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Upcoming PBS Series on Human Evolution Features SBU Faculty

Fleagle wallace first peoples
Joh Shea in Omo Kabish sorts stone tools from excavation.
John Shea in Omo Kibish sorts stone tools from excavation. Photo by John Shea

The five-part PBS television documentary on human evolution, First Peoples, airs on June 24 and includes an episode on Africa that features 200,000-year-old fossils originally found in Ethiopia by world-renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey and his colleagues in the late 1960s. Leakey is a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University and chair of the Turkana Basin Institute.

Filming for the Africa episode took place in conjunction with an expedition led by Stony Brook Anthropology Professor John Shea and Distinguished Professor of Anatomical Sciences John Fleagle in January 2014 to Omo Kibish in Ethiopia — the site where Leakey’s team discovered the collection of fossils. Ian Wallace, a postdoctoral fellow in Anatomical Sciences Professor Frederick Grine’s lab, was also part of the project. The expedition was sponsored by grants from the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation and the National Geographic Society.

Fleagle, Shea and Wallace appear in the documentary as they lead the film crew and host John Hawks (from the University of Wisconsin) to fossil localities originally discovered by Leakey and discuss their importance for the origins of our species.

John Fleagle and Ian Wallace examine Kibish fossils in the National Museum of Ethiopa.
John Fleagle and Ian Wallace examine Kibish fossils in the National Museum of Ethiopa. Photo by John Shea

First Peoples examines how Homo sapiens moved around the world to become its dominant human species. Each episode focuses on a different continent — the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe — and meets the earliest Homo sapiens on each. DNA now reveals that our ancestors mated and interbred with other types of human. As a result, our species is a mix of modern and ancient humans.

“Throughout our filming, we learned that our family tree is not a simple one,” said Series Producer Tim Lambert from Wall to Wall Media. “It looks more like a bush, with interweaving branches and tangled roots. We are the product of many species that were similar and different at the same time. Using dramatic reenactments and movie-style prosthetics, we have tried to tell this compelling story and explain how our ancient ancestors survived and ultimately thrived.”

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