Becoming Human

TV Program Description
Premiere Broadcast on PBS: November 3, 10 & 17, 2009

Nothing is more fascinating to us than, well, us. Where did we come from? What makes us human? An explosion of recent discoveries sheds light on these questions, and NOVA's comprehensive, three-part special, "Becoming Human," examines what the latest scientific research reveals about our hominid relatives—putting together the pieces of our human past and transforming our understanding of our earliest ancestors.

Featuring interviews with world-renowned scientists, each hour unfolds with a CSI-like forensic investigation into the life and death of a specific hominid ancestor. The programs were shot "in the trenches" where discoveries were unearthed throughout Africa and Europe. Dry bones spring back to life with stunning computer-generated animation and prosthetics. Fossils not only give us clues to what early hominids looked like, but, with the aid of ingenious new lab techniques, how they lived and how we became the creative, thinking humans of today.

"Having an understanding of human evolution is key to so many of the issues we face today," remarks Paula Apsell, Senior Executive Producer for NOVA and Director of the WGBH Science Unit. "This fall, 'Becoming Human' will offer a vivid picture of human evolution that highlights the latest groundbreaking discoveries and, more importantly, explains how each new finding fits together with earlier ones to reveal a truly compelling story of survival."

The first hour examines the factors that caused us to split from the other great apes. The film explores the fossil of "Selam," also known as "Lucy's Child"—an amazing, nearly complete child fossil that helps shed light on our ancestors' early development and how we began to depart from the ancestors of chimps. Paleoanthropologist Zeray Alemseged, who discovered Selam, spent five years carefully excavating the sandstone-embedded fossil grain by grain. NOVA's cameras are there to capture the unveiling of the face, spine, and shoulder blades of the oldest known child fossil, 3.3 million years old. And, for the first time, NOVA takes viewers "inside the skull" to show how our ancestors' brains had begun to change from those of the apes.

Why did leaps in human evolution take place? "Becoming Human" explores a provocative "big idea" that sharp swings of climate were a key factor in driving human evolution. Layers of rock showing evidence of extreme shifts in climate, combined with fossils unearthed at those locations, indicate that great steps in human evolution were taken in periods when climate was swinging wildly from hot and wet to dry and cold. Today, many think of abrupt climate change as the biggest threat to humanity's future. But this theory suggests that such sudden flips may have been an essential creative engine that helped shape the emergence of our ancestors. Based on new discoveries about ancient climate extremes, paleoanthropologist Rick Potts has formulated a new grand theory: "Variability itself was the driving force of human evolution, and our ancestors were adapted to change itself."

Producer Graham Townsley worked with a team of animators from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), actors, paleontologists, and a paleoartist, to bring each hominid in the series to life and to create the landscapes of Ice Age Europe. "It is truly unique to have artists and scientists collaborating at this level in order to create the most accurate images of early humans based on fossil evidence," says Townsley. The arduous reenactment process included many months of developing the animation and fitting prosthetic masks. "The result is the most realistic picture at present of our earliest ancestors as well as the tools they used and the environment they lived in," says Townsley. (Hear more from Townsley and see some of the animation process in The Producer's Story.)

In gripping forensic detail, the second show in "Becoming Human" investigates the first skeleton that really looks like us—"Turkana Boy"—an astonishingly complete specimen of Homo erectus found by the famous Leakey team in Kenya. These ancestors are thought to have developed many key innovations such as hunting, use of fire, and extensive social bonds. NOVA examines a theory that it was long-distance running—our ability to jog—that was not only crucial for the survival of these early hominids on grasslands filled with vicious predators but also gave them a unique hunting strategy: chasing and running down prey animals such as deer or antelope to the point of exhaustion. "Turkana Boy" also marks the first time in human evolution that there is strong evidence of an extended period of childhood and parenting. As anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy explains, "This prolonged childhood is one of the most distinctive features of human society, sharply different from that of chimps." New analyses of fossil bones and teeth are giving us direct evidence of how, why, and when humans' uniquely long childhood and parenting began and how the empathy of the family bond got started and why it proved vital.

The final program examines the fate of the Neanderthals, our European cousins who died out as modern humans spread from Africa into Europe during the Ice Age. Did modern humans interbreed with Neanderthals and/or exterminate them? The program explores crucial new evidence from the recent decoding of the Neanderthal genome, which until just a few years ago was thought to be an impossible technical feat.

So how did modern humans take over the world? New evidence suggests that they left Africa and colonized the world far earlier, and for different reasons, than previously thought. As for Homo sapiens, we have planet Earth to ourselves today, but that's a very recent and unusual situation. For millions of years, as far back as science can take us, many different kinds of hominids co-existed and shared the globe simultaneously, and there was no guarantee that any of them would survive the many threats along the way. For example, at one time Homo sapiens shared the planet with Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and the mysterious "Hobbits"—three-foot-high humans who thrived on the Indonesian island of Flores until just a few thousand years ago. (To get a sense of our numerous hominid cousins, see Who's Who In Human Evolution.) "Becoming Human" examines why "we" survived while those other ancestral cousins died out. And it explores the question: In what ways are we still evolving today?

Program Transcript

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Man looking out to sea

An actor portraying a member of the tiny population of Homo sapiens from which we all sprang. Geneticists have traced our ancestry to a bare 600 individuals who lived on the shores of Pinnacle Point, South Africa.

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Viktor works on skull

The programs feature the work of paleoartist Viktor Deak, who helps to visually resurrect our hominid ancestors.

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Workers digging

An archeological team digs in the area where earlier searches uncovered one million-year-old hominid fossils called Homo antecessor in Atapuerca, Spain.

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