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Take Your Hominids with a Grain of Salt March 17, 2005
by Jennifer Pinkowski

Search for the Ultimate Survivor is a frustrating mix of sensational science and sensationalistic pandering.

[image] Goliath shoulders his throwing spear, "the ballistic missile of its day." (Rick Matthews © NGT&F) [LARGER IMAGE]

"It's the world's most intriguing mystery: the mystery of us." So intones the narrator of the Search for the Ultimate Survivor, the new two-hour TV documentary on human evolutionary development premiering this Sunday, March 20 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel. It couldn't be a more appropriate catchphrase for a show that aims to explain the millions of years of hominid evolution, environmental change, and sheer luck that result in our being the only remaining human species. Proclaiming ourselves the most fascinating topic in the world is itself evidence of our exceptional status, because our talent for endless navel gazing defines us as much as our bipedalism or technology do.

So it's a shame Search for the Ultimate Survivor doesn't show the same level of self-awareness, offering a frustrating mix of sensational science and sensationalistic pandering. Mostly devoted to the finds of paleoanthropologists working on projects supported by National Geographic (nonassociated projects don't seem to be included), the documentary takes us, among other places, to Kenya to meet Louise Leakey's "Flat Face," a 3.5-million-year-old contemporary of Lucy's (see "New Hominid Species"); to South Africa, where Lee Berger uncovered a Homo heidelbergensis specimen, called "Goliath"; and to Indonesia, where Bert Roberts raves--and rightly so--that last year's discovery of the tiny Homo floresiensis has completely upended conventional wisdom about our past (see "Indonesia's Lost World").

These hominids are a part of the "family bush" of walking apes, and their discovery has indeed taught us that human evolutionary development has been no neat passing of the natural-selection baton from one hominid to another, each succeeding species a little more upright and a little less hairy than the previous one. Instead, as Ultimate Survivor shows, multiple forms of humans lived at the same time, most coming in contact and even competing for resources (and perhaps eating each other, too). "Evolution plays a game with chance at all times, and it's often just chance on which species survive," says Berger. Various adaptabilities, physical traits, and developmental achievements gave some human species evolutionary advantages over others. Our particular combination of "luck and talent" brought us Homo sapiens to the dominant position we have today.

There is a great deal of compelling information, but it is often delivered with an icky coating of overcooked prose. The first throwing spear was "the ballistic missile of its day" in an "ancient arms race." Through adaptability we begin "taking charge" of our environment, changing the relationship "from slavery to mastery." When modern humans and Neandertals encountered each other, the experience must have been "as charged" as that between Cain and Abel because Goliath may be our "father." Puh-leeze.

But more damaging is the show's portrayal of early hominids (embodied by prosthetics-enhanced, serviceable actors). Almost none of them have a social context. Rather than being shown with others of their species, each hominid is generally depicted as a rugged individualist bravely venturing into the evolutionary future with his hirsute chin jutting forward and his hard-won self-respect intact. This is mystifying. Social structure is a fundamental aspect of primate life and directly responsible for much of our evolution. Indeed, Ultimate Survivor makes the point that early modern humans--capable of making clothing, crafts, jewelry, art, music, and words--so excelled because "advantage goes to the cooperative ape." So where are the other apes?

This lack of social context also limits the picture in another way. True to its Marlboro Man (Marlboro Ape?) spirit, Ultimate Survivor's hominids are always characterized as male--despite the fact that two of the major finds, Lucy and Flores, are actually the skeletons of females. This is a real missed opportunity to explore what, if anything, female skeletal remains have to teach us about human evolution. We are told that Lucy's pelvis cups upward in order to "hold her guts when she's upright," as it is somewhat nauseatingly phrased. Is there anything about her pelvis that reflects our shorter gestation periods, which were necessary to accommodate our rapidly enlarging brains? How does this compare to other primates? Would such a thing confer an evolutionary advantage?

There is a lot of exciting stuff in Ultimate Survivor. Despite the bombastic tone, serious paleoanthropology is on display. If you can keep your eyes from rolling, you'll learn something.

Jennifer Pinkowski is associate editor/reviews editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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