I watched a pre-release copy of tonights show, the second of three episodes, last week, and I have some comments to make about it. The short version: Do watch it! Then report back here and tell us what you thought.
I’ve seen every single human evolution documentary ever made, and some of them I know by heart, having used them in teaching. The present work, a three hour updated look at human evolution, satisfies most of my requirements for use in a classroom setting or for general dissemination of knowledge about human evolution.
The second episode focuses on Homo erectus and related forms. I have two major complaints about content which I will give you below. The style of the presentation was slick-ish but mostly well done. I’m not going to even attempt to critique the animation and acting bits where we have hominids running around doing stuff, because that is never good, only sometimes less silly. The animations and acting in this iteration of the human origins documentary was not especially silly.
This period of time, spanning a shift from an Australopithecus like ancestor to what we think of as modern (or archaic) humans, is probably the most important and at the same time enigmatic period of human evolution. It is the most important because at the beginning you have an ape, and at the end you have a human. It is the most enigmatic because of two things: 1) The excellent sedimentary record of Africa peters out during the early part of this period and 2) This time period has presented (for reasons that go beyond the sedimentary record becoming much sparser) significant dating problems. Back when I started to study this period (and my reason for entering PhD school was to do so) this was known as “The Muddle in the Middle” because of these difficulties.
I have come to believe that the invention of cooking at the beginning of this period was the kicker for much of what followed, and that changes in hunting (vs non-meat foods and vs scavenging) were less important than previously thought (full disclosure: I’m part of the research team that first cracked the cooking nut, which is discussed in this video by Wrangham). The facts that H. erectus lived in such a wide range of environments, had a significantly larger body size than Australopithecus, and managed to afford a very larger brain compared to all apes are best accounted for by the cooking hypothesis, and these and virtually all attending facts form the bases for much of what we no consider to be “human.”
One substantive argument I will probably make at the end of the series is this: The difference in brain size between H. erectus and modern humans is exaggerated.
My two critiques of the film are important but manageable, but should be considered by anyone who might use these films in a classroom.
First, this documentary is NOT a record of who did what. Susan Anton is a great paleoanthropologist, but she is far from the person who thought of all the great ideas she discusses. Richard Leakey did lead the Turkana research, but he is two persons away from the person who found KNM WT 15000, and not the main anatomist who figured out all we are told about that creature. In fact, Richard has not really been involved in human origins research for decades, but he is the name and face that NOVA chose to represent the Kenyan work. Looking at the film, one would think that only Georgians ever worked in Georgia or that Dan Lieberman is the only person who ever thought about or did research with running. Nothing could be farther from true in both cases.
To the extent that intellectual history itself is important, or that linking people, places, fossils, stories, findings, and theories together is good pedagogy, this documentary fails utterly in this area. It did not have to be done that way, and it is somewhat shameful that it was done that way.
My second critique self corrects within the film, but look for it and have fun: Count the number of times that we are told that hominids/homo/humans “left Africa.” Like last night. I went to dinner with a friend. So I left my house. After I left my house, I was not there in my house any more. I was somewhere else. The hominds are said, using the same language, to have “left Africa” a number of times (count them and report back!). Eventually, after having said X times that hominids left Africa, the narration shifts slightly and we eventually have these hominids spreading beyond their former range and into Asia as ecological conditions changed.
Well, that’s all for now. In a few minutes, I have to spread beyond my former range and pick my daughter up. Then I will retract to my former range with her. I might have to stop and get gas first…