DONALD JOHANSON : Linking Our Past

Robert Koehler is a frequent contributor to Calendar and TV Times

That Holy Grail of anthropology, the “Missing Link” between ape and human, is a misnomer.

The Missing Link was actually found in 1974. Its discoverer, anthropologist Donald C. Johanson, is the host and producer of an ambitious three-hour “Nova” documentary, “In Search of Human Origins,” airing Monday through Wednesday on PBS.

From the Great Rift Valley of central Africa--where most of the oldest human remains are found--to the caves of southern France and the outback of Australia, Johanson’s account of how the earliest human-like creatures survived and developed becomes a scientific detective story taking the viewer back 3 million years. Villard has just published Johanson and his co-producer-wife Lenora’s “Ancestors: In Search of Human Origins” (co-written with Blake Edgar) on which the documentary was based. Johanson talks with writer Robert Koehler about the challenges of the evolutionary hunt, TV-style.

Is this the first television series to show how scientists trace evolutionary development?

Actually, no. Anthropologist Richard Leakey did a series on the subject about 15 years ago. But we’re relating the state of the art, so to speak, of current scientific knowledge. We also wanted the series to be an adventure for the viewer, as we uncover clues along the way and draw as complete a picture as possible of the world our ancestors lived in. Just as important was letting the viewer participate in the work of scientists, to see what it is they do.


You’re very concerned with how “humanness” developed in our ancestors, but you also seem interested in the very human disputes among scientists profiled in the program.

In the ‘70s, when we announced the Missing Link we named “Lucy,” there was a lot of controversy, most of which circulated around Leakey and me. He and others questioned the legitimacy of our discovery. There seems to be an initiation period, when we need to look at and study fossils and bones, and arrive at conclusions. We announced Lucy in 1978, but only five years ago was a consensus reached that, as I joke, placed Lucy on man’s family tree.

What about the new debate which the series addresses?

It surrounds the “Out of Africa” theory, which contends that homonids developed in Africa, then spread through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Others dispute it. This is a very strong debate right now, and we chose two strong scientific voices to state their sides. There’s Alan Thorne, who says that development occurred in many different places, such as Australia, due to the free exchange of genes across populations. And there’s Chris Stringer, who supports the “Out of Africa” theory. In the program’s third segment, we see the arguments raging at the London Royal Academy gathering. The sides are vocally opposed, and there’s overt competition.

What was your aim with this project?

The best example is in the second segment, in which we try to show that our ancestors weren’t simply half-finished humans, nor impoverished hunter-gatherers, nor killer man-apes out of the “2001” story line, but were very well-adapted to their environment and able to survive within their own abilities. We might like to think of ourselves as having emerged from noble hunters. But what is presented here is a very different view. There’s very slim evidence that early humans were killer-hunters, and much more evidence that they were scavengers.

How does a discovery of old bones, though, offer clues to our human identity?

Leakey’s and Alan Walker’s astonishing find of Homo erectus showed us a creature with the pelvis size of Lucy, who is a much older species, but with a much larger brain size. Thus, the baby must be born immature with a small enough brain to fit through the mother’s pelvis, and then grow after birth, requiring family care and a social structure of empathy and caring. It’s so interesting that this anatomical find gives us insight into human behavior and culture.

Where does our violent urge come from then?

We can only guess, but I allude to it at the very end when I say that our modern capacity for culture has outpaced our biological evolution. What I mean is that, biologically and genetically, we are so related to chimps and gorillas and Lucy. Yet there’s been an enormous acceleration in culture and technology. I wonder if that imbalance isn’t what accounts for bizarre behavior like genocide and ethnic cleansing.


“In Search of Human Origins” airs in three parts, Monday-Wednesday, at 7 p.m. on KVCR and 8 p.m. on KCET; Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. (Part 1) and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and 8:50 p.m. (Parts 2 and 3) on KPBS.