The Dawn of Humanity - Newly Discovered Homo Naledi Video Review

Accessible Science on the Rising Star Paleolithic Site

Scientists Hannah Morris and Alia Gurtov busy excavating at Rising Star Cave
Scientists Hannah Morris and Alia Gurtov busy excavating at Rising Star Cave. NOVA / National Geographic

The Dawn of Humanity. 2015. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders; produced and directed by Graham Townsley; Jared Lipworth, executive producer for National Geographic Studios. Featuring Zeresenay Alemseged, Lee Berger, Pedro Boshoff. Steven Churchill, Viktor Deak, Elen Feuerriegel, William Harcourt-Smith, John Hawks, Amanda Henry, K. Lindsay Hunter, Rick Hunter, Donald Johanson, Job Kibii, Hannah Morris, Rick Potts, Patrick Randolph-Quinney, Brian Richmond, Peter Schmid, Michael Tomasello, Steven Tucker, Carol Ward and Celeste Yates.

Scenes shot at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site Management Authority; Malapa Nature Reserve, and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. 1 hour, 53 minutes.

The Context of Breaking News

The Dawn of Humanity is a 2015 video released on September 10th by the U.S. Public Broadcasting System's NOVA program and National Geographic, in conjunction with breaking paleontological news at the site of Rising Star Cave, in South Africa's "Cradle of Humankind" archaeological reserve. The first academic publication of the (probably) Lower Paleolithic site was published in the open source journal eLife on September 10th.

The video was released simultaneously with the journal article reporting the recovery of over 1,500 bone and bone fragments representing at least 15 hominin individuals in Rising Star cave. Scholars believe that the hominins in Rising Star represent a new member of our own species, called Homo naledi (naledi means "star" in the Sotho language.

The discovery is among the most exciting paleontological finds of the last 200 years, and what The Dawn of Humanity does is provide a rich context for the discovery, setting the historical and evolutionary background so that viewers can understand the significance of the discovery.

Blow By Blow

In general, the first hour sets the context for the site, including how the notion of a "family tree" in our evolutionary background has itself evolved; the second hour is dedicated to the three-week excavation of Rising Star cave and discussion of the discoveries.

The first 15 minutes of the program describes how the discovery of Rising Star cave came about. Then, excavation director and University of Witswatersrand paleontologist Lee Berger describes the discovery of Malapa Cave, also in the Cradle of Humankind reserve in South Africa, where Australopithecus sebida was discovered in 2008. A. sebida's claim to fame was the completeness of its hands and feet. Berger and other scholars working on the project wondered if they could be tool makers: but at 1.977 million years of age, that was a controversial concept, and in fact still is.

Raymond Dart and Taung

Next, the paleontologists describe the issues and importance of the Taung child, discovered by University of Witwatersrand archaeologist Raymond Dart in the 1920s. Dart's discovery was shocking at the time: most scholars were convinced that humans had evolved in Europe or Asia. The Taung child, eventually assigned to the Australopithecus species, lived in South Africa, and its remains were the first of multitudes of strands of evidence that humans evolved in Africa, a notion nearly all paleontologists subscribe to today.

Dart's idea of the genesis of humans was that we descended from violent killer apes, an idea that dramatist Robert Ardrey picked up and ran with in a series of books; The Dawn of Humanity reminds us of the thread connecting Dart to Ardrey to Stanley Kubrick's eloquent beginning of the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Such ideas have since been proven false: turns out the "killer apes" were vegetarians. Some of the controversy of the killer ape theory can be found in this 1962 article by writer Michael Crichton.

Skinny Paleontologists

The discussion then turns to Homo habilis, discovered by the Leakey family in Kenya, and the evolving ideas of human evolution and the role of tools in that discussion.

Finally, the last hour of the program is dedicated to excavating Rising Star cave, beginning with Berger's now-famous casting call on Facebook for skinny paleontologists. The extraordinary assembly of processes that made it possible to scientifically excavate such an amazing place is exhilarating in and of itself.

Fifteen Bodies; a Startling Possibility; the Skull

The last 45 minutes or so of The Dawn of Humanity reveal the most exciting and strange findings of the site. We don't know how old the site is, yet anyway, but the skull (according to John Hawks who certainly ought to know) is clearly early Homo; according to the video there are thousands of fragments representing at least twelve (fifteen in the published version) individuals and they are reportedly either juveniles or elderly; there are no other species of animals in the cave.

And now archaeologists who have had anything to do with cemeteries are saying: Wait. What did you say?

The final fifteen minutes are dedicated to explaining how it might be possible that an ancient people with brains just slightly larger than a chimp might have been burying their dead. A fascinating theory which will be discussed for years to come, as will the place H. naledi holds in relationship to other hominins, including H. floresiensis. Paleontologist Chris Stringer discusses some of the issues in an open source article in eLife; on their website, NOVA provides some additional input from skeptics William Jungers and Patricia Kramer.

Bottom Line

The Dawn of Humanity is nearly two hours long and it holds off the truly exciting pieces until the last half. But the first half plays a critical role in setting the discoveries in context to the generalist public, as well as to people like me who have only dim memories of hours spent reading the violent ape theories of Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey.

I've always thought that there was something missing in breaking news about scientific discoveries. That's understandable: in our hurry-up world of instagrams and twitter feeds, daily lives are packed with too many other things going on today to pay any close attention to the affairs of the ancient past.

What's missing is context: the background of findings so that interested non-academic people can honestly understand and be critically aware of the significance of those findings. That's what I've tried to do here for 18 years.

Berger's charming personality and the hordes of other paleontologists in this video make this contextual effort easily and visually accessible to the public. NOVA's rich supporting website provides contrasting views and additional information about the discoveries in South Africa; National Geographic has a ton of related videos about subsidiary elements; and academic publication of the data is available to anyone in an open source, peer-reviewed venue. Bravo.

Further Information

The Dawn of Humanity premiers on PBS on September 16, 2015, but it can also be seen right this instant, livestreamed on the PBS website.

Also, see the Rising Star Expedition and This Face Changes the Human Story. But How? at National Geographic.

6 Tiny Cavers, 15 Odd Skeletons, and 1 Amazing New Species of Ancient Human, Ed Yong in The Atlantic, 10 Sep 2015.

Berger LR, Hawks J, de Ruiter DJ, Churchill SE, Schmid P, Delezene LK, Kivell TL, Garvin HM, Williams SA, DeSilva JM et al. 2015. Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa.

eLife 2015:4e09560. (open source)

Dirks PH, Berger LR, Roberts EM, Kramers JD, Hawks J, Randolph-Quinney PS, Elliott M, Musiba CM, Churchill SE, de Ruiter DJ et al. 2015. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. eLife 4:e09561. (open source)

Stringer C. 2015. The many mysteries of Homo naledi. eLife 4::e10627 (open source)