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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

People's Choice:
3 votes


Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program


Chedd-Angier-Lewis and CIvicActions




The past decade has seen astonishing discoveries about human origins that captivate the imagination. We walk on two legs, make tools, and have large brains. We solve complex problems and communicate through language and art. We express our feelings and our spirituality. How did we acquire these extraordinary qualities? Are we still evolving or are we ‘it’, the endpoint of the evolutionary story?

These questions excite the deepest levels of human curiosity about our own identity and origins, and help shape one of the most awe-inspiring areas of scientific inquiry. ‘What does it mean to be human?’ – the theme of the Human Origins Initiative of the Smithsonian Institution – reflects one of humanity’s most profound quests. The initiative’s goal is to explore the universal human story at its broadest time scale. It seeks to stimulate new research findings that deepen an understanding of what makes our species unique and how we came to be.

Our web site is thus dedicated to bringing you the excitement, latest findings, and profound implications of the scientific exploration of human origins.

The team working on this website involved both outside contractors – Chedd-Angier-Lewis for graphic design and interactive development, and CivicActions for Drupal development- and in-house experts who brought a wide range of expertise from decades worth of knowledge gained worldwide studying human evolution, to graphics and interactive design, to educational website design, and much more.

Here are just a few of the highlights that make the What Does It Mean to Be Human? website one of our very best efforts to date:

3D Collection

Welcome to our 3D collection of fossils (F) and artifacts (A). The purpose of this collection is to allow you to view your favorite objects from our David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins and to help you share your museum experience with your friends and family. Before our exhibit opened, the objects on display were either CT or laser scanned. The scanning process enabled Human Origins Program staff to generate 3D models of each object that you can view, rotate, and interact with online. It may take a minute or two to load depending on your computer, but after it is loaded you will be able to move the 3D object around by holding down the left-click button and moving your mouse. You can even download and rotate these images within a PowerPoint presentation!


The Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program conducts field and lab research on the evolution of early human adaptations. Our key research partners are in East Africa and East Asia – especially in Kenya, China, and Indonesia. Our digs and studies in these regions, along with investigations by associates working in Ethiopia, Tanzania, India, Mozambique, among other countries, help generate scientific data on the long-term interaction of human ancestors with their surroundings. Curiosity about human origins drives our research. The research supports our effort to bring the latest findings to public audiences worldwide.

What Does It Mean to be Human?

This question isn’t just for researchers. The Human Origins Initiative wants to know what visitors think it means to be human. Responses seen here come both from this website and the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins; however, only answers submitted via the website may include an image. So far, we have had a wonderful outpouring of responses to this question and cannot feature every answer.  In an effort to feature as many as possible, we add new answers on a weekly basis. Visitors can also rate posted responses and browse the collective answers for inspiration for their own response to this question that forms the backbone of the Human Origins Initiative.

Resources for Human Evolution Education

With the opening of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins and the launch of this website, the Human Origins Program is initiating a diverse collection of programs and resources targeted to different audiences in a variety of formats. At the same time, given the well-documented lack of public understanding of evolution and human origins combined with the ongoing and long-term commitment of the Smithsonian across its research, exhibition, and education enterprises, we have the opportunity to go well beyond the usual complement of activities to build an international network of educators that can function well beyond the exhibition and serve as a structure to encourage and sustain human origins education and outreach activities. The resources available on this website and the Teachers Forum will function as key supports of and communication mechanisms for these goals.