The Ascent of Man episode 1 – Lower than the Angels

The Ascent of Man episode 1 - Lower than the Angels

The Ascent of Man episode 1 – Lower than the Angels – From the vast, open horizons of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, Jacob Bronowski embarks on a compelling narrative in the first episode. This valley, with its rich tapestry of history and geology, is believed to be the birthplace of humankind, the stage upon which our earliest ancestors first set foot. Bronowski artfully dives into the intricate tapestry of our evolutionary path, shedding light on the unique attributes that set us apart from all other creatures: our capacity for foresight and our boundless imagination.



As the narrative unfolds, we are taken on an epic odyssey, following the resilient footsteps of early humans. From the sun-drenched African savannas, crossing vast, unforgiving deserts where sand and time stretch infinitely, we are then plunged into the stark, frozen heart of the Ice Age. This is not just a story of survival but a testament to our species’ indomitable spirit and our insatiable curiosity about the world around us. Join Bronowski as he charts this awe-inspiring journey, revealing the essence of what it truly means to be human.



The magnificent Great Rift Valley, a geological wonder, spans an impressive distance of over 3,000 miles, meandering its way through several African nations including Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. This vast and ancient valley system is not just a marvel of nature but also a treasure trove of historical significance. It holds deep within its bounds vital keys to unraveling the intricate tapestry of human evolution, making it the perfect location for Bronowski’s profound pilgrimage.

Circa 2 million years in the past, this very terrain was traversed by early hominins such as Australopithecus, who began to walk upright, signaling a groundbreaking shift in the evolutionary journey of mankind. The fossilized remnants unearthed at renowned sites like the Olduvai Gorge and the shores of Lake Turkana offer compelling and tantalizing glimpses into the lives and times of our long-gone ancestors.


The Ascent of Man episode 1 – Lower than the Angels – The Cradle of Humanity


Jacob Bronowski begins the inaugural episode in the breathtaking Great Rift Valley of East Africa, recognized widely as the cradle of humanity. Here, he delves deep into the captivating journey of human evolution, highlighting our species’ unparalleled abilities – foresight and imagination. As the narrative unfolds, Bronowski chronicles humanity’s incredible voyage from the heart of Africa, braving unforgiving deserts and enduring the chilling challenges of the Ice Age.

The Great Rift Valley stretches over 3,000 miles, passing through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. This ancient valley system contains crucial clues to understanding the origins of humankind, making it an ideal location for Bronowski’s pilgrimage. Around 2 million years ago, early hominins like Australopithecus walked upright here, representing a pivotal step in human evolution. Fossil discoveries in places like Olduvai Gorge and Lake Turkana provide tantalizing evidence of our distant ancestors.

Bronowski marvels at how humankind emerged in this harsh landscape. He contrasts the valley’s parched conditions with the biblical imagery of the Garden of Eden. Yet despite its austerity, Bronowski recognizes this as “the navel of the world” – humanity’s birthplace. Here, thanks to a unique geological structure, sediments built up in clearly defined strata spanning millions of years. This provides a visible timeline of hominin evolution, bringing our ancestry into sharp focus.

The Path to Humankind

To trace humanity’s origins even further back, Bronowski utilizes primitive computer graphics to transition between pivotal ancestral skulls. He starts with an ancient lemur from 50 million years ago, already displaying hints of primate characteristics – forward-facing eyes and reduced snout. Over successive frames, Bronowski incrementally shapeshifts through milestone creatures like Proconsul, lining the pathway from ape-like ancestors to early hominins of just 5 million years ago.

A key distinguishing feature was the reduction in canine teeth size around 15 million years ago, signaling a shift away from biting power. This enabled the eventual development of proto-humans adept at detailed hand manipulation. By 2 million years ago, skilled tool-making was underway. The famous Taung Child skull discovered in South Africa revealed upright posture and our trademark rounded cranium. Brain size steadily grew over thousands of generations.

Bronowski personally helped analyze the Taung Child, catalyzing his fascination with human origins. He marvels at how mathematical techniques let him form connections across vast expanses of time. Participating in revolutionary discoveries evoked feelings of wonder at humanity’s long evolutionary journey. For Bronowski, the Taung Child encapsulates the essence of humankind – perpetually curious, forging ahead into the unknown.

The Mind of Man

What ultimately sets humanity apart? According to Bronowski, our unique gifts are imagination and foresight. These interconnected cognitive abilities allowed early humans to break free from biological constraints and forge their own destiny. Through cultural evolution, humans actively shaped their environment rather than passively adapting to it.

Bronowski illustrates this concept with a pole vaulter – marveling at the technical expertise and mental focus required. More impressive than the physicality is the vaulter’s capacity to envision the outcome and meticulously plan each step leading to it. This mastery of both imagination and foresight is quintessentially human. Biological advantages like opposable thumbs were important prerequisites, but our mental capabilities unlocked true greatness.

The inception of tools and language provided key outlets for these talents. Rudimentary stone tools date back over 2 million years, coinciding with larger brain size in human ancestors. Spearheads and harpoons emerged later, implying advanced cognitive skills like strategic thinking. Language enabled cooperative hunting and transmission of ideas between generations. Through compounding knowledge, humans became the ultimate generalist species – able to conquer new environments through innovation rather than biological adaptation.

The Ascent Begins

At what point did our precursors truly become human? Bronowski cautions against clear-cut dichotomies, noting there were no overnight transformations. Homo erectus displayed expanded hunting skills and controlled use of fire 1 million years ago. Increased brain size, body proportions and societal organization slowly tilted the scales. Modern Homo sapiens finally emerged around 300,000 years ago – ushering in more complex tools and abstract thought.

Remarkably, for over 99% of human existence, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Our epic journey only blossomed in the last sliver of time. Why did it take so long? For Bronowski, the answer lies in population pressure. Primitive hunting could not sustain groups larger than 20 million globally. Moving into harsher northern latitudes became necessary –triggering the need for innovation. The challenges of Ice Age survival molded humanity’s intellect.

Ingenious inventions like fire, clothing and shelter enabled survival in otherwise uninhabitable environments. Domesticating dogs helped track prey herds during seasonal migrations. Improved tools conferred advantages locating scarce resources. Unlike biological changes, these cultural innovations could spread rapidly between groups. Together, they unlocked stunning population growth – empowering humankind to truly dominate the planet. Our unique cognitive gifts sparked this virtuous cycle of creativity.

The Dawn of Art

After millennia as nomads, why did humanity suddenly start creating art? In primitive caves like Altamira, Bronowski marvels at exquisite paintings vividly depicting familiar animals. He rejects simple magic or mystical explanations. For Bronowski, these represent an eruption of the imagination – a newfound ability to conjure up future scenarios. Early art provided simulations to hone skills and confront fears, allowing hunters to confront predators more confidently.

Bronowski argues these paintings embody a giant cognitive leap unique to humans – the capacity for mental time travel. By decoupling from the present moment, our ancestors could purposefully re-envision both the past and the future. Cave art provided the first tangible evidence of this ability. The paintings enabled ‘virtual’ interactions with dangerous animals on the hunters’ terms – helping overcome fears and develop strategies. They reflect an emerging sense of self – making one’s unique mark by literally leaving handprints on the cave walls.

What opened the floodgates to this artistic awakening? Bronowski again emphasizes the role of population pressure and migration. Encountering new environments demanded flexibility and confrontation with the unknown. Triggering the imagination allowed discovery of solutions to unprecedented challenges. Art, religion and even science have common roots in this deep urge to explain the world around us and exert some control over it. Unlocking the imagination was the spark that truly propelled the ascent of humankind.

The Road Ahead

Bronowski concludes by reminding us that the ascent of man is an unfinished project. Our unprecedented cultural achievements should inspire awe, but not complacency. For Bronowski, the essence of humanity is the restless striving to understand and overcome limits. He ends with a poignant warning – we now wield powers to destroy ourselves on a scale rivalling our creative capacities. The future lies in striking a balance guided by wisdom.

Ultimately, this first episode lays bare the paradoxical nature of humankind. We are neither the strongest nor fastest species. Yet our defining feature, the limitless imagination, enabled dominion over the natural world. How we choose to steer this power will define our destiny from here on. Will we replicate the small-mindedness of our primitive past? Or rise to the enlightened heights our forebears dreamed of? The next steps along the ascent beckon.


In this first episode of The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski takes us on an enthralling journey tracing the origins of our species. He highlights how humanity distinguished itself through imaginative powers like foresight, allowing rapid adaptation using tools and culture. Milestones like fire, clothing and language unlocked exponential population growth. Art provided an outlet for creativity and confrontation with uncertainty. While biological evolution proceeded gradually, cultural evolution enabled rapid leaps.

Bronowski emphasizes that the ascent of man remains a work in progress. Our unique cognitive gifts opened up an endless frontier of possibilities – both uplifting and destructive. As the custodians of this limitless potential, our future lies in channeling it wisely. This episode provides a gripping portal into the hardships and innovations that defined humankind over millions of years. It sets the stage for the rest of the series chronicling humanity’s cultural evolution across different spheres like science, technology, politics and art. By reflecting on our past trajectory, it inspires us to venture forth boldly but thoughtfully into the undiscovered road ahead.

FAQ – The Ascent of Man episode 1 – Lower than the Angels


Q: What were some key abilities that allowed humankind to flourish?

A: According to the episode, foresight and imagination were pivotal. These let humans mentally simulate future scenarios, enabling innovation through tools and culture. Language also allowed transmission of knowledge between generations.

Q: How did early humans spread globally from Africa?

A: Population pressure in Africa forced migration to find new hunting grounds. This expansion into harsher northern environments stimulated new cultural innovations to aid survival.

Q: When did Homo sapiens first emerge?

A: Anatomically modern humans appeared around 300,000 years ago in Africa, characterized by increased brain size and cultural complexity.

Q: What theories does Bronowski propose about early cave art?

A: He argues it provided a way to simulate hunting scenarios and confront fears in a controlled setting. This reflects emerging imagination and sense of self.

Q: What overarching message does the episode convey?

A: It shows how humanity’s ascent is an unfinished journey. Our future depends on channeling the same imagination that catalyzed our progress into wisdom and restraint.

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