Nothing is more fascinating to us than, well, us. Where did we come from? What makes us human? The first in-depth televised investigation documenting an explosion of recent discoveries, NOVA's three-part special, "Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors," 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. "Becoming Human" airs Tuesdays, September 7 and14 at 8:00 p.m. on KUED Channel 7.
"Becoming Human" was shot "in the trenches," where discoveries were unearthed throughout Africa and Europe. Fossilized bones spring back to life with stunning animation and prosthetics. Featuring interviews with renowned scientists, each hour unfolds with a "CSI"-like forensic investigation into the life and death of a specific hominid ancestor.
"Becoming Human offers 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," says NOVA producer Paula Apsell.
The first hour, "First Steps" examines the factors and theories that caused the split from the apes. The film explores the fossil of "Selam." A nearly complete skeleton, this 3.3 million-year- old child sheds light on our ancestors' early development. When Paleoanthropologist Zeray Alemseged discovered "Selam," NOVA's cameras were there to capture the meticulously careful unveiling of the child's head, spine and shoulder blades.
The program explores a provocative "big idea" -- that abrupt changes in climate were a key factor in driving human evolution. Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts formulates a bold theory, based on new discoveries, about ancient climate extremes and how these forced evolution.
Producer Graham Townsley works with a team of renowned movie animators, actors, paleontologists, anthropologists and a paleoartist to bring each hominid in the series and the landscape they lived in to life. The laborious re-enactment process included many months of developing the animation and fitting prosthetic masks.
"It is truly unique to have artists and scientists collaborating at this level in order to create the most accurate images of early humans," says Townsley. "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."
In gripping forensic detail, the second program, "Birth of Humanity," investigates "Turkana Boy," an astonishingly complete specimen of Homo erectus found by the famous Leakey team in Kenya. These ancestors are thought to have developed key innovations such as hunting, use of fire and extensive social bonds. NOVA examines the theory that long-distance running was not only crucial for these early hominids to escape grassland predators, but also gave them a unique hunting strategy: chasing and running down prey, such as deer or antelope.
"Turkana Boy" discovery also reveals evidence of an extended period of childhood, marking the first time in human evolution that there is evidence of strong parenting. Advanced analyses of fossil bones and teeth are giving us direct evidence of how, why and when a long childhood and parenting began.
Investigating the empathy of the family bond and why it proved vital, anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hardy explains, "Because they had longer childhoods, there was a wonderful opportunity for big brains to evolve."
The final program, "Last Human Standing" examines the roots of our own species, Homo sapiens, which new evidence pinpoints to southern Africa some 200,000 years ago. What led to the birth of the modern human and our unique capacities for culture and creativity? How and why did our species leave Africa and take over the world? New discoveries are upending old ideas and suggesting that our exodus was far earlier than previously thought. A nightmare period of intense cold climate suggests our survival was on the line even as we began to leave our African cradle. This theory leads some to speculate that the Homo sapiens were reduced to a scant population of a hundred thousand or less.
As for today, we have planet Earth to ourselves, but that's a very recent and unusual situation. The program uncovers the evidence that 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. "Becoming Human" examines why "we" survived while other ancestral cousins, like the Homo erectus and the Neanderthal, died out. And it explores the question: In what ways are we still evolving?
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