Documenting the major fossil find in Ethiopia that has been front-page news, “Discovering Ardi” is located between “Dirty Jobs” and “Man vs. Wild” on Discovery Channel’s website, which underscores some of the schizophrenia exhibited by the network. “Ardi” squarely falls in the better-angels/”Planet Earth” category — which is to say it’s more cerebral and genuinely scientific than the youth-oriented stuff that helps pay the bills. In addition to being an engrossing forensic yarn, it’s also a terrific demonstration of just how painstaking such research is — at times, admittedly, to the detriment of its pacing.
For those who’ve managed to avoid the news, paleontologists uncovered a 4.4-million-year-old find that represents “the fossil evidence Darwin could only have dreamed of,” as the narrator puts it — an early transitional biped, nicknamed “Ardi” (short for Ardipithecus), predating the previous benchmark, the Australopithecus Lucy, by 1.2 million years.
Ardi walked on two feet, but also had an enlarged toe that helped her clamber into trees — essentially blowing up much of what we thought we knew about the evolutionary rungs between chimps or similar primates and homo sapiens.
Paleontologist Tim White and other members of the international research team — who have been at the project for more than 15 years — are interviewed, and they sound like kids in a candy store discussing the oldest hominid skeleton ever unearthed. But some of the most striking material involves digital recreations that show not only how Ardi looked, but speculate as to how she moved — and what that might mean for human evolution.
“Discovering Ardi” represents something of a throwback itself to Discovery’s roots — in the same way “Planet Earth” was — inasmuch as it’s a pure exploration of the natural world, generally minus the extraneous bells and whistles associated with much of cable’s documentary fare.
Discovery will follow this production with an hourlong discussion, “Understanding Ardi,” synergistically moderated by Paula Zahn, who has a new series coming up on Investigation Discovery.
For the sake of those who would like to see the flagship channel continue to commit programming resources to such highbrow fare, it’s worth hoping that “Ardi” uncovers an audience.