Understanding Our Past

Part of Hall of Human Origins.

© AMNH / Denis FinninSpitzer Hall of Human Origins

This hall is about all of us--about who we are and where we come from. Although the human family originated many millions of years ago, we know a great deal about our remarkable past. The rich human fossil record dates back more than six million years, and scientists are finding exciting new specimens all the time.

The emerging field of genomics enables researchers to use the countless genetic clues in human DNA to understand more about our identity, both past and present. Fossil evidence and genomic information powerfully agree on many points, and are helping scientists piece together the origin and evolution of the entire hominid family, including our species, Homo sapiens.

© AMNH / Denis FinninSpitzer Hall of Human Origins

Humans share a surprising array of traits with modern apes such as chimpanzees and with extinct species like Neanderthals. Yet there are also important differences. What makes our species unique? What makes us human? This hall reveals what makes all of us members of Homo sapiens--and how our extraordinary species came to be.

A Guide to the Hall

The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins is filled with fossils, films, interactive media, dioramas, ancient artifiacts and more. To explore the hall, consult or print the Exhibition Map in the navigation at left.


To understand what DNA can tell us about human evolution, turn left as you enter the hall.


To learn what fossils can tell us about human evolution, turn right as you enter the hall.


Dioramas featuring early hominids are located in the center of the hall.


To learn how our species spread from Africa across the globe, explore the map on the left.

Human Creativity

To explore what makes us human, go to the last room of the hall.


The Educational Laboratory for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins is at the back of the hall.


Tell Us About Human Origins

When it was found in 1856, this fossilized skull fragment did not seem remarkable. But when scientists examined it closely they saw proof that different kinds of humans once lived on Earth, in this case a Neanderthal. The find launched a new scientific field--paleoanthropology, the study of early humans through fossil evidence--and offered ways for us to learn, for the first time, about our ancient human relatives. Thousands more such fossils have since come to light, each one providing further evidence of the complex ancestry of the human species.

AMNH LibraryNeanderthal skullcap, 1875 engraving

A Human Relative?

This fossilized skullcap, along with other associated bones, was discovered by miners in 1856 in a cave in the Neander Valley, Germany. At first, most dismissed it as the remains of a diseased or malformed modern human. But experts later came to a novel, startling conclusion: these were the fossilized bones of an ancient kind of human--a Neanderthal.

Historic Engravings

Soon after its discovery, scientists began comparing the Neanderthal skullcap to known human skulls.