Metadata: 2015 | TV-PG | 1h 53m
Genre: Documentary, Science & Discovery
Why I watched: My parents and sister Julie told me this was probably the best NOVA episode they'd ever watched—and that's saying something! Julie has *loved* NOVA and Nature ever since a special on the ancient Egyptians captured her interest as a tiny little tot. I watched this because I trust her taste, and because I (like many of you, probably!) was looking for something a little different than my usual watchlist of sit-coms and HBO originals and superhero shows.
You might also like: If the origins of early humans and evolution isn't your thing, then check out this fun Nature episode that follows the discovery of a gigantic dinosaur in Patagonia. ALSO ALSO ALSO, Jurassic Park —the original!—just came to Netflix. In fact! So did Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Jurassic Park III. Watch those!
This NOVA and National Geographic special has it all: it's suspenseful, educational, captivating (can you say "plot-twist"?), and features a kickin' team of lady paleoarcheologists. When a couple of recreational climbers discover ancient remains deep in a nearly inaccessible chamber in South Africa, famous paleoanthropologist Lee Berger directs a full-scale excavation of the site. But the shaft of the cave is so narrow—only seven inches wide!—that very few people people—much less those with the proper qualifications!—could physically navigate it. Berger puts out a call on Facebook for experienced paleontologists, archeologists, anthropologists, and more, who are physically very slender and who have climbing experience. Surprise, surprise, nearly everyone who applies for the gig is a woman! This documentary follows the excavation carried out by these incredible researchers and their efforts to place their discovery in the history of human evolution.
Though that area of South Africa (about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg) has long been considered the Cradle of Humankind, it had been decades since any big discoveries had been made there. In 1924 the remains of a juvenile Australopithecus africanus were discovered there by Raymond Dart, and this find was followed by the discovery of an adult Australopithecus africanus in 1947. The nearby Rising Star Cave system, which includes the Dinaledi Chamber (chamber of stars), is the site of Berger's 2013 excavation of the remains of 15 members of an extinct hominin species called Homo naledi.
Unsurprisingly, returning to the "Dawn of Humanity"—a time when when our primitive ancestors began to take on more human-like characteristics than ape-like ones—is useful for considering our current circumstances. Near the end of the documentary, Berger gestures to the beautiful African landscape behind him and explains that early humans and their ancestors survived harsh conditions for one reason: cooperation. "We don't have big canines or sharp claws," he says. "We only had each other." Friends, let's take a lesson from our ancient ancestors: in order to survive and evolve, we must cooperate. Survival of the fittest doesn't mean that the most ruthless species survives. In the case of humans, evolution favored and rewarded collaboration.
Caring for others is not a liability; it's an essential characteristic of human survival. Happy streaming!