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A new PBS series takes on recent developments in human evolution

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Geologist Rick Potts examines an area where 500 hand axes were left behind by Homo erectus at Oloregasallie, Kenya. (Jason Nichols)
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The face of a 3.3-million-year old Australopithecus child emerges from the soil of Ethiopia's Awash river basin. Paleoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged shown here "discovering" the fossil, named the three-year-old child "Selam," which means "peace" in the local language. (Anastasia Cronin)

This year marks Charles Darwin's 200th and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, which seems to have translated into a lot of airtime for human evolution documentaries. One of the best I have seen is "Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors," a three-part series that will air Tuesday nights 8pm eastern time on PBS beginning November 3rd, which neatly contextualizes about a decade's worth of paleoanthropological and archaeological discoveries spanning the past 7 million years. Unfortunately, the analysis of the Ardipithecus ramidus skeleton was not completed in time to be included in this series. If it had been, it might have affected the material presented in the first hour, but Ardipithecus should provide fodder for future documentaries.


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Some geneticists believe that all modern humans can trace their roots to a group of roughly 600 people who lived on the shore of South Africa more than 100,000 years ago. Archaeological remains from Blombos cave and Pinnacle point reveal that these people had a widely varied diet that included seafood. (Paul Brehem)

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An archaeological excavation at Atapuerca, Spain, has yielded bones from a 1 million year old human who belonged to the species Homo antecessor which may have been the ancestor of the Neanderthals. (Jason Nichols)

The series is loosely structured around exploring the lives of three children represented in the fossil record by more-or-less complete skeletons. This story device personalizes what could have been a dry and academic cataloging of anatomical traits and artifact types. It allows the viewer to see how the bodies and lifestyles of our distant ancestors have changed as well as what kind of world they lived in.

The first individual is a three-year-old Australopithecus afarensis girl who's 3.3-million-year-old remains were discovered in Ethiopia's Awash river basin in 2001 named Selam by Zeresenay Alemseged, the paleoanthropologist who excavated her. Selam's bones help tie together discussions of brain evolution and upright posture as well as a fascinating study of how the changing climate affected how her species's body might have evolved. This segment, however, uses one of my least favorite cliches of archaeology documentaries--the obviously staged discovery scene. The camera follows Alemseged up the wind-blasted hillside where Selam's face looks up coyly from the dark soil and he carefully brushes aside the loose dirt and lifts up the skull announcing the dawn of a new day in paleoanthropology. If a documentary is going to ask it's viewers to trust that the information it presents is accurate, it isn't fair to slip in these little fictionalized segments unannounced. I'm fairly certain PBS doesn't get enough donations from viewers like you to have a camera crew following Alemseged around waiting for him to stumble across a fossil hominid. If they did, he neglected to mention it when I interviewed him for our Jan./Feb. 2007 issue ("New Face of Evolution"). So, I'm calling foul on this one, but it is minor blemish on an otherwise great documentary.

The second individual is popularly known as Turkana boy, an adolescent Homo erectus discovered by Kamoya Kimeu at Nariokotome near Kenya's Lake Turkana in 1984. This part of the series takes the viewer through the development of stone tools and the migration of the first humans out of Africa. But the part about the emotional development of these distant ancestors may be most interesting to viewers. As an example, the toothless skull of an elderly Homo erectus discovered at Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia shows that someone was caring for this person who had been unable to chew food, possibly for several years before finally dying. Turkana Boy's segment ends with a reconstruction of his death from an abscess in his jaw, and I will admit to feeling a little sad as I watched the computer-generated hominin lay down by the side of a virtual 1.7-million-year old river and pass into the fossil record.

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Paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze holds the skull of a Homo erectus who lived 1.8 million years ago at the site of Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia. The five individuals who have been found at the site are the earliest known humans to have left Africa. (Jason Nichols)
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Artist Victor Deak specializes in reconstructing the faces of our extinct ancestors based on their fossilized remains. Here, he is beginning a reconstruction of a Homo erectus. (Anastasia Cronin)

Lastly, the series moves onto the Neanderthals and the emergence of modern humans. Much of the discussion on modern humans centers on the South African sites of Blombos cave and Pinnacle Point, as well as the Ethiopian site of Herto where the remains of 160,000-year-old person have been found. But this segment focuses on a Neanderthal child called Scladina boy, named for the cave in Belgium where he was found. The show makes the case that the Neanderthals died out because their diet consisted almost solely of meat from large animals that were driven to extinction, or close to it, by invading Homo sapiens and fluctuating climate. Unable to exploit new food resources like their modern human cousins, the Neanderthals were marginalized and quietly died out on the fringes of Europe. The program makes a convincing case, but I was surprised that it did not mention the findings from Gibraltar that indicate the Neanderthals there had a varied diet that included seafood. I suspect that the debate over what killed off the Neanderthals is still a long way from being settled. The program ends on the note that the pace of human evolution has been speeding up and will continue to do so into the future. While "Becoming Human" may be at an adaptive peak, I hope the same will be true for archaeology documentaries.

Zach Zorich is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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