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Science communication

From monkey to man

A permanent exhibit on human evolution is now on display at Catavento Cultural in São Paulo

Replicas of skeletons of a gorilla, modern man and a chimpanzee: Homo sapiens and our close relatives in the order of primates

Léo RamosReplicas of skeletons of a gorilla, modern man and a chimpanzee: Homo sapiens and our close relatives in the order of primatesLéo Ramos

Toumai, Lucy, a Neanderthal and other hominids from the distant past are arriving in São Paulo. Actually, faithful replicas of their skeletons and artistic representations of their probable facial features are the stars of a new permanent exhibit on human evolution. Entitled From Monkey to Man, the exhibit will go on display between the end of January and early February 2014 at Catavento Cultural, a venue for the dissemination of science and knowledge that is maintained by the government of the state of São Paulo in the downtown area of the capital city of São Paulo. This exhibit was designed in partnership with archeologist and physical anthropologist Walter Neves, who is the coordinator of the Laboratory for Human Evolution Studies at the University of São Paulo (USP). The exhibit paints a panorama of a long and intricate history, the origin of which is not known for certain, but today it is believed that it started at least seven million years ago.

This is the estimated age of Toumai, the name of a skull of the species Sahelanthropus tchadensis found in 2002 in Chad, in North Central Africa. Toumai is the oldest known hominid, from a lineage that probably evolved from the relatives of chimpanzees. Toumai belonged to the first group of hominids to walk upright. For a long time, the primacy of bipedalism was attributed to Lucy, the name assigned to the partial skeleton of an Australopithecus afarensis female from 3.2 million years ago, probably the fossil of the most famous hominid that we know of. Lucy was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, also in Africa, which is also the cradle of modern man, Homo sapiens, which originated there roughly 200,000 years ago.

Reproductions of the skeleton of Lucy and the Turkana Boy (a Homo erectus from 1.6 million years ago)

Léo RamosReproductions of the skeleton of Lucy and the Turkana Boy (a Homo erectus from 1.6 million years ago)Léo Ramos

“In the last three or four decades, many hominid fossils have been found in Africa and other parts of the Old World,” Neves says. “The main purpose of the exhibit is to show that the knowledge of the process that led to the emergence of hominids and modern man is already quite advanced. We can now describe the key steps in our evolutionary lineage with a high degree of certainty.” It took the USP researcher seven years to organize the exhibit, which was initially intended for the Science Station (Estação Ciência), a venue at USP whose purpose is science communication, but is now closed for renovations.

At Catavento Cultural, which quickly expressed interest in the project, From Monkey to Man is the first exhibit in a new educational area inside the Palácio das Indústrias, the institution’s historic building; the area is the arcade in the basement. “Underground rooms are very appropriate for an exhibit on human evolution,” says Sérgio de Freitas, who chairs the Board of Directors of Catavento Cultural e Educational, a social organization that is in charge of running the science museum. To be sure, people who have seen the exhibit will feel cramped because the ceiling is not very high and space in the basement arcade is in relatively short supply. It is almost as though they had entered a cave, an environment that is totally in sync with a brief trip into the history of human evolution.

Skulls of hominids and the teeth of ancestors of modern man

Léo RamosSkulls of hominids and the teeth of ancestors of modern manLéo Ramos

The high point of the exhibit is the quantity and quality of the replicas of skeletons of hominids and large simians–alongside a complete skeleton of a Homo sapiens is another of a chimpanzee and a third one of a gorilla — our closest relatives in the order of primates and artifacts of chipped stone and bone invented by modern man and his ancestors. “Ninety percent of the replicas were made from items from our collection that is at USP,” Neves comments. The copies of Lucy and the monkeys came from the United States. There are also reproductions of artistic representations made by modern man during which what Neves calls the “creative explosion of the Late Stone Age,” about 45,000 years ago. To illustrate this key moment in human evolution, there are displays of copies of sections of famous rock art such as the murals in the Lascaux and Chauvet caves in France and Altamira in Spain.

One thought-provoking display in the exhibit is the reconstitution of a burial site of a modern man from 28,000 years ago in the frozen ground that today is Russia. The organizers of the exhibit dug a hole in the ground and placed the bones in it; they capped the excavation with transparent glass so that visitors can walk on top of the burial site and see the remains of its occupant. A drawing of how this specimen of Homo sapiens may have been buried is located on the side of the burial site.

Copies of rock art found in the Lascaux and Chauvet caves

Léo RamosCopies of rock art found in the Lascaux and Chauvet cavesLéo Ramos

The exhibit is divided into eight self-contained modules, each with a theme that is separate from the other stops. It is not necessary to visit the entire exhibit to understand the information about one part of it. “When you are at a module, it is not possible to see the content of the next part of the exhibit,” says Catavento biologist Murilo Reginato, who assists in assembling the exhibit. “This way, visitors are not distracted.” In each module themes are explored according to a chronological sequence of events. Man’s position in the animal kingdom; the evolution of locomotion, the teeth, the brain and physical appearance; the use of chipped stone technologies; the rise of symbolic knowledge and artistic production: All of these are addressed at one or more stops in the exhibit.

There are two short documentaries that further enhance this little stroll through human evolution: One, which last three minutes, shows how the ancestors of modern man chipped stone to shape their artifacts; the other, which lasts seven minutes, deals with the field and laboratory work done by the archeologists and anthropologists that work with human bones. As the visitors leave the underground arcade of the Palácio das Indústrias, they have the opportunity to hear passages from Bach’s Magnificat, a beautiful example of the creativity of our species. Roughly R$1 million was spent putting From Monkey to Man together; R$140,000 of that came from the CNPq, and the rest from Catavento.