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The History Channel’s “Ape to Man”—Tales they will Tell

by Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

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On Sunday, August 7, 2005, the History Channel aired a program titled “Ape to Man.” The premise? We now have enough pieces of scientific evidence to determine conclusively the origin of mankind. The opening statement of the program proclaimed: “Where do we come from? For centuries the greatest question in the history of science had no scientific answer” (“Ape to Man,” 2005). The narrator then affirmed: “This is the story of the quest to find the origins of the human race.... Now from the tiniest fragments of the past, the full story is finally pieced together.” The underlying message for the viewer was clear. They wanted everyone to know we now have the answers! And since this is history, what better place to air this “documentary” that answers “the greatest question in the history of science” than the History Channel? Countless millions were spent producing and advertising this special presentation, and a myriad of individuals tuned in to learn their answer to the question: “Where do we come from?” But did viewers get a scientific answer or Hollywood propaganda? In the conclusion of his opening statements, the narrator observed: “The search for the origins of humanity will be the story of bones and the tales they tell.”

Tales indeed if the History Channel has anything to do with it!

From the recounting narrated in this production, one would assume that director Nic Young and his crew simply walked back in time with their cameras, and taped remarkable footage of these alleged ape-like creatures. The make-up, scenery, and story-telling are superb. But how many young people will recognize it as simply that—story-telling. From a scientific viewpoint, exactly how much can one tell from fossilized bones?

Consider some of the speculative claims made by the producers of “Ape to Man.” They introduce the discovery of Homo erectus, and mention that it was about this time that body hair started disappearing. In rationalizing this new creature without much hair, the narrator continued: “Partly because Homo erectus skin has developed complex sweat glands. This also removes the need to pant in the heat, allowing voices to develop, paving the way for human speech” (“Ape to Man,” 2005). We must surely ask: exactly how and why did this creature evolve “complex sweat glands?” Is it logical in an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” world that skin, a biological protective layer that prevents bacteria from infecting internal organs, would simply evolve pores/holes so that liquid can slowly seep out to cool the body? Additionally, how did this creature evolve the complex thermoregulatory mechanism used to control the production of sweat? Would it not make more sense for this creature to simply migrate to a cooler region? Furthermore, how do fossilized remains indicate a creature “panted?” The answer is: they do not. From an anatomical and physiological perspective, how would losing hair initiate the evolutionary addition of vocal folds, complex laryngeal muscles used to tighten or loosen the vocal cords, and nerve innervations making speech possible? Has this development ever been observed in other animals in science? Absolutely not! If losing hair is the first step that “paves the way” for human speech, should we not see similar patterns in other hairless animals (i.e., hairless rodents) that roam the globe today?

Also commenting on Homo erectus, the narrator mentioned that this group “stayed together as a tight knit family....” and that “there is evidence that they had learned to care for each other through sickness and injury.” Again, the question must be asked: how did they discern this from the “tales that bones tell?” The show mentioned a single fossilized bone that was discovered that showed signs of healing. However, scientists would agree that properly aligned broken bones that are non-weight-bearing will begin the healing process. Does finding a healed bone provide scientific proof that there was a group known as Homo erectus who cared for one another, or is this simply scientific evidence that bones have the ability to heal?

Adding just enough “Hollywood” to keep the viewing audience interested, the producers then show a small group of Homo erectus creatures huddled together during a thunderstorm. The narrator then wildly speculated on how this creature “tamed fire,” after which lightening is shown hitting a tree and the Homo erectus group “conquers their internal fears,” walking off with burning tree limbs. But even if one were to assume for a moment that these alleged creatures reached out and took a burning limb, does this mean they now had an innate ability to start fires at will? Or are we to believe they kept this fire going long enough to pass it on to all the other groups in that species? Yet, the narrator was sure that this creature was the one that tamed fire. All of this from just a few bone fragments.

The next creature introduced is Raymond Dart’s Taung child (Australopithecus africanus). After admitting on the show that this creature was very much ape-like, director Nic Young and his crew display Taung’s mother down by a body of water eating out of a dead animal carcass. The narrator proclaimed that this creature used “rocks to break open bones for the rich marrow” inside (“Ape to Man,” 2005). They further speculate how the mother looked upward to watch an eagle carrying away her young child—the kidnapped ape-like creature which later became Dart’s fossilized “Taung child.” The producers of this “historical” documentary forgot to mention that in 1973 a geologist from South Africa, T.C. Partridge, used thermo luminescence analysis of calcite, as well as uranium dating methods, to date the cave from which the Taung skull had come (1973, 246:75-79; see also Tattersall, et al., 1988, p. 571; Klein, 1989, p. 113). Whereas the Taung child was alleged to be at least two million years old, Dr. Partridge’s data indicated that, according to standard evolutionary dating methods, the cave could not have been any older than 0.87 million years. But this finding contradicts the evolutionary timeline. It would mean that Taung child lived with Homo erectus and close to Neanderthal man— creatures which, according to evolutionists, had extremely large brains. How do you have such a small brained creature after these alleged ape-like creatures have already begun to evolve such big brains?

The History Channel then declares that in order to find the real missing link, we must go back even further in time. And so, with a dramatic story about Donald Johanson’s famous find, they introduce the most famous of all the alleged missing links—“Lucy.” [For a complete analysis of Lucy’s fossilized remains see The Truth About Lucy(pdf)].

In their assessment of Lucy, one of the interviewee’s for the History Channel, Professor Leslie Aiello, Head of Graduate School, University College in London, noted that Lucy looked basically like a chimpanzee. The narrator then went on to assert that “the big difference is the way she walks, and it makes all the difference in the world. Walking upright is the first piece in our evolutionary puzzle, the first step on the road to humanity” (“Ape to Man,” 2005). Yet, if this is the case, scientific evidence would indicate that Lucy never made this first step.

If Lucy were a biped, her upper and lower extremities would point toward an upright stance. However, the bony framework that composes Lucy’s wrists reveals a different posture. Brian Richmond and David Strait of George Washington University in Washington D.C. experienced what many might call a “Eureka!” moment while going through some old papers on primate physiology at the Smithsonian Institute.

    “We saw something that talked about special knuckle walking adaptations in modern African apes,” Dr. Richmond said. “I could not remember ever seeing anything about wrists in fossil hominids.... Across the hall was a cast of the famous fossil Lucy. We ran across and looked at it and bingo, it was clear as night and day” (see “Ancestors Walked...,” 2000).

The March 29, 2000, San Diego Union Tribune reported:

    A chance discovery made by looking at a cast of the bones of “Lucy,” the most famous fossil of Australopithecus afarensis, shows her wrist is stiff, like a chimpanzee’s, Brian Richmond and David Strait of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., reported. This suggests that her ancestors walked on their knuckles (Fox, 2000).

Richmond and Strait discovered that knuckle-walking apes have a mechanism that locks the wrist into place in order to stabilize this joint. In their report, they noted: “Here we present evidence that fossils attributed to Australopithecus anamensis (KNM-ER-20419) and A. afarensis (AL 288-1) retain specialized wrist morphology associated with knuckle-walking” (2000, 404:382, parenthetical items in orig.). They went on to note:

Pre-bipedal locomotion is probably best characterized as a repertoire consisting of terrestrial knuckle-walking, arboreal climbing and occasional suspensory activities, not unlike that observed in chimpanzees today. This raises the question of why bipedalism would evolve from an ancient ancestor already adapted to terrestrial locomotion, and is consistent with models relating the evolution of bipedalism to a change in feeding strategies and novel non-locomotor uses of the hands” (p. 384).

Additionally, Fred Spoor and colleagues decided to evaluate the vestibular apparatus of the inner ear—an area designed to help coordinate body movements and maintain balance. Modern human locomotor activity requires that the vestibular apparatus of the inner ear be able to maintain body posture, even though we are constantly balancing all of our weight on very small areas of support. Anyone who has suffered vertigo knows firsthand just how crucial this area is for balance and everyday activities. Using high-resolution computed tomography, Spoor, et al., were able to generate cross-sectional images of the bony labyrinth that comprised the inner ear of some of these alleged ape-like creatures. They wrote: “Among the fossil hominids, the earliest species to demonstrate the modern human morphology is Homo erectus. In contrast, the semicircular canal dimensions in crania from southern Africa attributed to Australopithecus [Lucy—BH] and Paranthropus resemble those of the extant great apes” (1994, 272:645, emp. added). With that single declaration, Spoor and his colleagues have drawn a line which unequivocally states that all fossils allegedly dated prior to Homo erectus have ape-like morphology that allowed them to climb trees, swing from branches, or walk hunched over on their knuckles.

Donald Johanson, in an honest assessment of his search for the missing link between apes and man noted:

    There is no such thing as a total lack of bias. I have it; everybody has it. The fossil hunter in the field has it.... In everybody who is looking for hominids, there is a strong urge to learn more about where the human line started. If you are working back at around three million, as I was, that is very seductive, because you begin to get an idea that that is where Homo did start. You begin straining your eyes to find Homo traits in fossils of that age.... Logical, maybe, but also biased. I was trying to jam evidence of dates into a pattern that would support conclusions about fossils which, on closer inspection, the fossils themselves would not sustain (Johanson and Edey, 1981, pp. 257,258, emp. added).

Johanson went on to confess: “It is hard for me now to admit how tangled in that thicket I was. But the insidious thing about bias is that it does make one deaf to the cries of other evidence” (p. 277).

After concluding that Lucy was in fact the oldest missing link, the show revisits the opening scene where a Neanderthal-like creature is being hunted—by modern men. They want viewers to believe that there once was a time that both species existed simultaneously. To prove that Homo sapiens and Neanderthal man were supposedly two distinct groups, they introduced a study performed in the mid-1990’s by M.A. Krings. Krings and his colleagues were able to perform DNA tests on the original Neander Valley fossils. However, his results of mtDNA research do not prove that Neanderthal was significantly different from modern humans.

A closer examination of the mtDNA research shows that it is not all it has been cracked up to be. The Krings study compared various DNA sequences from 1669 modern humans with one Neanderthal. Statistically, this comparison not only is insignificant, but also incorrect. As Lubenow wrote concerning this mtDNA research:

    Statistics has been used to cloud the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans. It is improper to use statistical “averages” in situations where many entities are being compared with only one entity. In this case, 994 sequences from 1669 modern humans are compared with one sequence from one Neanderthal. Thus, there is no Neanderthal “average,” and the comparison is not valid (1998, 12[1]:92, emp. added).

The original study showed that the Neanderthal individual had a minimum of 22 mtDNA substitution differences when compared to modern humans. Yet mtDNA substitution differences among modern humans range from 1 to 24. As Lubenow correctly noted:

    That means that there are a few modern humans who differ by 24 substitutions from a few other modern humans—two substitutions more than the Neanderthal individual. Would not logic demand that those few modern humans living today should also be placed in a separate species? To state the question is to reveal the absurdity of using such differences as a measure of species distinctions (12[1]: 92).

Furthermore, as Maryellen Ruvolo of Harvard has pointed out, the genetic variation between the modern and Neanderthal sequences is within the range of substitutions within other single species of primates. She concluded: “[T]here isn’t a yardstick for genetic difference upon which you can define a species” (as quoted in Kahn and Gibbons, 1997, 277:177). Geneticist Simon Easteal of Australian National University, noting that chimpanzees, gorillas, and other primates have much more intra-species mtDNA diversity than modern humans, wrote: “The amount of diversity between Neanderthals and living humans is not exceptional” (as quoted in Wong, 1998, 278[1]:32). The History Channel did not report accurate history, but rather tried to indoctrinate millions with Neo-Darwinism.

As the two-hour show comes to a close, Nic Young and his production team show an alleged confrontation between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. During these final scenes the narrator alleged: “The first encounter between two almost identical human species is a profound shock, and in this tough Ice Age world there is only room for one of them” (“Ape to Man,” 2005). In speaking of Homo sapiens’ eventual triumph over the Neanderthals, the narrator noted: “The evidence suggests their culture developed faster.” “Evidence”? What evidence? None is given.

He continued speaking of modern man, saying: “As they moved farther north, their appearance changed,” eventually enabling them to catch up with their “long lost cousins” the Neanderthals. In closing, the narrator remarked: “Now, for the first time in our evolutionary history, we are totally alone.”

So, we have conquered and eliminated all other hominid species. Or could it simply be—there were no other species? That from the very beginning, there has only been men and apes? While arguably retaining some entertainment value, this expensive production was anything but history. In fact, this type of Hollywood propaganda would be better suited for the Cartoon Network, or the Sci-Fi channel. If a channel purports to convey actual history, and names itself accordingly, then speculation and misinformation should be left on the editing-room floor. That’s where this production belonged. [NOTE: For an evaluation of the genuine scientific evidence regarding the origin of mankind, I would strongly encourage you to secure a copy of The Truth About Human Origins from AP: (800) 234-8558.]

 

REFERENCES

“Ancestors Walked on Knuckles” (2000), BBC News, [On-line], URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/687341.stm.

“Ape to Man” (2005), History Channel, August 7, 2005, [On-line URL: http://www.historychannel.com/apetoman/].

Fox, Maggie (2000), “Man’s Early Ancestors Were Knuckle Walkers,” San Diego Union Tribune, Quest Section, March 29.

Johanson, Donald C. and Maitland Edey (1981), Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Kahn, Patricia and Ann Gibbons (1997), “DNA from an Extinct Human,” Science, 277:176-178, July 11.

Klein, Richard (1989), The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).

Krings, M.A. Stone, R.W. Krainitzki, M. Stoneking, and S. Pääbo (1997), “Neanderthal DNA Sequences and the Origin of Modern Humans” Cell, 90:19-30, July 11.

Lubenow, Marvin (1998), “Recovery of Neandertal mtDNA: An Evaluation,” CEN Technical Journal, 12[1]:87-97.

Partridge, T.C. (1973), “Geomorphological Dating of Cave Openings at Makapansagat, Sterkfontein, Swartkans, and Taung,” Nature, 246:75-79, November 9.

Richmond, Brian G. and David S. Strait (2000), “Evidence that Humans Evolved from a Knuckle-Walking Ancestor,” Nature, 404:382-385, March 23.

Spoor, Fred, Bernard Wood, and Frans Zonneveld (1994), “Implications of Early Hominid Labyrinthine Morphology for Evolution of Human Bipedal Locomotion,” Nature, 369:645-648, June, 23.

Tattersall, Ian, Eric Dolson, and John van Couvering, eds. (1988), Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory (New York: Garland Publishing).

Wong, Kate (1998), “Ancestral Quandary,” Scientific American, 278[1]:32, January.

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