From Arizona State University
Humanity’s oldest mysteries lead to newest site on Web
“Where did we come from?” is a question that both fascinates and confuses people, but sorting through the wealth of information and claims has been no easy matter for the average layperson. Beginning April 16, there will be a new source on the web that will put both the questions and some of the answers concerning human origins in a dynamic new format that is both exciting to enter and rich in information and resources once you do.
Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins, a non-profit institution famous both for numerous important human fossil finds and for making its research accessible to the public, has developed www.becominghuman.org , a website that is a combination documentary, learning center, and virtual library devoted to exploring paleoanthropology – the study of human origins. The site skillfully marries the kind of clear visual and verbal storytelling that captured millions of viewers in the Nova series “In Search of Human Origins” with a wealth of background information, expert commentary, virtual tours and interactive experiences designed to engage visitors fully with the topic.
“I harken this to a combination of a Ken Burns documentary and an illustrated NPR radio show,” said the IHO’s Lenora Johanson, one of the producers of “In Search of Human Origins” and the developer of becominghuman.org, which was created in cooperation with the web design firm Terra Incognita, interactive media through the support of a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The site features a series of short (five to eight minute) overview documentaries focused around key periods in human evolution, narrated by IHO Director and world-renowned paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, with additional commentary by other key authorities in the field. Each documentary comes with a wide array of associated web pages that allow the visitor to explore information and research issues in the area. Lenora Johanson describes the documentaries as aimed at capturing “the essence, the flavor, a small story about the subject.”
“But if really want to know more, then you go to the connected exhibits, “ she explained. “The experience is similar to a bus tour in London. When you’re on the bus, you get a big overview of London, but when you get to the Tower of London, say, you want to get off and learn a little more about that, and you go and have a much deeper, richer experience. Then you get back on the bus and you continue your journey.”
Johanson, an experienced documentary film producer, points out that the interactive nature of the web and of the sophisticated web design developed by Terra Incognita allows for the transformation of the documentary into a new medium with new potential.
“If this was a film project, you would sit down one night along with 28 million other people in their living rooms and watch the same thing at the same time. I hope that 28 million people will see this too, but they can do it independently, in whatever time increments they feel like seeing it in. It’s a much more intimate experience, and it allows them to consider and retain a lot more information – the information they want to find,” she said.
Though there is a lot of information in the connected “exhibit” web pages, the material there is decidedly not dry and intimidating. Among the exhibits, for example, is a virtual tour of an excavation site and other interactive displays. For people who want to examine the evidence first hand, a museum of past human species allows the visitor to examine key fossils by rotating them in three dimensions. The site also contains a “News & Views” section where current issues and breaking news in the area will be explored, a “Learning Center” section (which will become active this summer) with lesson plans and teaching tools aimed at high school and undergraduate students, and a “Resources” section to guide visitors to other important information sources and websites.
“We aren’t concerned either that people will use the links they find here to leave the site,” said Johanson. “We want people to go and explore deeper – this is a gateway into the subject. If people learn things from us, they’ll be back.” Site visitors will be rewarded for returning too, because the site will keep current with the latest breaking news in paleoanthropology, and will also add new documentaries on a regular basis.
“Our current plan is to add a new documentary every quarter,” said Johanson. “We also aim to be the premier website for news concerning paleoanthropology. We are working right now at putting up an interview we just did with Meave Leakey concerning her new find.”
Like its content, becominghuman.org ‘s web design is also deliberately cutting edge. The site was designed to create the feeling of video, without the jerkiness and connection problems inherent in streaming video. Johanson cautions, however, that the site may still not be easily accessible from older computers and may take a little while to load by a slow modem internet connection.
“We produced this for the long haul. Technology is moving so quickly, that if you don’t have it today, by next week you will. We expect this site to be up for a long time and the marketplace will be up to our technology soon.”
Source: Lenora Johanson, 480-540-8794, lenoraJ@aol.com. Note to reporters: preview available at becominghuman.org. Photos: http://www.terraincognita.com/human.