Tracing the roots of the human race


August 5, 2005

History Channel's 'Ape to Man' special looks at major discoveries in the search for our past


Most of us don't spend too much time thinking about the origins of our species - we're just relieved that we've evolved enough to set a VCR, parallel park, and not embarrass our dates when we're out for dinner in a fancy restaurant.

But then again, most of us aren't paleontologists. To them, exploring man's ancestral roots to determine the origins of the human race is big stuff. Not only is it significant in its own right, but it can make careers in the field and bring fame to the scientists who make key discoveries.

An unusual look at the twists and turns in the scientific search for our way-back ancestors is presented in a new documentary, Ape to Man, that will be shown at 9 Sunday night on the History Channel.

The two-hour special is not exactly the story of evolution; it's more the story of the evolution of evolution - that is, how theories and commonly held beliefs have changed through generations, as different clues, fossils, and artifacts have been discovered.

Of course, life has existed on Earth for millions of years, but only in the past century and a half have scientists begun to use more sophisticated techniques to try to solve the puzzles of our past. Ape to Man examines major discoveries over the years and looks at some of the key elements that separate man from apes.

Among the interviews with historians, paleontologists, anthropologists, and other experts, the documentary features dramatic re-creations of some of the key events in the ancestral search. Some are pretty hokey, others look like outtakes from Planet of the Apes, but a few are as riveting as a scene from a good movie.

It was in 1856 that the first bones of an extinct human ancestor were encountered, unearthed by a crew of laborers digging for limestone in Western Europe. The find, which would come to be known as Neanderthal Man, was seeing the light of day for the first time in more than 40,000 years.

At the time, the concept of a previous human species was not widely acknowledged, but just a few years later, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species would give legitimacy to the subject of evolution.

Some of the most intriguing - and frustrating - episodes in the search have involved the so-called Missing Link, a single creature that could represent the evolutionary leap from apes to humans. As a trophy, it's always been every bit as important, and elusive, to anthropologists as the Holy Grail was to King Arthur's knights - and to the characters in The Da Vinci Code.

w● In 1890, physician Eugene DuBois found a 500,000-year-old apelike skeleton in Sumatra, and thought he had it.

w● The Piltdown Man, a skeleton discovered in England in 1912, was thought for years to be the Missing Link, but it was later proven to be an elaborate hoax, consisting of parts from a medieval human, an orangutan, and a chimpanzee.

w● In 1924, anatomist Raymond Dart uncovered the fossilized skull of a child in Africa that was almost 2 million years old. But it was ignored by the scientific community because they still thought Piltdown Man was the real deal.

w● In 1959, famous archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey discovered what he thought was the Missing Link in Tanzania - the fossilized teeth, jaws, and half skull of an ancient ape ancestor. But that wasn't it either.

w● In 1974 in Ethiopia, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson made what's considered one of the most important fossil finds in history - the skeleton of a 3 million-year-old female hominid (which he named Lucy after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds").

Lucy was an important link because she was the first apelike creature to walk upright, which was, literally and figuratively, the initial step on the road to humanity.

The chain reaction that followed allowed Lucy's descendants to use their hands, so they could make and use tools for scavenging and hunting. That enabled them to get more protein in their diets, which in turn led to greater brain growth.

The key elements that marked the evolution from ape to man, and separated man from other mammals on the planet, included the ability to walk upright, use tools, harness fire, form communities, reason, and plan.

The general conclusion is that there hasn't been a single line of descent from Lucy, but a series of them. Some species wind up at evolutionary dead ends, while others appear to be part of a line that leads ultimately to humans.

For example, both Homo sapiens and Neanderthal Man evolved from a similar species, but they developed at different rates and in different parts of the world.

Eventually, though, the two genetic "cousins" came face to face, and in Ape to Man, a particularly effective dramatization shows a group of Homo sapiens hunters encountering a group of Neanderthals eons ago in the forests of what is now Germany.

The Homo sapiens group is smarter and has better weapons, and easily defeats the other in battle. Over a few generations, the Neanderthals are all but wiped out by their more advanced relatives. DNA testing as recently as the 1990s has confirmed that Neanderthal Man was not our ancestor.

We may never know what the Missing Link was, or precisely how we evolved over the millennia, but the good news is that we have - reality TV notwithstanding.