Share it

The find of an extraordinary number of early hominid bones and subsequent naming of a new species — —homo naledi — has been much in the news lately. So, although the dig began in 2013, the new PBS Nova show  about it, “The Dawn of Humanity,” has the aspect of very fresh news.

Movies Dawn of Humanity

Nova  often seems geared at a middle-school audience, with deep male voices signaling danger, spectacular (and simplified) graphics to signal ‘cool,’ and pulsing, directional music.  So, although I usually look at each offering I don’t always finish.  “The Dawn of Humanity,” which premiered this week, however, captured and held me.  Some of the same template was used but in most cases the danger being signaled corresponded with my sense of danger — squirming through an 10 inch hole deep in the earth with only a headlamp for company, for instance.  Though I don’t have claustrophobia myself I could feel my breathing shortening up as each of the six “skinny” women, all highly trained in paleo related fields, pushed their way deep underground.

Down in the Star Cave

Down in the Star Cave

The two hour show is centered around a fabulous find of primate bones not too far from Johannesburg, South Africa, in an area known as “Cradle of Humankind.”  The organizer of the site, Professor Lee Berger, at the University of Witwatersrand, had been looking in the area for several decades with one earlier important find in 2008, a few bones from two individuals dated to be about two million years old. After that, more of nothing.  Eventually he hired a former student, Pedro Boshoff, to scour places that had already been looked at.  Boshoff had long been a caver in the area and found a couple of friends to work with him.  In a cave system called Rising Star where they had been before, by sheer accident they found a tunnel they had not seen on previous trips. Luck happens when you’re looking in the right places, as the saying goes. Deep in what is now called the Dinaledi Chamber [Naledi means “star” in South Africa’s Sesotho language] the two took photos, including one of a portion of a very recognizable human-like jaw, with several teeth.

Movies Dawn of Humanity Jaw

Late that night the three appeared at Berger’s home.  “You really want to talk to us!” Boshoff told him.

The project was on.

Some of that initial search is re-created for us, followed by a nice piece filling in the background so we understand how enormous the find is.  We begin to catch the excitement of looking for old bones though some nice footage of his 10 year old son who had made the 2008 find.

Director Graham Townsley does a very good job of bringing us into the twin adrenaline rush of going into the caves with the women, climbing and lowering on ropes, crawling on hands and knees, often in full belly-squirm, and seeing as well the full faced excitement of those watching on remote monitors at the top — too large, themselves, to get into the caves.  We see the women painstakingly picking and brushing away rock and dirt to release fossilized bone fragments from mud and sandstone.  Some fragments are even lying on the ground beneath their feet; they only need picking up and packaging.  Other bits and pieces fall from the walls.  Our own goose bumps rise as they begin to understand what they have found — some 1500 bone fragments, including a crucial segment of a skull, each packaged, marked for position, and sent back up to the top.


Movies Dawn of Humanity Naledi Bones

In between the action shots Townsley uses experts and graphics and animation to help us understand what we are seeing. There is enough repetition, for example, for the various “branches” of pre-homo sapiens to be strongly etched in the mind. (Plus, we get to hear australopithecine pronounced many times!)  Other graphics show an ape-like skull (Lucy, australopithecus) change into a human-like skull.  We see what it is the paleo scientists base their judgments on.

We get a good lesson in teeth and how they’ve changed in primates over millions of years; how teeth reveal what the primary diet was.  Along the way a serious reconsideration is undertaken of Robert Ardrey’s notion of our forbears as “killer apes” made popular in Stanly Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Computer graphics are not used only to inform us. Modern paleoanthropolgy itself makes use of 3D modeling, CAT scans, CGI and 3D printers to help visualize and understand the appearance, behavior and place in primate history of the creatures.


I do agree with some of the comments I’ve read that, as is generally true of Nova productions, the tone and testimony of the film is overwhelmingly rah-rah!  Though we are told there are disagreements in the paleo community about the particularities of the hominid treee, no specific quarrels with Berger’s interpretation of his bones are shown.  Since there are not a few who think of him as showman before being a researcher, both warranted questions about his work, and resentment for his un-quiet claims do exist. It would have added to the stature of the presentation to invite doubters to speak about their concerns.

I am suprised, for example,  that two years after the find, and the making of the movie, there is still no radiocarbon dating of the bones nor of the limestone in which they were found. Nothwithstanding the plea that such dating involves destruction of some portion of the bones, it would seem to me so central to our understanding that a selection could have been made.  I also would also have thought more could have been geologically deduced about the cave itself: estimation of growth rates for the stalactites for example.

If this was indeed a burial site, how is it that bones were found in the roof structures? Since typical burials are made below our feet, not above our heads, would such a location indicate a (formerly) higher position, or perhaps a flood and mud?  Why the certainty that it is a burial site, easily the most stunning revelation if its true, (known hominid burials only date from 350,000 years ago, not 2 million,) rather than a Pompeii like catastrophe, a cave in, a flash flood?  I am equally puzzled at the assertion that that terrain would not move much in 2 million years.  In fact, much can happen. What is known about the area? Is there really good reason to think that the tunels and caves in which the bones were found are now as they were then?  Couldn’t there have been other, easier access entrances, since covered by landslide, flood?  I don’t suggest that all such questions have to have answers, just that certain fundamentals of geology, physics and mammal behavior suggest themselves and might have been addressed.

Of course the aim of NOVA is not to run a forensic investigation of its subjects but to show the wow! factor of science and discovery.  Even so….

But don’t accept my quibbles until you’ve see “The Dawn of Humanity” on your local PBS station, or here, and are wowed yourself.  There are great examples of what young scientists do, and how they do it, should you have any young buds growing near your tree.


More links for you

The Rising Star Cave

Homo Naledi in wiki

AAAS 9/15  New human species discovered

New Scientist on unanswered questions, and may rewrite human history.

The Atlantic Magazine: Why dating fossils is difficult