"Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors"
– Remarkable Discoveries and Vivid Images Illuminate the Journey of Our Earliest Ancestors in
Nothing is more fascinating to us than, well, us. Where did we come from? What makes us human? The first in-depth televised investigation documenting an explosion of recent discoveries, NOVA’s three-part special, “Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors,” examines what the latest scientific research reveals about our hominid relatives — putting together the pieces of our human past and transforming our understanding of our earliest ancestors. “Becoming Human” airs Tuesdays, November 3-17 at 8:00 p.m..
Featuring interviews with renowned scientists, each hour unfolds with a “CSI”-like forensic investigation into the life and death of a specific hominid ancestor. “Becoming Human” was shot “in the trenches,” where discoveries were unearthed throughout Africa and Europe. Dry bones spring back to life with stunning computer-generated animation and prosthetics. Fossils not only offer clues to what early hominids looked like, but, with the aid of ingenious new lab techniques, how they lived and how we became the creative, “behaviorally modern” humans of today.
The first hour of “Becoming Human” examines the factors that caused the split from the apes. The film explores the fossil of “Selam,” also known as “Lucy’s Child” — an amazing, nearly complete child fossil that helps shed light on our ancestors’ early development and how we began to depart from that of chimps. Paleoanthropologist Zeray Alemseged, who discovered “Selam,” spent five years carefully excavating the sandstone-embedded fossil grain by grain. NOVA’s cameras are there to capture the unveiling of the face, spine and shoulder blades of the oldest known child fossil, 3.3 million years old. And, for the first time, NOVA takes viewers “inside the skull” to show how our ancestors’ brains had begun to change from those of the apes.
Why did leaps in human evolution take place? “Becoming Human” explores a provocative “big idea” — that sharp swings of climate were a key factor in driving human evolution. Layers of rock showing evidence of extreme shifts in climate, combined with fossils unearthed at those locations, indicate that great steps in human evolution were taken in periods when climate was swinging wildly from hot and wet to dry and cold. Today, many think of abrupt climate change as the biggest threat to humanity’s future, but this theory suggests that such sudden flips may have been an essential creative engine that helped shape the emergence of our ancestors. Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts has formulated a new grand theory, based on new discoveries about ancient climate extremes: “Variability itself was the driving force of human evolution, and our ancestors were adapted to change itself.”
In gripping forensic detail, the second program in “Becoming Human” investigates the first skeleton that really looks like us — “Turkana Boy” — an astonishingly complete specimen of Homo erectusfound by the famous Leakey team in Kenya. These ancestors are thought to have developed key innovations such as hunting, use of fire and extensive social bonds. NOVA examines a theory that it was long-distance running — our ability to jog — that was not only crucial for the survival of these early hominids on grasslands filled with vicious predators, but also gave them a unique hunting strategy: chasing and running down prey, such as deer or antelope, to the point of exhaustion. “Turkana Boy” also marks the first time in human evolution that there is strong evidence of an extended period of childhood and parenting. As anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy explains, “Because they had longer childhoods, there was a wonderful opportunity for big brains to evolve.” New analyses of fossil bones and teeth are giving us direct evidence of how, why and when humans’ uniquely long childhood and parenting began and how the empathy of the family bond got started and why it proved vital.
The final program examines the roots of our own species, Homo sapiens, which new evidence pinpoints to southern Africa some 200,000 years ago. What led to the birth of fully modern humans and our unique capacities for culture and creativity? How and why did our species leave Africa and take over the world? New discoveries are upending old ideas and suggesting that our exodus was far earlier than previously thought. A nightmare period of intense cold climate may have played a key role, at one point reducing the entire human population to perhaps only a few thousand or hundred. Our survival was on the line even as we began to leave our African cradle.
But the world into which modern humans slowly spread around 80,000 years ago was not empty. There were other ancient human species already there, and they were destined to become extinct. The best known of them are the Neanderthals, our European cousins who died out as modern humans spread from Africa into Europe during the Ice Age. Did modern humans interbreed with Neanderthals and/or exterminate them? The program explores crucial new evidence from the recent decoding of the Neanderthal genome, which until just a few years ago was thought to be an impossible technical feat.
As for today, we have planet Earth to ourselves, but that’s a very recent and unusual situation. For millions of years, as far back as science can take us, many different kinds of hominids co-existed and shared the globe simultaneously, and there was no guarantee that any of them would survive the many threats along the way. For example, at one time Homo sapiens shared the planet with Neanderthals, Homo erectus and the mysterious “Hobbits” — three-foot-high humans who thrived on the Indonesian island of Flores until just a few thousand years ago. “Becoming Human” examines why “we” survived while those other ancestral cousins died out. And it explores the question: In what ways are we still evolving?
Now in its 36th season, NOVA is the most-watched primetime science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers weekly. The series remains committed to producing in-depth science programming in the form of hour-long (and occasionally longer) documentaries, from the latest breakthroughs in technology to the deepest mysteries of the natural world.
This year marks the 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species. NOVA’s fall/winter season will include three evolution-themed programs, each one approaching the topic in a unique way: “Darwin’s Darkest Hour,” a two-hour scripted drama presentation produced by National Geographic Television, airs October 6, 2009; “Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors” airs November 3-17; and “What Darwin Never Knew,” a two-hour presentation, airs December 29, 2009.
Visit the website at www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova.
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