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Human Odyssey

Human Odyssey at the California Academy of Sciences

Trace the milestones of our species’ fascinating history in Human Odyssey, a dramatic new addition to Tusher African Hall.

Tracing our past

Homo sapiens skull at California Academy of Sciences

Did you know that humans almost went extinct 90,000 to 70,000 years ago? Learn about that close call, and the milestones which dot our species’ evolutionary history as you explore the origins of humanity. Following the clues that scientists use to investigate our past, you’ll discover why the 7 billion people on the planet today are much more alike than you might think.

Highlights of Human Odyssey include:

Faces from the past: Examine the skull casts of three early human species, then watch as fleshed-out reconstructions of their faces appear using “Pepper’s Ghost” optical illusion technology.

Walking with Lucy: Compare the distinctive gaits of a chimpanzee, Australopithecus afarensis (the species of the famous “Lucy” skeleton), and a modern human.

Interactive migration map: Use touchscreen stations to trace our species’ migration from its African origins—one which spanned thousands of years and countless generations.

Academy research: Learn about the work of noted Academy anthropologist Dr. Zeray Alemseged, introduced below.

Meet Dr. Alemseged

Dr. Zeray Alemseged excavation

Dr. Zeray Alemseged, Curator and Irvine Chair of Anthropology at the Academy, knows his way around the “Cradle of Mankind.” In 2006, it was there in Ethiopia’s Great East African Rift that he reported finding a 3.3 million-year-old fossil of a three-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, considered to be the world’s oldest baby. Nicknamed “Selam,” it was the most complete skeleton of its kind ever found. The discovery has provided numerous new insights into the anatomical, behavioral, and developmental evolution of early human ancestors from other apes.

Science journal cover

Alemseged’s work is regularly published in prestigious journals including Nature and Science, and has also been featured by National Geographic, NOVA, BBC and others. He initiated and continues to serve as head of the Dikika Research Project in the Afar badlands of Ethiopia, the archaeologically rich region in which “Selam” was found, and is responsible for overseeing the Academy’s collection of 16,000 cultural artifacts. Watch for a panel about his ongoing work to study hominid remains in Human Odyssey.

Learn more about his recent discoveries:
Clues to our ancestors’ tree-climbing habits
Evidence of early human tool use

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    Our Human Odyssey

    Our species’ complex evolutionary journey gives rise to big questions and sometimes, misunderstandings. The following answers address common questions and misconceptions about our human odyssey are informed by scientific knowledge gathered from fossil evidence, DNA research, and anthropological findings.

    Paranthropus boisei skull at California Academy of Sciences

    Q: Humans aren’t animals—we’re people, right?

    A: Humans are members of the animal kingdom and as such, subject to evolutionary pressures.

    Fun fact: “Animal” comes from the Latin word animalis, meaning “having breath.”

    Three skeletons

    Q: Humans are primates…but what’s a primate?

    A: “Primate” refers to a taxonomic name and location on the evolutionary tree of life. Humans belong to the genus and species Homo sapiens. Humans, along with gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos share enough characteristics to be grouped within the order Primates. Primates are one of many orders within the mammalian class of animals.

    Fun fact: Hominid refers to our many different human ancestors. It’s less specific than using the names of individual early human species like Homo erectus, or Australopithecus afarensis.

    Gorilla

    Q: Humans descended from apes, right?

    A: Humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees are different species that followed separate evolutionary paths having split from a common ancestor that lived 10 million years ago in Africa.

    Neanderthal and Homo sapien skull comparison

    Q: Isn’t evolution like a ladder where one species dies out and is replaced by the next, superior species?

    A: Human evolution is not a straight line. The growth of our family tree included multiple branches, dead ends, and adaptive experiments. In the long time span of human evolution, multiple human species coexisted and occasionally interbred. Homo sapiens is the only human species which exists today.

    Fun Fact: Although now extinct, we count these other human species among our closest relatives:

    • Homo neanderthalensis
    • Homo floresiensis
    • Homo denisova
    • Homo heidelbergensis
    • Homo erectus
    • Homo habilis
    Tools

    Q: Did early human species live at the same time as dinosaurs?

    A: Modern humans—Homo sapiens—emerged in Africa only 200,000 years ago. Our oldest ancestor, the species Sahelanthropus tchadensis, lived 7–6 million years ago. In contrast, dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago.

    Fun fact: Homo habilis emerged in Africa between 3–2 million years ago. Homo erectus existed for more than 2 million years before going extinct 143,000 years ago.

    Lucy

    Q: Who was “Lucy” and why is she important?

    A: In 1974, Lucy’s skeletal remains were found in Ethiopia’s Afar region. One of the oldest fossils ever discovered, Lucy provided scientists with evidence of bipedal, upright walking by our ancestors.

    Both Lucy and Selam (the fossil remains of an ancient three-year-old girl discovered in 2006 by the Academy’s Zeray Alemseged) belong to the species Australopithecus afarensis, which lived between 4–3 million years ago.

    Fun fact: Lucy was nicknamed for the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, which the scientific team led by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray was playing in camp the night after the historic fossil was discovered.

    Zeray at Dikiki

    Q: How long did it take for our ancestors to migrate out of Africa?

    A: Our journey out of Africa took place over thousands of years and required many attempts by countless generations. Temperature fluctuations and severe climate conditions either limited or enabled these migratory attempts.

    Q: People look so different around the world. Modern humans must be a very genetically diverse species, right?

    A: We are much more alike than you might think. 90,000–70,000 years ago, our species almost went extinct. Only a few thousand humans survived the extreme changes in climate. Today, there is more genetic diversity in a single troop of chimpanzees than in the world’s humans.

    Dive Deeper

    Learn more about the human odyssey.
    Visit the Smithsonian’s online exhibit on human origins.

    Discover educator resources on human origins.

    Still confused about evolution?
    Find explanations to common misconceptions about evolution here.

    Human Odyssey Map

    View Map

    Our species (Homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. It took an untold number of attempts over millennia before humanity settled in every corner of the globe. Severe climate change, extreme weather events, and catastrophic drought both opened and closed migratory routes out of Africa.

    Scientists have pieced together an outline of the human odyssey, using evidence gathered from archeological sites, climate conditions, and genetic material from human fossils.

    Did you know: 70,000 years ago, our species almost went extinct. The number of humans was reduced to 10,000 mating pairs. For this reason, all humans regardless of race, color, or nationality, at the level of DNA are 99.9% alike.

    You can explore this fact and more in an interactive map spotlighting the milestones of our 200,000-year migratory journey.

    Please note: the Human Odyssey interactive map is compatible with recent desktop browsers and tablet devices.

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    Location

       

    Tusher African Hall at the California Academy of Sciences

    Human Odyssey is located in Tusher African Hall.

    Sponsored by

       

    Human Odyssey is generously supported by Pauline and Tom Tusher.

    Learn more

       

    The Academy’s anthropology department is home to an amazing collection of tools and artifacts of human cultures past and present.

    Discover what the genes of hunter-gatherer tribes tell us about human origins and our species’ future.

    Curious about the role of evolution in modern science? Read the Academy’s Official Evolution Statement.

    Listen

       

    Check out our radio spot for Human Odyssey: