Her name is Selem, which means peace in Ethiopian.
She stood a little less than two feet tall when she died more than 3 million years ago.
Her remains remained hidden for millennia until they were discovered by Zeresenay Alemseged, a paleoanthropologist who is now curator of anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.
Selem’s story is one of many developments in the long history of human evolution now being brought to life at the academy in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The exhibit is titled “The Human Odyssey” and is located in the academy’s African Hall, which is appropriate given that scientists believe that human life began on that continent.
But this is no ordinary collection of pre human skulls displayed as if in a college classroom.
Some are in electronic shadow boxes where a turn of a knob reveals the ancestor’s face emerging from behind the real skull.
Others are mounted next to a drawing of the species, and another, Australopithecus afrensis or “Lucy,” is recreated in full within a special plastic case. .
By touching a sensor, a visitor can see a three dimensional animation of how Lucy walked compared with a chimpanzee and a modern day human.
That’s important because the exhibit is designed to explain the connections and differences between the three species in the long march toward human development.
Electronic maps chronicle man’s beginnings in Ethiopia some 200,000 years ago and by moving a finger on the bottom of the display’s timeline, the map shows the migrations through Africa and Australia to Europe and into the Americas across a land bridge over millions of years.
At one time at least four different species of humans occupied the planet at the same time, Alemseged said, but only one survived.
The human race almost vanished entirely between 70,000 and 90,000 years ago as devastating climate changes reduced the population to only 10,000 breeding pairs.
Humans began in Africa because, like chimps, our species is a tropical primate suited to life in hot climates.
Adaptation, one of the foundations of evolution, allowed humans to develop skin color and other characteristics need to survive in diverse environments, according to Alemseged.
“We are neither good nor bad,” he said. “We have adapted to our environment like any other creature.”
Adaptation is evident in humans some of whom have lactose intolerance due to differences in cultivating dairy animals throughout the world, Alemseged said.
“Our behavior in relating to other animals is affecting our biology,” he said.
The exhibit was designed by the academy’s in house staff and employs electronic graphics to explain the complex process of human evolution to the average visitor, said Scott Moran, Director of Concept and Exhibit Development.
“We tried to out things in easily digestible bites for people and something you can relate to.” he said.
To learn more about our human ancestors and how scientists search for fossil evidence, see “Fossil Forensics, a program offered Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m.
“What Makes Us Human?” a lecture on important milestones in human evolution will be presented Monday through Friday at 11 a.m.
Alemseged will deliver a Pritzker lecture about pre human climbing behavior “Lucy and Selem Climbed Trees-So What?” at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at the academy.