Most natural history museums don’t have human evolution exhibits, and if they do, the bones are probably reproductions. The real fossils are usually owned by and housed in the country in which they were found. Fortunately, the Internet offers several places where you can see hominid bones up close. Here are a few of my favorite sites.
Smithsonian Human Origins Program: Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a great human evolution exhibit. But for those who can’t make it to Washington, D.C., the museum scanned more than 65 fossils to create 3-D models you can play with online. With the click of a mouse, you can rotate the fossils to get a view from any angle. Each specimen includes information on when and where the fossil was found, how old it is, and in some cases, why it’s important to the study of human evolution. The museum also has online collections of artifacts and primate bones.
eLucy: Unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy is a 40 percent complete skeleton of a female Australopithecus afarensis. At eLucy, you can compare Lucy’s bones—her legs, ankle, arms, fingers, ribs, spine, hips and jaw—with the corresponding bones of humans and chimpanzees to see what aspects of Lucy were human-like and what aspects were still primitive. The site, funded by the University of Texas at Austin, uses a lot of technical terms, but it does have a glossary and an FAQ page that provides answers to questions about how Lucy lived and basic questions about evolution. (Fun fact: Lucy’s name comes from the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which Lucy’s discoverers were listening to after they found the fossils.)
The Natural History Museum, London: Like the Smithsonian, the Natural History Museum in London has an online collection of interactive 3-D fossils. Although the collection is much smaller—it has only three skulls, of Australopithecus afarensis, Homo erectus and a Neanderthal—the site allows for side-by-side comparisons with either a modern human skull or a chimpanzee skull, or you can contrast the ancient hominids with each other.
The Middle Awash Project: The Middle Awash site in Ethiopia is home to the early hominid Ardipithecus. The Middle Awash Project maintains a database of fossils found at the site—everything from birds to hippos to monkeys to horses. There are a couple ways you can search the database, by age or by animal type. The database uses scientific names, so you may need to Google the terms if you’re unfamiliar with them. To see all of the database’s hominid fossils, choose “Hominidae” for the field called “Family” and hit search. The database has pictures of bones from Homo erectus and Ardipithecus kadabba, which lived 5.7 million years ago. Although the black-and-white pictures aren’t that pretty, you probably won’t find a similar collection of such ancient hominid bones anywhere else online.
ESRF Paleontological Mircotomographic Database: After you agree to the site’s terms and conditions, you can view images of Homo erectus, Neanderthal and early modern human fossils. Scientists created the images at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France with microtomography, which uses X-rays to make 3-D images of an object. The site doesn’t provide a lot of information about the fossils—although each image includes a reference to an academic paper about the specimen—but the images are neat because they are big and detailed. The database also has pictures of invertebrate fossils such as ammonites, critters preserved in amber and ancient eel-like creatures called conodonts.
Have I missed any good sites? If you have a favorite website to view hominid fossils, let me know in the comments below.