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Paleoanthropology's Scholars August 3, 2005
Jennifer Pinkowski

A History Channel documentary takes a smart look at the people behind the science.


Louis and Mary Leakey in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge in 1959 discussing the 1.75-million-year-old remains of Zinjanthropus boisei (later reclassified Australopithecus boisei), a discovery that cemented humanity's African origin (Courtesy History Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

At first we thought a large brain set us on the path to exceptionality, but Neandertals' brains were often larger. Then we thought tool use distinguished us, but many primates use crude tools. Now the dominant idea concerning our uniqueness is that we first branched out into unexplored evolutionary territory when we stood upright. These changing ideas of what sets us apart from the other apes, and how each reflects the culture and era in which it was developed, are the focus of the History Channel's Ape to Man, a two-hour-long documentary premiering Sunday, August 7, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Ape to Man looks at the 150-year-long history of the search for the missing link between apes and humans. It's the right approach for a historical narrative documentary to take, because it allows the focus to fall on the scholars driving the science. We get the moment-of-discovery reenactments so beloved by pop history shows (and they're relatively well-acted), but we also get a good idea of the resistance scholars faced from disbelieving colleagues and an ape-resistant public. As Ape to Man shows, it has always unsettled us to look at the place where the ape ends and the human begins--if there ever could be such a clear line.

[image] 3.2 million years ago, Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, takes refuge in a tree from predators. (Courtesy History Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

We see schoolteacher Johann Carl Fuhlrott barking orders in German at workers in a limestone quarry in the Neander Valley; Eugene Dubois wandering around unproductively in Sumatra in a malarial haze (though later he triumphs in Java with the discovery of Homo erectus); Raymond Dart angering his wife when, just minutes before a wedding in which he is to play best man, he insists on poring over the latest batch of fossils that has just arrived; Mary Leakey finding hominid remains--not once, but twice--that help to cement the Leakeys as the preeminent paleoanthropological family of the past 100 years; and Tom Gray, Donald Johanson, and their colleagues celebrating the discovery of Lucy like a cadre of witty hippies, blasting the Beatles in the Ethiopian desert and opening champagne bottles with a machete.

Suitably, the documentary also speaks with contemporary scholars, including the London History Museum's Chris Stringer (see "From Ape to Ancestor," May/June 2005) and science historian Joe Cain of University College London. Cain is particularly excellent at humanizing these researchers and placing them within their historical context. Charles Darwin, for example, whose Origin of Species came out three years after Neandertal was first found, was more than happy to leave our relationship to apes for someone else to wrangle with. And poor Raymond Dart's fine work on the South African Taung Child was dismissed for decades in favor of Charles Dawson's Piltdown Man, which was ever so much more appealing a specimen, having a large brain, more humanlike features, and, best of all, was British. Piltdown Man, of course, was also a complete fake.

[image] Jonathan Leakey and crew members sift dirt in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge in 1959. (Courtesy History Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

One oversight is the lack of inclusion of the Homo floresiensis (see "Shaking up the Family Tree," October 28, 2004), our much smaller cousins who lived in Indonesia until just 13,000 years ago, tens of thousands of years later than the last Neandertals. As the most important paleoanthropological find in decades, it warrants airtime.

Nonetheless, Ape to Man documents well the intellectual curiosity that has driven the discipline of paleoanthropology to find how we fit into the natural world, and how we differ from it in deeply profound ways. It's a question that we'll continue to explore. And though the documentary discusses what the Victorian focus on a large brain size may indicate about that era, it doesn't venture to guess how future paleoanthropologists might view our perspective, which says that to be human, you simply need to stand up.

Jennifer Pinkowski is reviews editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America