Noe Valley Voice July-August 1999

Florence's Family Album: Follow My Footprints

By Florence Holub

This summer you will not have to travel far to walk among the oldest human bones on earth, brought to life by the newest "animatronic" technology.

These bones can be found in a remarkable exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Called "Missing Links -- Alive!", the show will be on view until Sept. 6, and is said to be the most comprehensive exhibit on human origins ever created.

As a docent at both the de Young Museum and the Academy, I urge you not to miss it. It's a revelation!

Twenty of the world's leading anthropologists and archaeologists have come together to shed light on human development stretching back 4 million years. Be assured, all the scientists' conclusions are based on clear fossil evidence.

The exhibit has four dioramas in which full-scale, animated models of our ancestors are shown in a natural setting, moving and "talking" as if they were alive. Nearby, on a large video screen (mounted in a big rock), an expert on the period discusses what we know about these early humans' physical and social environment.

Since I am a firm believer that "a picture is worth a thousand words," I will spare you elaborate descriptions and offer just a quick summary of the installation's highlights.

Inside the giant "rock" entrance to the exhibit, there is an excavation site featuring two figures of great importance: paleoanthropologist Dr. Meave Leakey and African fossil hunter Kamoya Kimeu. The two excavators are gesturing and "talking" about their discoveries in East Africa.

At the far end of the hall, there is another, tent-covered field laboratory, where a model of Meave's anthropologist husband, Dr. Richard Leakey, is shown discussing the significance of his finds. (Richard's parents, Mary and Louis Leakey, also made discoveries in Africa that were vital to the search for human ancestry.)

Diorama 1 shows a scene from the australopithecine era, dating back 3 to 4 million years. Dr. Meave Leakey, speaking on video from the Kenya National Museum, explains her discoveries of the earliest known hominids who walked on two feet. Walking freed their hands to gather food and use crude tools, such as a rock to crack a nut.

Diorama 2 illustrates Homo erectus, who walked the earth 1.5 to 1 million years ago. The scene shows a man butchering an antelope, while another, a hunter, stands holding a wooden spear. On video, Dr. Alan Walker of Penn State discusses the discovery of "Turkana Boy" (on display in a glass case), our best fossil specimen of Homo erectus.

The Neanderthal period, roughly 100,000 to 50,000 years ago, is depicted in Diorama 3. Dr. Erik Trinkaus of the University of New Mexico describes this cave scene, showing a family burying their dead, a uniquely human activity. Beyond, a group of three Neanderthals wearing animal skins is returning to the cave with food and firewood.

This display includes a duplicate of the male figure, who has been washed, shorn, and dressed in modern clothes -- to demonstrate how easily he could pass for one of us. (Last week, in fact, I saw someone just like him hunting and gathering down at Bell Market!)

Diorama 4 has figures of Cro-Magnons, who lived 40,000 to 20,000 years ago. Dr. Jean Clottes, an expert in cave paintings, explains how these now fully human beings developed an ability to produce art. A child is shown holding a torch so that an elder can paint animals on the walls of their cave.

Samples of the art created by Cro-Magnons are displayed in the last gallery. The most famous object, dating from 25,000 years ago, is the Dolni Vestonice Venus, a six-inch clay sculpture on loan from the Czech Republic's Moravian Museum Brno. Hundreds of similar images have been uncovered in Europe, causing much speculation about the Venus's significance.

Since we have often seen this figurine in art books, I'd like to venture my own theory. To me, this full-bodied female figure, whose head is usually covered with a mask or hood, looks more like a Mother Earth goddess of abundance than a real woman. "Or else a member of the Ku Klux Klan," offers my man Leo.

To which I indignantly reply: There is absolutely no fossil evidence to show that females engaged in such extreme, antisocial behavior.

Besides the dioramas, the "Missing Links" exhibit includes some 45 interactive stations. You can touch models of skulls to compare brows and chins, or put your hand in the handprint of a chimp or gorilla. You can even arm-wrestle with a Neanderthal, if you like.

Also, don't overlook the display case in the hallway near the rear entrance to the Academy of Sciences. Dangling inside it is a cast of the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of "Lucy," discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 by Academy Fellow Dr. Donald Johanson. Lucy occupies a key branch of our family tree, and was responsible for a snew species, Australopithecus afarensis.

Oh, and one more thing: Note that in my sketches above, I have drawn footprints. These do not actually appear on the floor of the museum. They were added merely to serve as my own road map through the exhibit. But perhaps they will encourage others to direct their feet out to Golden Gate Park to meet a few of our amazing ancestors in "Missing Links -- Alive!"

The Academy of Sciences, which includes the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, and the Natural History Museum, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Labor Day. It's free on the first Wednesday of the month (and stays open until 8:45 p.m.). Be advised that adult admission to the "Missing Links" exhibit is $2 over the normal $8.50 admission price.