August Flickr Photo of the Month: Terra Cotta Warriors!

Houston Cougars

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS – as well as the areas surrounding the Museum in Hermann Park. When we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we highlight one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we’re featuring a photo from Arie Moghaddam, known as Houston Cougars on Flickr, who is a regular attendee of the Museum’s Flickr meetups. This photo is from the meetup we held in our Summer 2009 exhibition, Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor.

Why would we feature an image that’s celebrating it’s 2nd birthday? First: we’re thinking a lot about the Terra Cotta Warriors lately – since we’ve just announced a new exhibit featuring these wonders of the world!

Warriors, Tombs and Temples opens April 1, 2012!

The upcoming exhibit  includes 200 incredibly preserved ancient works of art featuring newly-discovered artifacts unearthed from imperial, royal and elite tombs and from beneath Buddhist monasteries in and around the capital cities of three great dynasties – as well as four of the famous life-size Terra Cotta Warriors!

And, second: it’s a great image with a unique perspective on the original exhibit. Arie shared a few words about what inspired it:

As for what inspired me to take the picture (aside from you being nice enough to invite us), of all the pictures I took I think this one best captures the essence of the exhibit since it combines the statue, cross bow, and armor in a logical order which any emperor would be pleased to have in his necropolis.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Terra Cotta Warriors was a temporary exhibit, and photography was restricted outside of special Flickr meetup opportunities. Follow our posts in the HMNS Flickr pool for announcements about upcoming events.

Labor Day! Fun For The Long Weekend At HMNS

Monday is Labor Day – and you know what that means, right?


In case you’re wondering how to fill the long hours between Friday afternoon and Tuesday morning, here’s a list of the top ten weekend experiences you can have with the family at HMNS all weekend long.

That’s right – we’re open MONDAY! Because we’re here for you. 

10. Come And Take It!

A look at the stunning variety of fascinating artifacts from Texas’ rich history, that is.

Come And Take It
The Come And Take It Cannon!
See a full set of photos from the exhibit on Flickr

Texas! The Exhibition closes at 5 pm on Monday, Sept 5 – so don’t miss your last chance to see Santa Anna’s spurs, Davy Crockett’s violin, the Davis Guards Medal and many other objects from a huge swath of Texas history – from prehistoric cultures to the Spindletop oil gusher.

Preview the exhibit with our blog series on Texas History! (And see how you can win free tickets to see the exhibit closing weekend!)

9. Ramble through Borneo with Orangutans

And while you’re at it, explore Tsavo with young elephants.

Born To Be Wild
The cuteness! See it this weekend in Born To Be Wild 3D at HMNS!

Born To Be Wild 3D is a fascinating, entertaining and heart-warming film chronicling the efforts of two pioneering women to save orphaned animals.

Time Out New York says “The kids will squeal with delight.” We think you probably will, too.

8. Discover The True Meaning of Mayan Prophecies 

2012: Mayan Prophecies
2012: Mayan Prophecies in the HMNS Planetarium

Worried about 2012? Explore the Mayan culture in this new planetarium film. Learn why Dec. 21, 2012 will be just another day, but the Mayan culture’s true contributions to civilization are unique and fascinating.

7. Solve A Crime!

If watching CSI makes you think you think “I could do that!” – this exhibit is for you! Study fingerprints, chromatographs, DNA, insect lifecycles, tire marks, hair analysis, thread comparison, and handwriting analysis to catch the culprit!

Crime Lab Detective opens at the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land on Saturday, Sept. 3!

6. Watch A Butterfly Enter The World!

Cockrell Butterfly Center

Our butterflies flit through a three-story, glass enclosed rain forest habitat – and it’s a showstopper of the large-scale variety. But you shouldn’t miss the Hall of Entomology on the upper level – where you can watch butterflies emerge from their chrysalides daily. It’s a quiet moment of tranformation, rebirth and wonder that everyone should experience.

5. Discover a Modern-Day Dragon

Think all dragons breathe fire? Some just flash it – including The Dragon, one of the world’s most famous mineral specimens.

The Dragon | HMNS Mineral Hall

It just so happens to be part of our collection – on permanent display in the Hall of Gems and Minerals, along with literally hundreds of the world’s finest gems and minerals. Hundreds. 

4. Develop An Intense Desire To Wear This.

Ancient Ukraine Exhibit at HMNS
Preview the entire exhibition in this set of photos on Flickr.

If you’ve followed our advice on #4, you’ve likely whetted your appetite for gold. And our Ancient Ukraine exhibition (closing Sept. 5!) could be called: Gold! Oh, And Some More Gold. (Except that it also features fascinating artifacts made from many other materials, from the entire 6,000 year history of Ukraine.)

Get an idea of what you’re in for in our curator’s blog series on Ancient Ukraine.

3. Spend Saturday With The Stars!

George Observatory

Long weekends are the perfect time to make the long drive out to our George Observatory. It’s an hour outside Houston, but that means light pollution is at a minimum – and stars are at a maximum.

If you’ve never been, you will marvel  at the number of stars you can see with the naked eye – and the astronomical detail you can view through our Gueymard telescope, one of the largest in the country that’s available for public viewing.

The Observatory is open every Saturday night from 3 – 10 pm. Get Directions and information on Admission.

2. Explore Two Continents

Hall of the Americas

Our Hall of the Americas features cultures from the Inuit in Alaska to the Inca of Peru – go on an expedition through hundred of years of American history and over 2 continents this weekend!

1. Take The Science Fun Home!

The HMNS Museum Store has a metric ton of science ideas and activities to take home – and your purchases always support our science educational programs! Grab the Pocket Starfinder for your Big Bend camping excursion, take the Encyclopedia of Texas Shells on a seashore expedition, or identify what’s fluttering around your own backyard with the Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas Guide.

From a Galileo Thermometer to track the summer heat to a Dinosaur Hunter Field Canteen, we’ve got everything you need to close out the summer right!

Here’s to a great long weekend – hope to see you here at HMNS!

Deep Ancestry: Our Story

Anyone who is interested in family history, or anyone who has ever gone to a library or archive to undertake genealogical research knows that while the subject is an exciting one, the work can be tedious and the resulting picture often fuzzy.

This is where we stand with regards to family research writ large, that of modern humanity. To be sure, we have come a long way since we humans even became aware of the fact that we had a very long history, or a deep ancestry. Consider the day, now more than 180 years ago, when people went into a cave in Belgium and encountered remains later identified as belonging to a Neanderthal individual. Compare that against our current understanding of human evolution. How we got here is an interesting story and it is an interesting tale to relate,. Where we go from here is equally intriguing.

Here is part one: how did we get here?

Traditionally, we rely on three main sources of information when studying human origins, our origins. These sources are: the material remains of that past (including both fossil remains and man-made tools), genetics and comparative primatology. The latter refers to observation of current non-human primates and possible correlations between their habitat and behavior with the environment in which our ancestors once lived and their behavior. If there is one constant in the picture generated by these sources is that it is always being refined and updated. Such is the nature of scientific endeavor: it never stands still. Thankfully, our thirst for greater understanding is never slaked either. There is always more to investigate.

Material remains have been the backbone of paleoanthropological studies. After all, what could be a better illustration of human evolution than a fossil of an ancient ancestor, or a tool made by a distant relative of ours? By carefully plotting where these remains have been found, we can reconstruct a picture of human evolution, we can start to see where our earliest ancestors once arose, evolved and eventually migrated from. By studying their tools, we can see human inventiveness at work. At first this is a tediously slow process, but eventually we see it picking up pace to the point we are today: new gadgets developed on a daily basis.

For a while, as people were studying fossil human remains, others were investigating genetics. However, initially the practitioners of these two pursuits did not know of each other’s work, or, did not realize how their work could benefit from the other person’s insights. And so we see how Mendel and Darwin were contemporaries, but their respective scientific insights and breakthroughs did not cross over and inspire the other.

DNA rendering
Creative Commons License photo credit: ynse

Our genetic makeup is the result of millions of years of evolution.

Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, we have learned a lot about our genetic makeup. Since then, the chimp genome, gorilla genome, and the orangutan genome have been finished; by the way, the latter was sequenced in our own backyard here in Houston. This provides a nice platform to start comparing our genetic makeup with that of our close primate relatives, and find out where we differ, and, more interestingly, how similar we are below the surface. It turns out we are quite similar.

The difference 1% makes.

Differences, no matter how ostensibly small, remain important. One can be in awe about the fact that we share around 99% of genes with chimps. One could also turn that around and say “See how much difference 1% makes?” That difference, in turn, may help us figure out when in time we started to go our own way, after the split from a common ancestor. This is where the notion of a molecular clock comes in. This concept has been used to “to investigate several important issues, including the origin of modern humans, the date of the human/chimpanzee divergence, and the date of the Cambrian explosion.”

Thus we see in the literature that orangutans, with whom we share around 97 % of our DNA, split from the family tree around 16 to 15 million years ago. Humans and chimps became their own branches on the family tree around 6 to 5 million years ago.

As one researcher recently put it: “There remain signals of the distant past in DNA, and our approach is to use such signals to study the genetics of our ancestors.”

The concept of the molecular clock continues to be refined as our understanding of its potential and limitations has grown. For better or worse, however, it provides us with a tool to help situate major branching events on the family tree. This brings us to our own immediate past, our place in history, when modern humans appeared on the scene.

Modern Humans

Discoveries made in East Africa date the emergence of modern human beings to about 200,000 years ago. Two skulls, found in 1967 in Ethiopia were recently identified as the earliest known modern humans. While that makes all of us Africans, it data from mitochondrial DNA have suggested that our ancestors did not make it out of Africa until 60,000 years ago. The archaeological record seems to disagree, however. Man-made tools twice that age have recently been found in the Arabian Peninsula.

It is at times like these, when dates provided by genetics and archaeology diverge, that we hear voices criticizing the invalidity of this approach. What we will see happen, however, is that this apparent disjunction between two sets of data, will spur on researchers to find where the source of this disparity lies and resolve it. Were that to be impossible then we would have to go back to the drawing board and rethink our ideas about human evolution and the timing of critical events related to it.

Now for part two: where do we go from here?

As people become more mobile, we are now finding our mates much further away than we did just a few generations ago. This means that it will become more difficult to check that box on the census form asking for our ethnicity. It also means that we are slowly becoming more homogenized. Indigenous cultures are disappearing and language follow suit.

To get an idea of how exhilarating and mind-boggling this pursuit of science can be, I would like to invite the reader to attend an upcoming lecture.

On March 7, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will host Dr. Spencer Wells, lead scientist of the Genographic Project.

His lecture, entitled “Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genomic Project,” is brought to us by the Leakey Foundation. Dr. Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and Frank H. T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Professor at Cornell University. Dr. Wells will share with us how the Genographic Project, using data from hundreds of thousands of people, including members of the general public, the Genographic Project is deciphering the migratory routes followed by early humans as they populated the Earth.

I look forward to this lecture, and hope to see many of you at the museum that evening.

In the meantime, a pop quiz.

Q: What do the following individuals have in common?

Brazilian indian chiefs, Kaiapos tribe, during a collective interview.
Left to right: Raony (state of Mato Grosso), Kaye, Kadjor, Panara (Pará)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valter Campanato, Agência Brasil (ABr). April 17, 2005
Ethiopian Orthodox Christian woman – Lalibela, Ethiopia
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout
Lake Titicaca – Uros people
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dirk Van Tuerenhout

A: They are us. We are them. This is us.

Human evolution: the year 2010 in review (Part 1)

That’s some good-looking gombo, cher!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Southern Foodways Alliance

This blog contribution aims to be like a good Louisiana seafood gumbo: thick, hearty, spicy, and made up all kinds of finger-licking ingredients (pun intended). There will be some French, which would be apropos, some Latin as well, and all kinds of discoveries related to human origins, as they transpired this past year. I will follow up with a second part in a week or two with an observation and a comment.

In an earlier blog, “A pinky’s promise,” I wrote about the incredible discovery that was made early in 2010 when DNA analysis was performed on one small finger bone retrieved from a cave in Southern Siberia. The bone dated to a period (50,000 to 30,000 years ago) when all scientists assumed that the only living humans were either Homo sapiens sapiens or Neanderthals (perhaps we should now be saying Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, but I am getting ahead of the game). This first assumption proved to be wrong.

Entrance to the Denisova Cave
Creative Commons License photo credit:ЧуваевНиколай

In 2008, DNA analysis carried out on a single finger bone revealed that there was a third species of human walking the earth at that time. Toward the end of 2010, this view was corroborated by additional DNA analysis of a few teeth that were found in the same Denisova cave. The Max Planck Institute in Leipzig announced that these so-called “Denisovans” represent a new species.
More interesting still, some of their DNA is still around: the “Denisovans” interbred with the ancestors of Melanesians. This implies that at one point, this third species was quite widespread in Asia. If these conclusions hold up, the lesson we should take away from this breakthrough is that every little scrap of evidence counts when studying human origins, even a single tooth, or a finger bone. I wonder how many single finger bones or teeth have been overlooked in the past, or are still awaiting re-discovery in a museum drawer somewhere.

Neanderthals were also in the news this past year. For years, researchers have been vexed by questions such as “Who were these people?”, “Where did they come from?”, “What made them extinct?” and last but not least “Is there a little bit of Neanderthal in (some of) us?”

With regard to the last question, also discussed in earlier blogs, the way in which we answer that question will result in a different scientific (read: Latin) nomenclature for Neanderthal. Allow for the possibility of interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and also agree that their offspring was fertile, i.e., they successfully reproduced, then you would have to refer to Neanderthals as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. If you disagree with this idea, and think it was unlikely these two populations interbred, or that their offspring was not capable of producing fertile offspring, then you would have to refer to Neanderthals as Homo neanderthalensis. This classifies them as a species separate from modern humans; by definition, species cannot interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

A Happy Neanderthal
Creative Commons License photo credit: erix!

The latter way of thinking was long popular among paleoanthropologists. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Scientists at the institute decoded the Neanderthal genome and compared it with that of modern humans. The result? In their words: “By comparing that genome with those of various present day humans, the team concluded that about 1 percent to 4 percent of the genome of non-Africans today is derived from Neanderthals.”  In people speak: up to 4% of a European’s genetic makeup could be inherited from the Neanderthal lineage, now extinct.

Before you check for hair on your knuckles, thank (or blame) a single finger bone and a few teeth, as well as the staff at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany for all this.

Lest we all (well, at least those of us of European descent) break out in hives and run for the nearest hills, scientists were quick to add: “[T]he Neanderthal DNA does not seem to have played a great role in human evolution.”

Certainly, 1 to 4% overlap in genetic makeup is not very much, but it is a whole lot more than we were willing to consider just a year ago. Differences between Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis remain significant. The overall physical appearance of a modern human is very different from that of a Neanderthal. In terms of behavior, and cognitive abilities, the two subspecies also appear to be a world apart, never mind they shared portions of our planet.

Comparing Neanderthals and modern humans
One of the areas in which there were both similarities and differences was diet. These insights also came out this past year.  Did you know that Neanderthals ate their veggies? And that they liked to cook them as well? Perhaps you did. However, did you also know that they were not averse from eating each other?

Check back next week to see more on this, when Dirk discusses teeth, DNA, and his own conclusions to 2010 in review.