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Television: Millennium Man on Prime Time Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002
by Pat Shipman

[image] Limb bones of Orrorin tugenensis suggest our distant relative probably felt most at home in the trees. (Marc DeVillel/Gamma) [LARGER IMAGE]

The media often face a dilemma: should they wait until a new find is fully analyzed, subjected to peer review, and published, or do they report it while it's hot? The answer is obvious in Search for the First Human (premiering on PBS May 8 at 9:00 p.m. EST). But what is rewarding about this intelligent, yet flawed documentary, viewed by this reviewer in rough cut, is that much unpublished information about the discovery of the so-called Millennium Man ("Ancient Ancestors?" July/August 2001) is disclosed in a generally sensible manner, with only a few wild claims and out-of-context quotes from scientists.

Known formally as Orrorin tugenensis, this set of fossil remains of an early hominid-like creature was recovered in Kenya in 2000, hence its name. The remains are controversial in that the validity of the team's permits for excavation and fossil-finding has been questioned. Oddly, the documentary neglects these important and inflammatory ethical issues completely.

Dated to approximately 6 million years ago, Orrorin might represent the perfect first ancestor of the more recent (4.4 to 1 million years old) forms of Australopithecus and modern humans. The show holds some surprises.

As interpreted by paleontologists Brigitte Senut and Martin Pickford, Orrorin is more humanlike in its cheek teeth and legs than Lucy (the partial skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis discovered in 1974 by Donald Johanson in Hadar, Ethiopia). Boldly, they try to displace Lucy from her perch near the trunk of our family tree and relegate her to that dullest of locations, the dead-end side branch. There is no mention of the somewhat contradictory fact that the large canine tooth of Orrorin is pointed and apelike, unlike the canines of all later hominids. A final surprise is that Ardipithecus ramidus, an almost contemporaneous hominid with a combination of apelike and humanlike features quite different from that in Orrorin, is neglected entirely.

The program offers a good look at the fossils themselves and presents the results of some exciting new analyses. A Japanese team collects geological samples that confirm the date of Orrorin. CT-scans of the Orrorin femur show its internal structure, which appears to support the bipedal interpretation, and scans of the molar teeth show a thick, humanlike enamel. There is, however, no indication how these anatomical resemblances are quantified or evaluated.

There is some charming yet only vaguely relevant footage of bipedal and quadrupedal robots and a too-brief mention of biologist Robin Crompton's elegant modeling of the dynamics of different types of locomotion. A brief but excellent explanation of Crompton's idea that bipedalism arose in the trees, after the manner of orangutans, reminds viewers that Senut and Pickford are not alone in noticing evidence that early hominids may have become bipedal in forested habitats.

The program reveals a troubling preference for male native English speakers; Senut is the only woman to speak on camera and she says far less than the vociferous and ubiquitous Pickford. No Asian or African scholar shares insights or expertise. This is ironic, since an aim of the Community Museums of Kenya (the Kenyan institution under whose aegis the discovery was made) is to remove science from the elitist, all-white preserve of visiting Europeans and return it to the hands of locals.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America