Friday, March 23, 2012

Apes

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The first video took place .5 million years ago in East Africa where a species of ape lives. Australopithecus afarensis had taken the first steps towards humanity - and could stand and walk on two legs.


A few million years before, Africa was covered, almost edge-to-edge, with thick rain forest. Our ancestors used all four limbs to move, live and hunt. But immense environmental chaos, changes their future.


The rift valley was forming, and the rainforests dying, as Africa dried out - turning the landscape into an assortment of scattered trees and grass. In this new environment afarensis found it more efficient to move about not on four legs but on two.


This film follows a group of afarensis, and in particular, Lucy and her young newborn. Led by a strong male, there is harmony in their lives. They sleep high in the trees and spend most of the day searching for food. But while drinking from a river, a crocodile sneaks in unnoticed and catches the unsuspecting alpha male.


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Now leaderless, a disagreement for power between the two secondary males unsettles the group. Added to that, a rival group invades Lucys territory. While not uncommon in their chimp-like lifestyles, the consequential territory war was both violent and extreme and has devastating consequences.


As the groups lives move on, the video shows how although walking on two feet offers minor advantages to the afarensis it opens the door to an amazing set of new skills and abilities that will change the shape of human life on earth.


Like the Australopithecus afarensis, Humans today (especially men) are very protective of what they believe to be theirs, they are also very competitive and don’t like sharing power. People today also try to find the most efficient way of doing things, just like the Australopithecus afarensis found it more efficient walking on two legs rather than four.


The second video was set in Africa, two million years ago, where there was a crossroad in human evolution. Half a dozen or more different species of ape-men existed along side each other; all of them exploited the environment in a different way and developed their own strategy for survival.


The video follows the lives of two species, Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis who represent two alternative ways of ape-man life. Although heavy set, with unique gorilla-like faces, the boisei were gentle. They lived within a strict social structure and were led by a dominant male whose strength and power held the group together.


They adapted brilliantly to the tough conditions of dry scorched land. Their huge teeth, four times the size of our own, and strong jaws mean they can eat the toughest plants.


The habilis had taken a different approach to survival. They didn’t have the skills of the boisei but instead developed into the archetypal jack-of-all-trades, prying scavengers prepared to try almost anything to survive. Tough, active, sociable and noisy they are always on the move, and always alert to the possibility of a meal. But in the near drought of the dry season the habilis were struggling. It seemed as if their way of life cannot help them when conditions were tough.


However habilis had a secret weapon, they had come to use brainpower rather than strength. They learnt to work together to scare other predators away from food, they scavenge for meat and, perhaps most importantly, made basic stone tools - equipping themselves through their own efforts with the kind of specialist eating equipment creatures like the boisei had by nature.


Although we have a dominant figure of authority we do not rely on their leadership as much as the boisei did. Like the boisei we usually find it easy to adapt to our surroundings.


Like the habilis we tend to use brainpower over strength,


The third video took place in southern Africa; where the Homo ergaster had taken the next step to becoming human. They had long, modern looking noses, which cooled air as they breathe to stop overexertion.


They had hairless bodies, with millions of tiny sweat glands, so they didn’t need to pant anymore to control their temperature, they sweated. And, above all, they have big brains - nearly two-thirds the size of ours.


This video followed the lives of a group of ergaster on a hunt and showed how they used their big brains. They were the first ape-man to have our intricate understanding of the natural world, and was able to recognize and follow the footprints left behind by many different animals. They were expert toolmakers and used a highly refined stone hand axe. But the most important thing they used their big brains for is the same thing as we do - understanding other people.


Ergaster lived in large social groups and spent their time in the complex task of getting along with each other. Their society was held together not by a dominant male, but by the bonds of family and friends. For the first time, hunters would bring back meat to the rest of the group after a hunt, using it to forge alliances and reinforce relationships. Their extraordinary social world has led to a new occurrence in our human story - the couple, living together, at least for a time, faithfullly.


Their new found social bonds and understanding of the world had equipped them with skills that enabled them to move away from their ancestral home in Africa. Over thousands of years they spread throughout the Middle East and Asia, reaching as far as China and are now known in their new Asian home as � Homo erectus.


Despite being incredibly sophisticated for their kind, they were still far from human. One million years after and they had not changed, they were still using the exact same tools and tactics, they had made no technological advancements. Compare this with Homo sapiens who had gone from the steam age to the space age in under a hundred years.


Their brains simply did not work in the flexible way ours do. For them to become like us required a major change in thinking. We may know what triggered this dramatic change; towards the end of ergasters time there is evidence that they had learnt to control and work with fire as a weapon, for warmth and as a tool.


For the first time in our history night-time no longer brought danger, but warmth, security and time for the mind to wander - perhaps time for the mind to change. Fire certainly revolutionised the way our ancestors lived - perhaps it did the same to how they could think.


In the fourth video, nearly half a million years ago, the most advanced human the world had still not seen Europe. Strong and powerful, Homo heidelbergensis were fierce hunters, used sophisticated tools and lived in close knit family groups.


They looked and behaved in a very human way - yet something was missing. In the final video, we saw three brothers on a hunt, when one brother was injured, his worried family spent most of the night trying to keep him alive.


Yet in the morning the hunter was dead and his family had gone, leaving him where he died. There was no ceremony and no looking back. H. heidelbergensis could only see the world as it was, and they could not, for example, think of a life after death, for they lacked the one thing that makes us human - a modern imagination.


H. heidelbergensis were the last step in becoming us. Over two hundred thousand years they had become divided into two groups by extremes of weather and environment, and evolved separately into two very different species.


In the north are the Neanderthals, whose physical power and resilience was the key to surviving in ice age Northern Europe. In one of the harshest environments ever, a small group of Neanderthal was having trouble getting by.


The leaders partner was expecting her first child and the men had to travel far to find food. If they were unsuccessful the group would have to move on, a dangerous event for the near full term mum. In their world, being strong and tough was the key to survival. If the going got tough, they’d just fight back harder.


In the south the other descendants of heidelbergensis, were finding the going even harder. 140,000 years ago, Africa was in the grip of a devastating drought, and something remarkable had happened to the descendants of heidelbergensis who lived there the combination of environment and chance bred in them a unique ability that changed the course of human history.


They developed a mind capable of imagination - for the first time on earth there was a creature capable of understanding and anticipating possibilities, with the gift of abstract thought. It very possibly saved them from the brink of extinction.


Although the Neanderthal were unbeatable for a quarter of a million years, it was this small group of southern survivors, perhaps numbering just a few tens of thousands, would come to dominate the world, and be known as Homo sapiens � our ancestors.





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