somewhat closer together, her brain is a tiny bit bigger and, yay, she even has a neck. ‘Homo habilis is the first one to use tools’, says Jeroen, ‘A very special human!’ We believe him. He goes on to explain that this ancestor is the first one to come up with the idea to sharpen rocks. They used it to suck the marrow from the bones of dead animals. Homo habilis ate more meat than Ethiopian Lucy and her friends. This was an important evolutionary step to survive: meat gives more energy than plants, so you need less of it. Two twigs and some bark for dessert simply don’t have the same effect as a steak béarnaise for dinner. We congratulate Homo habilis for her resourcefulness and hurry to Homo erectus in the next room.
After close inspection, it appears he’s a 16 year old lad. ‘We can see he’s a boy!’ the girls chuckle. He was the first one to go hunting and he already looks a lot like us humans. Although he has a small head in comparison with the rest of him. Via Homo floresiensis, who looks like a hobbit by the way, we are nearing the end of the party of extinct humans. Jeroen brings out two more skulls. One is from a Neanderthal, the other one is like ours. He points out all the differences: teeth, chin, jaw and forehead. We’ve come a long way as human beings, after an elaborate physical, cultural and social evolution. Although it doesn’t always appear that way. Jeroen stands next to a Neanderthal and says: ‘I kind of look like him, no?’ Without any hesitation the girls reply: ‘Yes! You really do!’