Project Displays Hominid Heritage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When scientists gathered together most of the important hominid fossils that had been discovered and held a symposium centering on the fossils, theories concerning human ancestry were focused into two primary hypotheses.

Summary of Event

On April 6, 1984, fifty-seven of the world’s leading paleoanthropologists gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to study forty of the most important early human fossils found up to that time. Contrary to popular belief, the fossil remains of early human and near-human beings are extremely rare, owing to the very special set of circumstances that must occur for a fossil to form and be preserved and the great difficulties involved in finding the fossils that do exist. These few precious relics of human antiquity are scattered among the world’s great museums, carefully guarded by museum curators. Consequently, most scientists and scholars who study and write about the evolution of the human species have never had the opportunity to study firsthand the evidence on which their discipline is based. The symposium held in New York in 1984 marked the first time in history that most of the important fossils relating to early humans and humanlike creatures had been available for direct study by the world’s foremost authorities on early forms of humans. "Ancestors" project[Ancestors project] Paleontology;hominid fossils Paleoanthropology Human origins Hominids, prehistoric [kw]Project Displays Hominid Heritage (Apr. 6-Sept. 9, 1984) [kw]Hominid Heritage, Project Displays (Apr. 6-Sept. 9, 1984) [kw]Heritage, Project Displays Hominid (Apr. 6-Sept. 9, 1984) Fossils;hominids "Ancestors" project[Ancestors project] Paleontology;hominid fossils Paleoanthropology Human origins Hominids, prehistoric [g]North America;Apr. 6-Sept. 9, 1984: Project Displays Hominid Heritage[05420] [g]United States;Apr. 6-Sept. 9, 1984: Project Displays Hominid Heritage[05420] [c]Science and technology;Apr. 6-Sept. 9, 1984: Project Displays Hominid Heritage[05420] [c]Anthropology;Apr. 6-Sept. 9, 1984: Project Displays Hominid Heritage[05420] Van Couvering, John Delson, Eric Tattersall, Ian

Anthropology, the study of humankind, is divided into various subdisciplines, including the study of human biology, the study of human cultural evolution, and the study of human adaptation. The subdiscipline of paleoanthropology is the study of ancient varieties of human species and species ancestral to humans. Paleoanthropologists base their studies on the fossil remains of ancient hominids (a hominid is any member of the taxonomic family Hominidae, which includes modern human beings and ancestors). Paleoanthropologists are concerned particularly with untangling the complex path of human evolution. Obviously, these scientists labor under a severe handicap because they are unable to examine firsthand most of the fossils on which their discipline is based. The organizers of the symposium at the American Museum of Natural History designed their program to give paleoanthropologists access to the most important early hominid fossils.

Eric Delson, Ian Tattersall, and John Van Couvering, all associated with the museum, originated the idea for the symposium in April, 1979. In addition to their desire to gather as many important hominid fossils as possible for examination by paleoanthropologists, they had another motive for organizing the symposium: By their own admission, they shared with other evolutionary scientists alarm at the growing influence and visibility of so-called creation science, Creation science which insists that God created all existing species, including humankind. Advocates of creation science contend that the evidence for their position is at least as convincing as the evidence for evolution and should be included in high school and college biology texts. The organizers of the symposium proposed that after the paleoanthropologists had their opportunity to view and examine the hominid fossils, the fossils should be displayed to the public at the Museum of Natural History. Such a display would go far, the organizers hoped, toward dispelling in the minds of the general public what the organizers considered the obscurantist contentions of creation scientists.

After securing the permission and cooperation of the directors of the museum for their proposed symposium and exhibit, Delson, Tattersall, and Van Couvering tackled the many problems associated with the project’s realization. Before they even approached the curators of the museums around the world where the fossils they hoped to acquire were permanently housed, the organizers had to secure adequate funding for the proposed symposium and public display. At a meeting in New York in 1981, Delson, Tattersall, and Van Couvering, along with four noted American paleoanthropologists (David Pilbeam Pilbeam, David of Harvard University, Elwyn Simmons Simmons, Elwyn of Duke University, and Clark Howell Howell, Clark and Desmond Clark Clark, Desmond of the University of California at Berkeley) presented their proposals to the heads of four private foundations that support physical anthropology: the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation[Wenner Gren Foundation] the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation, L. S. B. Leakey Foundation the National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society and the Foundation for Research into the Origins of Man. Foundation for Research into the Origins of Man The foundations agreed to furnish the bulk of the funding needed for the project.

With the funding arranged, the project coordinators turned their attention toward establishing security measures that would ensure the safety of the priceless fossils they proposed to bring to New York. Their security measures had to take into consideration not only precautions against accidents in shipment, display, and storage but also protection from deliberate acts of violence by those who might want to destroy the fossils for political reasons. After working out seemingly foolproof security procedures, the project organizers began contacting the museums of the world where the most important hominid fossils were located. They were pleasantly surprised by the eagerness with which most curators accepted their invitations to bring the fossils to New York. Eventually, fifty-seven of the most eminent paleoanthropologists from around the world accepted invitations to participate, and most indicated a willingness to prepare scientific papers for presentation at the symposium. The working out of all the details took nearly three years.

At the very last moment before the opening of the program, curators of three of the twenty-five museums that had agreed to participate in the project reconsidered. Despite those disappointments, the project was a success. From April 6 through April 9, the paleoanthropologists were able to examine and compare the fossil ancestors of modern humanity gathered from various parts of the world during the one hundred-plus year history of paleoanthropology. From April 9 through April 13, scientists participated in a symposium titled “Paleoanthropology: The Hard Evidence” at which they presented papers that greatly clarified the current status of scientific theory concerning the evolution of modern humans and the evidence on which those theories are based. From April 13 to September 9, 1984, the fossils were made available for viewing by the public in an exhibit titled Ancestors: Four Million Years of Humanity. By the time the exhibit closed, almost half a million people from around the world had visited the museum and viewed the evidence on which contemporary understanding of human origins is based.


This event, which became known as the “Ancestors” project, had many far-reaching results. One of the most important outcomes was the emergence of a consensus in paleoanthropological circles concerning the main lines of human evolution. Before the symposium part of the project, paleoanthropologists from around the world seemed to be too busy engaging one another in often acrimonious disputes concerning obscure points within their discipline to give any clear explanation of their findings to the general public, which found their arguments virtually incomprehensible. There emerged from the symposium an account of the major lines of human evolution on which probably most scientists who study the origins of humankind can agree, though many would dispute various minor issues. The account is as follows. American Museum of Natural History Fossils;hominids

Four to five million years ago in Africa, a hominid called Australopithecus afarensis Australopithecus afarensis evolved from creatures ancestral to both humans and contemporary apes. Australopithecus afarensis was small, averaging around 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) in height, and had a brain only slightly larger than that of the modern chimpanzee, but it walked completely upright, and its teeth resembled the teeth of modern humans much more closely than they resembled the teeth of modern apes. During the succeeding 3 million years, several other species evolved from Australopithecus afarensis, including Australopithecus africanus Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus robustus, Australopithecus robustus both of which eventually became extinct, and Homo habilis, Homo habilis which was directly ancestral to modern humans. The first members of Homo habilis appeared about 2.2 million years ago and may have spread outside the continent of Africa to as far away as Southeast Asia and Java.

In Africa and perhaps Southeast Asia, another human ancestor called Homo erectus Homo erectus evolved from and replaced Homo habilis around 1.5 million years ago. Homo erectus (some famous specimens of which include so-called Java man and Peking man) was much larger in size than Homo habilis, averaging almost as tall as modern humans. His brain was much larger than the brain of Homo habilis, although not as large as the average brain size of the human species. Homo erectus spread throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia, only to be replaced around 400,000 years ago in many locales by Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (popularly known as Neanderthal man), whose members apparently evolved in Europe. Concurrently with Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis Neanderthals who was not directly ancestral to modern humans, there evolved in Africa humans’ immediate ancestor, Homo sapiens (often referred to by anthropologists as archaic or primitive Homo sapiens), which replaced Homo erectus throughout the regions not dominated by Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Nevertheless, members of Homo erectus survived in some parts of the world until about 250,000 years ago, at which time the species apparently became extinct.

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis was shorter on the average and had a much more massive bone structure than modern humans. His brain size was well within the range for modern humans, but his skull was much more slanted (virtually no forehead) and his pronounced brow ridges were rounded rather than straight as in previous hominids. In addition, Neanderthal man had several skeletal features markedly different from Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans). Neanderthal man used fire and buried his dead with considerable ritual.

Archaic Homo sapiens (some famous specimens of which include Steinheim man from Germany and Swanscombe man from England), on the other hand, were much more similar in most respects to modern human beings than was Neanderthal man. The stature of Homo sapiens was nearly that of modern humans, and his brain was only slightly smaller on average. He had very little in the way of a forehead or chin, and his bone structure was more massive than that of his modern descendants. Archaic Homo sapiens used fire, and the species evolved a very distinctive stone tool culture. Also, they may have built permanent villages.

Perhaps 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens evolved in Africa. By 35,000 years ago, modern humans had replaced both Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and archaic Homo sapiens, becoming the only living hominids.

In addition to clarifying contemporary theories concerning human ancestry so that it could be understood by nonprofessionals, the “Ancestors” project had two other important results. First, the project dealt a powerful blow to creation science. The assembly and display of the hard evidence for human evolution made it very difficult for creation scientists to explain away beings whose remains clearly reveal them to have been closely related to but not identical with modern humans. Also, creation scientists had made much of the often well-publicized disputes among paleoanthropologists, arguing that even the “evolutionists” themselves were divided about the validity of evolutionary theories. The symposium made it clear that although paleoanthropologists might dispute obscure points about the evolutionary path of humankind, they agreed on major points, something that many members of the general public had not understood prior to the well-publicized symposium.

Finally, the “Ancestors” project created a precedent for international cooperation in the study of human origins. The disputes among paleoanthropologists in the years before often took on distinctly nationalist and political overtones that were extremely disruptive to progress in the field. The project showed the many advantages that could accrue from international cooperation rather than competition and ushered in a new age of progress in the search for human origins. Fossils;hominids "Ancestors" project[Ancestors project] Paleontology;hominid fossils Paleoanthropology Human origins Hominids, prehistoric

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Day, Michael H. Guide to Fossil Man. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. One of the most complete catalogs of hominid fossils available. Contains photographs and illustrations that greatly aid the nonprofessional in understanding the main points of human evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delson, Eric, ed. Ancestors: The Hard Evidence. New York: A. R. Liss, 1985. Contains a brief account of the genesis of the “Ancestors” project along with all the papers presented at the concurrent paleoanthropological symposium. Includes color photographs of the fossils assembled in New York, with a complete history of each one and an evaluation of its significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Else, James G., and Phyllis C. Lee, eds. Primate Evolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Account of the evolution of the order Primates, which includes hominids and pongids (the modern apes) as well as other species, will aid interested readers in untangling the often confusing theories concerning the emergence of human species from earlier forms. Draws heavily on material from the “Ancestors” symposium. Contains many illuminating photographs and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feder, Kenneth L., and Michael Alan Park. Human Antiquity: An Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Excellent account of the current state of knowledge concerning human origins and early hominid forms, written in terms understandable by laypersons. Includes excellent photographs and illustrations and an outstanding bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larsen, Clark Spencer, Robert M. Matter, and Daniel L. Gebo. Human Origins: The Fossil Record. 3d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1998. Comprehensive volume provides information on all of the major fossil finds in the world, along with detailed drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weaver, Kenneth F. “The Search for Our Ancestors.” National Geographic, November, 1985, 561-629. One of the best popular treatments of ancient hominids and human evolution available. Replete with splendid photographs and illustrations. Inspired and heavily influenced by the “Ancestors” program.

Anthropologists Discover the Early Hominid “Lucy”

Scientists Date a Homo Sapiens Fossil at Ninety-Two Thousand Years

Cann Postulates the African Eve

Categories: History