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January 7th, 2010
Program One: Becoming Us
Video: Full Episode

Series host and narrator, Alan Alda, confronts the puzzle of why our ancestors in Africa got the Spark and evolved into us, while the first humans to leave Africa for Europe–the Neanderthals–never did. Why did we flourish, while they changed very little for thousands of generations before eventually dying out?

  • george witt

    When are we going to ask the important questions about how hominids socially evolved?
    We need to explore the social evolution of: symbol systems, the dialog management values, the artifact/tool teamwork systems, the child pedagogy teamwork systems and the values that underlie all of the above to understand how valued band members were afforded reproductive advantages over evolutionary time.
    The social evolution of hominids needs to be understood. What social selection pressures led to what social adaptations? And, how did these exert selection pressures on the psychobiological characteristics of band members?
    We need to be able to understand how the sequence of 4 or 5 forms of hominid band societies metamorphosed, one from the other. And, how did these metamorphoses exert selection pressures on the psychobiological characteristics of band members, how did hominids speciate, one from the other?
    These are the kinds of questions that call for answers if we are to understand the social evolution of human civilization.

  • Lynne Walker

    Neanderthals did not “domesticate” the dog.

    The dog is a social pack animal that hunts in groups without benefit of language. They use tails,ears and scent to communicate.

    We humans had lost our tails and floppy ears long ago, but dogs do use language to communicate. Our anatomy makes us far better at speech, but it was the dogs teaching us to bark with one another while we hunted in groups that propelled our species to out-evolve the Neanderthal in just a few years, evolution-wise.

  • Kay

    I also believe there were two groups. The ones that spread to China, Egypt, Europe, etc.,etc.,
    were industrious and learned easily from others.
    The second group stayed in Africa…interbred, lived off the land, basked in the warm sun, and had nothing that needed to be done. They ravaged the land and moved on to other areas when food was
    needed. I believe this. I also believe they were Hybreds….of human and ape DNA.

  • Rick

    Kay’s story about
    Homo Sapiens in Africa doing environmental damage is illogical and prejudiced.

  • Ken Carpenter

    Mr Alda, I would like to see you address diet as a source of the human spark. You briefly touched on diet in “Becoming Us”. I think it was much more of an influence because we adapted to a variety of food. I recall measuring the human intestine and comparing it to the length of a plant eating mammal and a meat eating mammal. And there is a school of thought that addresses the role of fish in our diet.
    This is a dynamite series, and you are doing a marvelous interpretation of “The Human Spark”.

  • Dave

    Kay’s remarks are not based on science but rather ignorance and prejudice? Hopefully, with continued efforts such as this series the human record will one day be fully revealed and lay waste to such opportunities as Kay’s to spread such ridiculous views!

  • Kathy

    Didn’t the Neandertal DNA studies recently identify that they also had FOXP2 gene for language? How does this information fit in with previous conclusions about Neandertals? I also have seen beads and musical instruments attributed to them, but I think they were found at sites after Homo sapiens entered the picture.

  • Liz

    Kathy, a derived FOXP2 gene was indeed found to be shared between modern humans and Neandertals (check out Krause et. al. in Current Biology, 2007, vol. 17, issue 21). The really interesting thing to me is that the genetic signature of evolution indicates the gene’s evolved in a common ancestor, prior to the split of the lineages. The presence of a FOXP2 gene may suggest the Neandertal cognitive capability for language, but it should be noted that other organisms with complex communication systems also have highly derived FOXP2 genes (birds, bats…). I was also under the impression that Neandertal’s had a burial culture including pollen placement and beads, but I may be remembering the beads incorrectly.

  • Mo

    What is it that makes us different? For one thing, we are not animals, we are human beings. And that we are created in the image of God, which means we are self aware, we can speak and think and reason and relate to the world in a way that animals never will be able to do.

  • dude

    Mo- what are you doing on a site for enlightenment or at least curiosity, if you believe that garbage. WE ARE ANIMALS vocal cords and oposable thumbs do not make us special.

  • Cro

    Quote from dude: “WE ARE ANIMALS vocal cords and oposable thumbs do not make us special.”

    Speak for yourself, dude. Parroting politically-correct relativistic drivel that you heard from some intellectual that never had to work for a living does not make you look intelligent.
    We are are animals, true, but have always been apart from the other animals almost from the start. If you can name one other species that can communicate complex concepts such as these across the entire planet, then mabye I’ll consider your argument. Unfortunately for your point of view, there isn’t even another species that has harnessed fire to use as a tool.

  • interested person 2010

    Thank you for making this documentary series! I have a request for one that would interest me as well as many others, can you please make and producw a documentary series on the vast improvement of treatment/survival of HIV/AIDS over the past 25+ years….to current ways and future possibilities of treatment that will eventually lead to the discovery of a genetic cure, hopefully to be developed and in use within the next 5,10 to 25+ years from now{2010}! I along with so many others would greatly apprieciate having this documented to show our wonderful and immpressive progress in dealing with this very damaging disease. Thank you for all you produce to educate us. Also I think that this type of documentation could help to curb the stigma that still remains so strong to this current day/time. January,13 2010-Wendsday

  • Gordo

    Hey Cro…if you watched the series then you’d know that 50,000 years ago there were 3 other other species of the homo genus that used language and made tools. God wasn’t invented until much later.

  • dugudr

    I think the Neanderthal are stronger and hunt better and have to constantly migrate to new ground and that make it harder on the body. The smarter and more resourceful can make a living on familiar ground. Life is easier and so they have time to think therefore their brain change. That is why the one who spend two hours on the freeway is going to be extinct and homebase biz is going to be the future.

  • Anthony

    what if the neanderthals ate their dead or left the dead out for other animals to eat and that is why you can’t find them?

  • Marbor

    @dude: Seriously, start thinking for yourself. You’re acting as closed-minded. If you actually watched this show from an open perspective, you’d see that the things that we are learning raise more questions, and further distance us from animals. Thinking that “opposable thumbs and vocal cords” are all that make us unique is very old thinking. If you keep up on your scientific journals with an OPEN mind, you will find that many scientists are starting to realize that there is something more to humanity that simply can’t be explained away by an impossible series of seemingly random mutations.

  • David Kennison

    Transitive or intransitive? Indeed, analysis of behavior that becomes us does shed light on how we became we. However, given the content of this program, “Becoming We” would have been a more appropriate title.

  • jennifer r

    i am thoroughly enjoying this short series of 3 programs. in my opinion, having Alda on board is the program’s largest asset. Let his genuine curiosity, ability to TRULY listen and engaged questioning be an example to all of us who think we have nothing to learn!

  • Zachary A. Cox

    Kathy, welcome to 2010, were not stupid or ignorant anymore.

    Mo, god did not create us in his image. If anything, we created god in our image to in turn create us in our image. God is really only something that we use to pass our blame off on. It did nothing.

  • Nafiz Karim

    I can’t believe Alda went to Stony and didn’t talk to Bingham. His whole class investigate what the human spark is. The answer- our ability to throw in elite fashion- which not other animal can do, even out humanoid cousins.

  • Travis

    Lynne — That’s a little far fetched, you know? Dogs didn’t teach us to speak. That sounds like a bunch of New Age wishy-washy drivel.

    Homo sapiens were hunting long before canine domestication. Hunting goes back before the time of our species and into the time of our forebears. Try reading up on hominids and paleoanthropology.

    Dogs do communicate with body language, but so do humans. We aren’t as tuned into it as we once were. Do pick up a book on body language sometime. It’ll open your eyes. The bottom line is human communication is far more complex, subtle, and abstract than that of our canine friends.

  • Nydreena

    Native Americans use every part of an animal for survival. Tools for hunting, fur for clothing, and flesh for food. Could the remains of older Neanderthals have been used in the same way to progress the needs of the village? Teeth were used to adorn garmets what else was used?

  • Sam

    Thank you so much for making this available to people in the UK,

    I cannot say the same for the NOVA website who have blocked their programs to people in the UK.

    Thanks again :-)

  • anonymous

    I think this is all bull really. God created us, we didn’t evolve from a freaking monkey. Just pick up a bible and you’ll find out what happened.

  • renee thielen

    This series is amazing. So much of how we behave, from minor daily activities to entire cultural belief systems makes so much more sense to me. I sincerely wish I had now pursued my childhood dreams in the fields of anthropology, paleontology, and psychology. Thanks to incredible programming such as this, i can at least live the dream vicariously!

    I must make comment toward the incredibly misplaced, closed-minded, and prejudiced comments from those above (we all know who they are): First of all, theocratic belief systems are explained in episode three; please lock yourself in a dark and sound-proofed room, and force yourself to watch this episode for forty days, so that you may then emerge from the wilderness an enlightened individual.

    Secondly, hunter-gatherers existed places other than Africa. Also, anyone who has ANY knowledge whatsoever in this field knows that much of the most important anthropological evidence of “intelligent” man’s ancestors has been found in Africa. Additionally, ancient cultures of this region did not “ravage” the land; they made wise use of the available renewable resources, much as the few remaining primitive cultures do today.

    Lastly, I value all species, and am fascinated by their abilities which allow them to remain viable throughout history. However, I find it difficult to believe that homo sapiens evolved language because of dogs. Canines are an intelligent social species, and thus use a form of communication, as did homo sapiens. I believe it is much more likely, given the higher intelligence of h. sapiens and the subservient tendency of canines toward superior species, that since the two species had a similar agenda, a somewhat symbiotic relationship was born, and communication between the two species evolved. This is supported by the experiments shown in episode 3, where even drastically different characters are preferred, if they like the same things as the infants.

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  • Larry Menkes cSBA

    The insight from NYU’s Randall White that technological adaptation has been the driving force in the development of modern homo sapiens was worth the time spent watching this extraordinary account of the archeological evidence. It confirms Buckminster Fuller’s conclusion that technology is the primary tool shaping modern civilization.

    This technology will either destroy us, or, if we can use remedial technology to counteract our destructive technologies will be the true test of how smart we are. If we fail, the neanderthals win with 200,000 years of successful existence without much in the way of technological “advantages”.

    I think the dolphins and whales, too, are on to something similar..

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