TV Review: Becoming Human, Part 2

Last week I reviewed part 1 of the upcoming NOVA miniseries, “Becoming Human.” It was a fair introduction to early human origins even if it was marred by persistent references to an illusory onward-and-upward march of human progress. Where the first episode primarily concerned itself with australopithecines, however, Homo erectus is the star of part 2.

The first part of this episode recapitulates what was covered in the last installment. Viewers are brought back to the African rift valley, the place where the “huge evolutionary step” between apes and humans took place. This is a bit of a mischaracterization. We are apes, just of a modified sort, and we are not all that different from the more “ape-like” members of the hominin family tree. Despite the show’s claim that the transition from creatures such as Australopithecus afarensis to the earliest members of our own genus, Homo, was one involving astounding transformations, the change is laughably minimal when compared to other transitions in the vertebrate fossil record. There is a much greater disparity between living elephants and the earliest proboscideans like Eritherium, for example, than between Ardipithecus ramidus and our own species.

As with the previous episode a particular fossil “guide” is chosen to discuss different aspects of paleoanthropology. In this case it is “Nariokotome boy“, the nearly complete skeleton of an adolescent Homo erectus found near Lake Turkana in Kenya.* With this skeleton as a reference point, the documentary quickly jumps from one subject to another; reconstruction of what Homo erectus looked like, how old the “Nariokotome boy” was, how the brain and growth rate of Homo erectus compared to that of our species, and the use of that most favorite of stone tools, the hand-axe.

*[I was frustrated that the discoverer of the fossils, celebrated fossil hunter Kamoya Kimeu, was not mentioned by name. Instead the lion’s share of the credit for the discovery of the skeleton is given to Richard and Meave Leakey, for whom Kimeu was working at the time. Experienced and skilled field workers in Africa are too often denied the credit they deserve, and I was sad to see NOVA continue this unfortunate trend.]

At about the halfway mark the show turns a little more speculative. The origin of pubic lice, how Homo erectus might have hunted, and what our ancient relatives did around the fire are discussed in rapid succession, all of which are based upon observations of living human and nonhuman apes. The documentary treads lightly here, using different hypotheses to highlight how we are different from chimpanzees, before returning to the fossil record to document how Homo erectus left Africa. The Dmanisi Homo skeletons and the “hobbits”, Homo floresiensis, feature prominently in this final portion.

Like the prior installment, part 2 is something of a mixed bag. The documentary is at its strongest when covering the fossil evidence and at its weakest when the day-to-day life of Homo erectus is reconstructed using modern humans and apes as a guide. Overall, though, it was good to see Homo erectus receive some detailed attention. Some people may be familiar with the outdated popular names for this species, like “Java Man” and “Peking Man” (and, in fact, these discoveries are not even mentioned in the show), but in general it seems that Homo erectus does not carry the same public notoriety enjoyed by “Lucy” and her kind. This particular documentary may help correct this. If you would like to be introduced to Homo erectus, part 2 of “Becoming Human” is a good way to do so.

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