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…

The becoming human web site is here.


  1. #1 gruebait
    November 10, 2009

    “[…] at the beginning you have an ape, and at the end you have a human.”


  2. #2 chris
    November 10, 2009

    I think what’s meant is,

    “[…]at the beginning you have an ape [that looks mostly apey], and at the end you have [an ape that is more or less] human[y].”


  3. #3 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    It is perfectly reasonable to assert that humans are no more ape than apes are chaterrhine monkeys.

    Or, the term “ape” is generalizable (and we unusually mean great ape) in a way that works for apes, but if you include humans it no longer does.

    Either way, I refuse to allow reaction to misuse define the theory. People confuse the ape and human thing in bad ways. That does not mean that we need to pretend that human-ape differences are not profound.

  4. #4 asdf
    November 10, 2009

    Planet of the Apemen !!
    psyched !

  5. #5 NewEnglandBob
    November 10, 2009

    Hominid, Hominid, Hominid.

    From a hominine,
    first a hominin,
    then a hominan,
    now a human (Homo sapiens sapiens)

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    I never signed on to hominine. \and I might not have to.

  7. #7 NewEnglandBob
    November 10, 2009

    I just finished watching part 2 of Nova’s “Becoming Human”.

    It was OK. A bit slow and low key and I had to force not dozing off.

    Repeating the same scene over and over like they did in also in part 1 is annoying.

    They did cover a lot: making stone tools, fire, sprinting to exhaustion for hunting and death of Turkana boy possibly from a jaw abscess.

    By the way, did you know that H. Erectus left Africa?

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2009

    Yeah, I heard they left. They went to dinner in Asia, kinda like how last night I went to dinner at a restaurant called Azia. Funnily enough.

  9. #9 IBY
    November 10, 2009

    Probably the shots that they repeat the most are the ones from the naked people, and the ancestor animations.

  10. #10 Lynn Wilhelm
    November 10, 2009

    Weird, I started watching tonight and it was exactly the same program that I watched online last week at about 9 pm eastern time. I thought I had been watching episode 1, NOVA must have put on 2 by mistake. At first I just thought they were repeating the same info from episode 1 and was a little annoyed they were wasting time doing it. Was I confused. But now looks like the actual episode 1 is online for viewing. I guess I got a sneak peek.
    So now I have to watch the real episode 1.

  11. #11 The Science Pundit
    November 11, 2009

    So do we have to rename crab lice kong lice now?

  12. #12 Ron Brown
    November 11, 2009

    Although Homo Erectus may have hunted for meat, the fact that Turkana Boy had a severe jaw abscess is evidence that a high-protein meat diet was not optimal for the health of the species.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    November 11, 2009

    If memory serves, the absess was caused by an impaction. That could be wrong, though.

  14. #14 Amy Gazin-Schwartz
    November 11, 2009

    So, the whole cooking meat thing makes sense to me for increasing brain and body size, expanding range, etc…but it seems a stretch to blame human emotions and sociability (and, the argument I thought I heard Wragham make on NPR about gender roles) on cooking…I mean, primates in general are social type animals! Orangutans are weirdos for not being so sociable…of course, I admit I have not read this research – taking the easy way out and asking one of the researchers.

    And, Hi Greg…long time, no talking!

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    November 11, 2009

    Amy!!!!!!!!!!!!!! How are you!

    The social aspect of this is interesting. I’m actually dong a cafe scientifique on it in January in the Twin Cities, you should stop by.

    Yes, primates are social, but humans have made adjustments to the problem of being a monogamous (plus/minus) species that live in “groups” that have a mix of sexually mature males and females. My addition to this that wrangham does not usually talk about is that certain other human capacities (that you would appreciate being an archaeologist) also arise from this: The ability to make long term investment in learning strategies. Many materially based learning strategies involve making something (stone tools, whatever, and yes, a fire) which will always be taken away by the dominant individual in a chimp-like group, but that humans seem to be able to protect with a kind of “ownership” or proprietary sense we share.

    Chimps could never make pottery. They would just get shards.

    So, Amy, send me an email and tell me how you are doing!?!? I think of you often, and actually, your name came up the other day. (Leslie Lindenaur remembered meeting you when she was looking for me one day ca 1980something, as per: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2009/04/finding_facebook.php )

  16. #16 The Science Pundit
    November 11, 2009

    How are you!

    THe punctuation of that sentence makes no sense. Greg Laden is full of shit! Seriously though (perhaps that was the wrong choice of adverb), that wasn’t the typo that made me laugh out. I honestly don’t need to know about you and the cafe. 😛

  17. #17 DD
    November 12, 2009


  18. #18 Norwegian Shooter
    November 19, 2009

    As a non-professional viewer (I couldn’t bring myself to say average), I don’t care at all who says what on science shows. My main criterion is engagement. Meave Leakey was great, Richard was very sucky. The flint knap guy and Lieberman about the norm.

    Relating to the “left Africa” repetition, it would be great to mark that spot on the hominid family tree they kept showing. And why keep showing that from page level? I kept wanting to go to bird’s eye view to see the big picture better. Also, H. erectus left Africa once, but later Homo (sapiens?)left at a later date, right?

    Finally, I’d like to know more about lice. Really, I would. The show seemed to say that hominids had our own lice and then we somehow picked up gorilla lice that somehow replaced our pubic lice but didn’t effect our head lice?