The Ultimate Survivor!

6 minute read

OK, I was drawn in by the first few minutes, so I'm liveblogging the National Geographic show, "The Ultimate Survivor."

8:02 -- Lee Berger has fossil evidence of a giant race of ancient humans?

8:05 -- The basic theme is the bush vs. ladder theme. To illustrate the ladder, they have an australopithecine pick up a steel baton and pass it on to later hominids. Forty years of Hollywood technology since "2001" and we've got a bunch of plasticine freaks passing a steel baton. I want the monolith back!

8:10 -- The idea of a family tree is very easily illustrated--use a tree. So we have a tree with hominid pictures on it. But did you notice that this particular tree looks remarkably like Ernst Haeckel's primate phylogeny tree?

8:13 -- Establishing the bush theme: Kenyanthropus as a new species apart from A. afarensis. Louise Leakey is featured.

8:16 -- Obviously Kenyanthropus was a different genus. It has brown fur and Lucy has black fur!

8:22 -- The Homo erectus model is a little distracting. He looks like an airbrushed white guy. Are these the same actors the BBC used?

8:23 -- On to Dmanisi. Reid Ferring says there are many piles of round river stones that were probably collected for throwing. They show a couple of hominids throwing rocks at a sabertooth. OK, the skull suddenly fleshing to life in Lordkipanidze's hand is frightening. There's a Hollywood touch.

8:35 -- Gretchen is complaining about their made-up common names, "Nutcracker" for A. boisei, "Handyman" for Homo habilis. Is there any point to dumbing it down this way? Who do they think is watching?

8:38 -- Swartkrans burned bones. "If these burned bones aren't the result of a natural fire, then they are the first evidence of a controlled fire by humans." Well, yes, since those are the only two choices.

8:39 -- RICHARD WRANGHAM ALERT! He's talking about fire IN FRONT OF A SMOKING WEBER GRILL! NOW HE"S CHEWING RAW MEAT! Whoa, man, that grill is smoking up a storm....NOW HE'S BEATING MEAT ON A TREE!

8:42 -- This is a very clever illustration of the small gut, small tooth, small jaw muscle changes, with body parts computer morphing.

8:48 -- Lucinda Backwell is talking about A. robustus diet and termites. There is really too much narration here. I would much rather hear the scientists telling us about this stuff. It's not that complicated that it needs to be dumbed down.

8:55 -- "Lee Berger is on erectus's trail." He's excavating a fossil hyena den. He has a leg bone from an ancient human that he estimates was six feet tall. The amazing thing "is that we think it's a child or female." Berger and Steve Churchill build a reconstruction of the Kabwe specimen. OK, this is nothing new -- it was published in 1923, people! I guess this is just going along with the theme of giving everything a nonsensical name: "Goliath" is the name for Homo rhodesiensis. Nothing against Lee and Steve; I'm sure they think it is as hokey as I do. On the other hand, they did pose in front of a computer at a library workstation to have a mockup of a hominid computer-inserted in the film later....

9:06 -- Steve Chuchill is measuring the volume and surface area of his H. rhodesiensis mold. He ends up dangling a macabre skin with face painted on. Too cool!

9:07 -- The voiceover still hasn't called it anything but Goliath, but the hint that it may have went to Europe means that we may be talking about Homo heidelbergensis instead. Hey, I have a suggestion: if the taxonomic names are too complicated, maybe we could call them all Homo sapiens and just talk about the site names?

9:10 -- Another Flores snippet. The film is really jumping around a lot, but it is clear that the only new thing is Flores, and the rest is just a summary of results from paleoanthropology over the last five years.

9:15 -- The hobbit skeleton laid out includes a humerus and ulna. The computer-generated hobbits are walking around the Liang Bua excavation like Kevin Pollack and his buddy in "Willow."

9:20 -- "Goliath!" The reconstruction of Kabwe is 6 foot 4 inches. I especially like the veins popping out on the arms -- he's a pro wrestler! -- and that goes with the theme of him being hot all the time. He didn't have the surface area to get rid of heat in a hot, moist climate, so he had to stay where it was dry. Not sure what the problem is here, exactly; are there no large people living in Africa now?

9:26 -- Henshilwood at Blombos. Nice shots of the ocean, and reconstruction of the cave during occupation. Good emphasis on the incised ochre chunks. This is a nice part.

9:30 -- "Equipped with greater brain power, some of us headed to Europe." A suddenly Caucasian modern human comes face-to-face with a Neandertal! BZZZAP -- they're gone!

9:32 -- Back to Flores: "For thousands of years, modern human migrants likely shared this island with another species: hobbits." Hmmm...could it be that these modern humans made all those tools at Liang Bua? Nope, can't ask that question.

9:36 -- Commercial break. How is it that they can make "Hogzilla" seem intrinsically more interesting than human evolution?

9:37 -- Spencer Wells "has made a startling discovery about our struggle to survive: we almost didn't make it." Wells is selling us Toba! Voiceover:"There is no way to know how many of us died...only how many lived." Wells:"It may have taken a global catastrophe to actually kick-start the mind into high gear." OK, the concept du jour is "survivor genes," that were spread around Africa before Toba erupted (they haven't named the volcano for us yet) and allowed some people scattered around Africa (but nowhere else? except for Neandertals and hobbits?) to survive. I guess this is supposed to explain why our genes show geographic diversity dating to the Lower Pleistocene?

9:42 -- "You don't wear jewelry unless you care about what others think about you, and that is a uniquely modern human trait." Well, and Neandertals....

9:45 -- Lice genetics. "Body lice live under clothes, not just the rough animal hides worn by earlier humans." What?

9:51 -- FoxP2: it allowed us to ululate, and that sets us apart from other animals, "more than any other human talent, it is the ultimate power tool."

9:52 -- RICHARD WRANGHAM ALERT: The grill is still smoking. "Chimpanzees have bouts of violent aggression with each other about 100 to 1000 times more often within their communities." "We have a coalition of the timid." "That kind of killing [of violent people within groups] led to selection against the genes that cause aggression within groups." That, and BEATING MEAT AGAINST A TREE! OK, that's overkill. In any event, this is one of the most sensible parts of the show, and it's only two minutes long. This could be expanded into a half-hour section--how did cooperation arise in ancient humans?

9:55 -- "Consider the tuber." Lee Berger is mincing, grating, ricing, and macerating potatoes with 18 different kitchen tools. And yet, he isn't in Wrangham's backyard. Hmmm...better to stay out of the SMOKY MEAT WARFARE ZONE.

9:58 -- Steve Churchill gets the last word: "Wherever we encountered them, we outcompeted them. We made this come to pass."