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Dear Ancestors…

02/28/2011

These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony….

My first husband was an archaeologist. Our marriage didn’t last long (I was divorced by my 26th birthday), but I am still grateful to him for instilling in me a love of what came before; the difference between a Folsom and Clovis Point (one is concave, the other convex). How we are the accumulation of millions of years of evolution (tetrapod to mammal to primate to hominid to Homo sapien sapiens), communal history, and individual lives. How there are endless hidden stories.

Which may explain why I stood moist-eyed last Thursday in front of an exhibit case in the American Museum of Natural History containing a pair of Australopithecus afarensis walking across the Tanzanian plain. Not the actual hominids, mind you, but a model of how scientists imagine them, based on a particular set of 3.6 million year-old footprints left in volcanic ash, as well as skeletal remains found throughout Africa.  There we stood – the Homo sapien sapiens spouse & I – looming, actually, over this pair of hairy, ape-like, human-like, naked creatures about whom we knew nothing except they walked side by side millenia ago. Male and female? Child and adult? Looking for food or a tree in which to sleep? Sick or well? Would they live another day or week or year? We don’t know.

Did they dream or desire? Complain about heartburn? Anticipate? Did they have names for each other? We don’t know, will never know. Despite the mystery, though, I recognized them. Despite the passing of millions of years and the huge evolutionary changes those years brought, I felt deeply connected, for these unknowns gave birth to us: bipedal, tool-using, fire-burning, standing-upright-and-searching-for-something beings.

I’ve been going to the American Museum of Natural History since I was a kid, but it was only last week that I realized the rooms filled with dinosaur skeletons & human artifacts are literally a record, a witnessing, of life on Earth. It may not be made of fine linen and gem stones and gold (although all are on exhibit there) like the Tabernacle, but it is nevertheless a place where spirit resides. Everything in its huge halls is a piece, a link, in the testimony of evolution. The hearts of scientists and searchers are on display here, as well, with their best guesses and strong hunches, their proofs and open questions. Here is offered continuous testimony, a series of probable truths, on how best to understand our world.

Standing before the cases, I thought: Dear Ancestorswho the hell were you? And also this: like the iridescent ammonite, each of us will someday be extinct, held as a specific memory for a short period and eventually as nothing more than one set of bones among a people that lived long ago. How’s that for perspective the next time you get a parking ticket?

So. Next time you’re in NYC, check out the museum. Or any of its sister shrines around the world. See if you don’t walk away hoping that the museums of the future will tell our story true, put together the best testimony of what came before.

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