Ardipithecus Is Ready For Her Close-Up

By Carl Zimmer | October 10, 2009 12:32 pm

Tomorrow the Discovery Channel will show an Ardipithecus documentary. I’ve embedded a couple preview clips they’ve been sending around. I don’t have cable myself (the same way an alcoholic doesn’t keep cases of gin). So I’ll leave it to commenters to offer reviews tomorrow.

There’s obviously a striking parallel with the TV mania that recently surrounded another primate fossil, Darwinius. Personally, I don’t see anything amiss (a priori, at least), with a documentary coming out right after a journal paper gets published. What I don’t relish is when the publicity for a show distorts the news coverage of a fossil, as happened with Darwinius. So I’d be curious what people who watch the show think.


Comments (13)

  1. NewEnglandBob

    Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” is the voice behind those trailers.

  2. Carl Buell

    Mike Rowe is doing a lot of voice-over work now… I rather enjoy him. I really enjoyed watching Jay Matternes at work! I don’t know what it would be like to have the luxury of 2 years to work on a series of illustrations, but after seeing Jay in that clip, I feel like a hack. If he had been born in the 14th or 15th Century, we’d be studying him as one of the great masters.

    Thanks for posting this Carl, even though I’ve read about all there is on Ardi this past week, I’ll probably be watching.

  3. CW

    I thought the documentary was quite nice. Not only did it go over all the important details of Ardi itself, but it gave a succinct overview of the scientific processes involved in determining the findings.

  4. All week, prior to the documentary, I followed Ardi’s story closely—as I’m sure many others did. I was pleased to find that my beliefs that the Discovery Channel production would be extremely sensationalized were wrong. They did a nice job presenting the research as we have been reading it all week, which means that people who will only get their information about Ardi from this source will get the same information those of us who have been following her in the assorted presses. I didn’t care for the last 15 minutes or so of the special—I guess the magic of Hollywood has been lost to me, but I did enjoy learning about Matternes processes for reconstructing Ardi.

  5. fasteddie

    Paleontology question from a layman….How do they know the fossil fragments from Ardi (or at any other site) are from the same individual? Other than not finding, say, two left feet I haven’t come up with anything on my own.

  6. @ fasteddie: I think this has a lot to do with the general disbursement of fossils. From what my “digger” colleagues are saying, if you start finding multiples of the same bones in the same place, you are likely looking at a burial deposit of some sort—similar to a bone pit (i.e. a jumble of bones that were piled together by animals or humans that are essentially unrelated). Given that archaeologists are working within very specific geological and chronological parameters, they look at the placement of the bones within the field site. In other words, finding a finger bone 5 miles away as opposed to 5 feet away makes a difference. I got this information second hand, so if anyone can clarify, you’d be welcome to do so. If no other answers pop up, I hope that helps fasteddie.

  7. fasteddie

    Krystal, it does help. Thanks.

  8. Michael Heath

    I’ve watched Discovering Ardi only, that was the 2 hour show. I haven’t watched Understanding Ardi which features Paula Zahn as host though I’ve got it recorded.

    I thought the show was excellent. They did a great job of showing the working conditions, the effort level, the detail, and the intense focus that goes into the effort. One of the unexpected surprises was their spending a perfect amount of time discussing dating methods and their good fortune in the circumstances which allowed such a precise date with small margins of error. They also did a very good job of describing Ardipithecus and what we’ve learned from our evolutionary past we didn’t know previous to this find.

    I think the show would have been better if they’d spent more time discussing other fossil hominid finds and placing Ardipithecus within the context of our entire related volume of finds going back to Proconsul. I was disappointed they didn’t provide a visual display of where Ardipithecus fit into a phylogetic graph.

    I was surprised one or more of the scientists used language that doesn’t merely discredit that hominds share a chimp-like ancestor with hominids, but instead claiming that Ardi falsifies that hypothesis – I don’t remember their papers being so bright-lined about that claim. I would have liked more discussion on the portion of their papers that speculates on whether the CLCA was more monkey- or hominid-like and if hominid-like, the strength of the notion that pan evolved from more ancient hominids than Ardi. Sometimes we even heard the narrator talk about Ardi features like we were shocked to discover they co-existed, e.g., chimp-size brain and bipedalism, when in fact we already knew this was the progression with the Lucy find.

    Maybe many of these questions are what they cover in Understanding Ardi.

    I greatly appreciated Dr. Tim White’s preciseness of language and how he framed his statements so a less-informed audience wouldn’t be so apt to veer off on unintended tangents. I think Dr. Lovejoy could learn from that given he’s frequently had his audiences concluding that the Ardi find falsely verifies human exceptionalism and the false notion “we didn’t descend from apes”. Dr. White, the narrator, and even Lovejoy clean up this sloppiness at the end of the show but still, it would be nice for some consistency throughout.

    Also, If you weren’t well informed on human evolution you’d think from listening to Dr. Lovejoy that Lucy and Ardi are our only fossil finds rather than two of several. In addition, while I empathize with the use of some hyperbole that frequently accompanies the marketing used to promote your find, it would have been nice for Dr. Lovejoy to validate that while we realized some surprises with Ardi, they fit perfectly into the idea of hominids evolving from primitive monkeys into modern humans and the features discovered to date are consistent with other hominid fossil finds and our general predictions, e.g., we found no modern features on Ardi not already featured on more modern hominids like Lucy and modern humans nor have we discovered more primitive features on Lucy or modern humans not featured on Ardi – exactly what science has been predicting since Darwin and Wallace. This sort of framing is imperative given what at least 40% of Americans believe regarding evolution.

  9. FastEddie

    One item I appreciated about the show was that they depicted that scientific work is often hard and physically demanding (I am not such a scientist, only a groupie). Spending summers in a desert or the arctic. Enduring snake bites, sun burns, or mind-numbing tedium. And all for the opportunity to stand in front of peers and have the work subjected to brutal criticism.

    Now place next to these real scientists the faux scientists from various religious propaganda mills such as the Discovery Institute.* The associates from the latter seem adept at quote mining, politicking, and marketing but not so much the back-breaking physically demanding work. Paper cuts, not snake bites, are their occupational hazard.

    * Isn’t it interesting that every time there is a fantastic new discovery announced, the scientists involved are never from the Discovery Institute? What exactly do they discover at the Discovery Institute?

  10. Michael Heath

    I watched the one hour special on Ardipithecus tonight. The format was the lead scientists sitting around a table where they mainly answered questions from moderator/host Paula Zahn.

    For this layman, I thought this filled in most but not all the questions left begging in the two hour special. Therefore, I highly recommend watching it after watching the two hour special.

    Probably the biggest eureka moment for me when watching this special was the fact that the reduction in canines happened with our still having chimp-size brains. The idea that males with uncharacteristically small canines turned what initially appears to be a negative mutation into the predominant canine feature within Ardi’s population due to their hypothesized ingenuity in overcoming a perceived short-coming, with a chimp-size brain no less, is my eureka moment of this find. That’s a life lesson still worthy of our consideration. I would have predicted we lost our canines during the period our brains were exploding in size or due to change in diet. While we obviously didn’t select out all young male violence, the fact that we did enough to lose large canines is really stunning.

    I would have liked Doctors White or Lovejoy to describe Ardipithecus’ canines to Australopithecus’, especially since I thought at least Afarnensis had robust canines displaying sexual dimorphism though not as much as other apes. Did Ardipithecus have more modern canines that regressed by the time of Lucy based on subsequent behavior changes from those two eras? I hope to encounter such a comparison soon.

  11. Roxie

    Watched the 2 hr special and the 1 hour after show. Fantastic. Did anyone catch Tim White’s statement about the need to discard the old creation myths and accept the scientific evidence? Priceless. The discovery of Ardi with her feet being chimp-like and still walking upright indicates that the species had not long been bipedal but obviously long enough that the hands were adapted for a use other than knuckle walking. I was thinking that the reduction in the canine teeth (formerly used a a weapon) might mean that the hands had become adapted as holders of a substitute weapon such as a club. This makes more sense to me than just carrying food to females. The males were still much larger than females and could force sex whenever they wanted it. Much more likely that they were learning to use hand-held weapons effectively for hunting purposes and against each other. Doesn’t sound as nice as carrying food, but in their environment, it would seem more practical.

    An item that was not touched on was body hair. The artist’s sketch of her showed full body hair. If we initially started evolving in a forest and not the savannah, when did the reduction in body hair begin and why? When did our bodies change so that we sweat like we do now? Would love to know those answers. Bones don’t always answer every question unfortunately.

  12. wulfmankarl

    Funny video: Darwin serenades Ardi “My Funny Hominid”…he bags on creationists too


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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