A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How far back can you trace your ancestry? Most folks lose the trail after a few generations. But paleoanthropologists have taken the human family tree back hundreds of thousands of years with recent fossil discoveries in Africa that are more than six million years old. In breezy documentary style, the two-hour-long A Species Odyssey (airing in December 12-13 on The Science Channel; check your local listings) tells the fascinating tale of how these early hominids gave rise to modern humans.
Today, Homo sapiens is the only human species, but for much of human history multiple hominid types shared the Earth. First there were Orrorin and Toumaï, the two earliest hominids in the fossil record, which may have overlapped in time. Both eventually yielded to Australopithicus afarensis--Lucy and her kin--from whom the Homo line arose. Toward the end of A. afarensis' reign and the beginning of Homo's, about two and a half million years ago, at least four hominid species coexisted. How did they interact, if at all? A Species Odyssey offers intriguing possibilities, realized to varying degrees of success with computer-generated figures and masked actors.
Some of these hominids belonged to dead-end branches on the evolutionary tree, sidelined by species that walked, talked, and cooperated better. The film argues that Neandertals were one such group, outcompeted by a cleverer hominid--modern H. sapiens.
A Species Odyssey is a Homeric tale: distant lands are visited, loves are lost, battles are won, and a hero, H. sapiens, is born. Like Homer, the program takes poetic license with its material. The story of human origins is a very messy one, but the documentary is quite pat. There is little discussion of how scientists know what they do about human evolution or the limitations of the data.
Still, the film correctly places human evolution in the context of environmental change and credits our ancient forebears with more humanity than they are typically ascribed. It also underscores, somewhat hamhandedly, that whatever our origins or physical differences today, this six-million-year history unites us all.
Kate Wong is the editorial director of scientificamerican.com.
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