A&E Series Explores Human Evolution Aided by Experts and Host Walter Cronkite, `Ape Man' Sheds Light on a Murky Subject

Article excerpt

SILENT and contemplative, Walter Cronkite sits on the African plain with a fossil skull in hand, turning it before his eyes. You almost expect to hear "Alas, poor Yorick..." but instead, Mr. Cronkite says, "This is the skull of a modern human being.... He died about 100,000 years ago.... I wonder what he was like.... How he imagined his world."

Staged effects like that - and Cronkite's very presence - turn out to be exactly the ingredients needed in a rewarding four-part series that debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Arts & Entertainment network, airing nightly through Wednesday.

It's called "Ape Man," but don't let the Tarzan-like title mislead you. This documentary on how early humans evolved is an academic heavyweight. It taps dozens of prominent experts, was shot on location around the world - much of it in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa - and skillfully brings together the latest thinking on just how "hominids," as these early humans are called, got that way.

Prehistoric anthropology tends to trigger visions of hot, dusty digs, with fossil-hunters hunched over as they sedulously search for a scrap that might fit in the jigsaw puzzle of current evolutionary theory. There are plenty of such scenes in this show, but an arsenal of production devices - like eye-catching graphics and the program's basic skill at communicating - turns arcane data into something not just palatable but downright tasty.

The material may not have the potential for drama inherent in "Dinosaurs," an earlier series hosted by Cronkite on A&E, but at heart the ideas in "Ape Man" are even more intriguing. Its subject has been the focus of several recent TV shows and books, many of them at least partially outdated within months of appearing. This show is particularly good at seeing through the mass of minutiae and conveying the sweep of the message, the wonder and unique relevance of the material. …