New fossil exhibition at Maropeng sets out evidence for theory of evolution

  • September 02, 2009

Maropeng launched a new fossil display today, September 2, 2009, entitled Evolution: digging for an understanding. The display illustrates and explains the theory of evolution which was made famous by Charles Darwin.. In particular, Charles Darwin provided a mechanism for evolution, namely natural selection.

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“The display tells a story,” says Lindsay Marshall, the exhibition curator at Maropeng. The exhibition aims to provide clear and understandable information to help educate and inform the public on evolution.

The exhibition was opened at 1pm to the public today. This morning, the media were treated to a sneak preview, attended by those responsible for putting it together: Marshall, Ian McKay, coordinator: School of Geosciences Programme at Wits University, and Bernhard Zipfel, the University Collections curator at Wits University. .

“2009 is the bicentennial celebration of Darwin’s birth. It is also 150 years since the publication of his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” says Marshall.

A number of significant pieces are included in the exhibition, which begins with a 100-year-old copy of Darwin’s book opened on the page with the only illustration in the book showing the concepts of common ancestry and change through time.

The next stop in the display is the earliest form of life, bacteria, where it is explained that all life forms share one common denominator – DNA. “This is the evidence that all life forms share the same genetic code,” says McKay. “Evolution is a giant jigsaw puzzle; the pieces fit together to give the sequence of life.”

The exhibition guides the viewer through the story of evolution, drawing on examples that illustrate the theory.

Did you know that as an embryo you had gills and a tail? “In early human development the embryo goes through the process of evolution,” says McKay.

This characteristic is shown further on in the exhibition by a 2.5-million-year-old fossil snake from Makapansgat in Limpopo province. “Modern pythons have remnants of limbs in their skeletal structure,” says McKay. He further explains that while snakes no longer walk, these limbs are used when they reproduce.

The exhibition ends by exploring the age-old question: are humans related to apes? The display aims to show the links between us and primates, and how these similarities support the theory of evolution. “What is important, however, is that we want to dispel the myth that humans came from apes.  Humans and modern primates shared a common ancestor which existed between 8 and 7-million years ago, ago” says Marshall.

Evolution is now being taught as part of the school curriculum; the display at Maropeng not only informs what is being taught but also enhances it. “This exhibition is very important, as pupils get a lot of theory and this exhibition gives them a chance to see concrete evidence about what they are learning. It shows that fossils really exist,” says McKay.

The material in the exhibition is kindly on loan from the following collections at the University of the Witwatersrand: the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, the Institute for Human Evolution, the Hunterian Museum and the Department of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences.

The collection will be displayed until the end of January, 2010. For more information, please click here.

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