Shaping Human Evolution at the Smithsonian

03 April, 2014

Welcome to American Mosaic from VOA Learning English.

I'm June Simms.

Today on the show, we visit a museum where art and science help tell the story of human evolution.

But first, we hear about some heroic Americans.

Bravery of Soldiers, and Civilians, Honored

Americans who received the highest honor for bravery from the U.S. military gathered in Knoxville, Tennessee this week. They attended the first showing of a documentary film on the history of the Medal of Honor. But these American servicemen and women also recognize bravery among civilians. For several years now, Medal of Honor winners have been awarding Citizen Medals of Honor. The medal recognizes acts of bravery and service in communities around the country.

On a snowy day at Arlington National Cemetery, living Medal of Honor winners gather to recognize service members killed in the line of duty.

Shaping Human Evolution at the Smithsonian
President Obama awards Army Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris the Medal of Honor at the White House.

"Thank you for inspiring us then and now with your strength, your will and your heroic hearts."

And later at the White House, their numbers increase as a group of veterans from past wars receive the Medal for their own bravery.

But they also took some time to recognize non-military bravery. They honor a group of ordinary citizens for their heroic actions in the face of danger.

"We all started to feel this pull, and swimming back to the beach became difficult if not impossible for some of the others. I realized that because of my junior lifeguard training how to recognize that we were in a riptide."

Nineteen-year-old Connor Stotts risked his own life to rescue three friends from drowning in California in 2011.

"The thought never crossed my mind that I would just swim back to shore without them."

"Do you consider yourself a hero?"
"I know this is something everyone would say but I don't consider myself a hero. I would consider myself, I hope, more of an example."

Eight years ago, the living Medal of Honor recipients established an award for average people who demonstrated bravery, sacrifice and service.

"He was a very caring person who loved to teach and he loved his kids and he loved his family."

Sharon Landsberry remembers the love of her life, Michael. The mathematics teacher saved students' lives at a shooting at a Nevada middle school last year. The 12-year old shooter killed Michael Landsberry. He became the first citizen to be awarded the honor after death.

"I know my husband would do it over again if it were to happen again. That was just who he was. He would put his life up to protect those who he loved."

Ronald Rand heads the Medal of Honor Foundation. He says the award is about selfless service.

"Everyone could be one of those heroes. And, if in fact everyone knew that and recognized that and looked for ways to perform those acts, our society would be a truly wonderful team of people focused on the right values and the right outcomes."

The Citizen Medal of Honor recipients say they hope their acts of bravery and service will move other ordinary people to help those in need, and make a difference in their communities.
A popular exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington explores human evolution. The exhibit includes lifelike representations of ancient primates, or hominids, the early versions of us. Paleo-artist John Gurche creates a world that modern humans can relate to.

Artist-Scientist Shapes Our Past

The Hall of Human Origins is crowded with visitors. They study five life-size bronze models. The models show what scientists believe ancient everyday life looked like, starting millions of years ago. In one representation a homo erectus struggles to carry a newly-killed antelope. Another model shows a homo floresiensis surprised by a deadly animal. This look at homo floresiensis is set about 18,000 years ago.

John Gurche also created the models of hominid heads found in the exhibit. The artist is an expert in prehistoric subjects and ape and human body structure.

"Really to succeed in doing one of these reconstructions, it has to be something you can relate to as a living being, that you almost expect to see breathe and you also have to base it on the best science available or else you really have just a fantasy."

Mr. Gurche brings faces from the past to life. He starts with a plaster form of a skull. He adds layers of clay and sculpts a face. He covers the work in silicone and adds details and color and to the face. He also attaches hair, one single piece at a time. He says what makes the pieces seem so real, though, are the eyes.

"I'm trying to build up an impression that there's someone home. When you look one of these in the eyes you feel there someone there. There's some presence. It really feels like it's more than just clay and plaster. Hopefully people will be a little creeped out by the final result, because they are expecting to see an inanimate object, but what they are seeing is something that has a little bit of a soul."

The bronze sculptures capture the moments of the major changes in human development. Visitors follow their ancestors' footsteps as they move from model to model. They get to see a moment in which early hominids first walked on two feet. Visitors observe as brains get larger, fire is discovered and early humans look for food and react to danger.

"Human evolution as revealed by the fossil record is not just a matter of everything we think of as human, starts sort of evolving in tandem together. It's much more of a mosaic affair, where different things are added at different times. So each species that is a candidate for human ancestry has its own piece of the human puzzle that it added to the mix."

A Neaderthal mother and her child.

Another representation shows a private family moment in Neanderthal life. John Gurche has created a young child watching his mother as she works with an animal skin. The boy's head is turned a little to the side and up, as if he is questioning something.

"He's got a piece of skin also and he's wondering about what she's doing and whether he should do the same thing. He's got that kind of quizzical tilt of his head. And she is responding to him with a lot of joy and hopefully you see some encouragement there is her expression."

These are not emotions that Stacy Weinberg would usually link to humans that lived 70,000 years ago. Ms. Weinberg is visiting the exhibit with her two children.

"We tend to think that we've evolved more and I guess are more intelligent than people that long ago, but it's cute because it is a very similar position to one that we might be in today."

That is the connection John Gurche seeks in his work with our human relatives' long past.

I'm June Simms. Our program was written and produced by Caty Weaver.
Join us again next week for American Mosaic from VOA Learning English.