As a fan of all things human evolution-related, I have generally found movies about the distant past to be smh-worthy (I’m looking at you, 10,000 B.C.).
So imagine my surprise when I realized I was finally watching a beautifully executed film about, essentially, our early hominin ancestors.
I was on a plane, it was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I’ve been a fan of the new trilogy ever since. I loved Dawn and was stoked for War, despite a mild fear that it would be the one to degrade the franchise into a frantic two-hour battle scene (a gloriously misguided fear as it turns out). I was excited to come back because the Apes movies are where I get to space out and imagine I’m watching Australopithecus africanus, or even Homo erectus, in action.
A crazy thought, or was I on to something? To find out, I spoke to a few of the people who would know best: paleoanthropologist and Nat Geo Explorer Lee Berger; performance-capture legend Andy Serkis, who plays the ape hero, Caesar; and Karin Konoval, who plays Maurice, the wise old orangutan.
From Ape to Human
Having played Caesar from chimpanzee infant given brain-boosting drugs to respected elder apesman, Andy Serkis has likely spent more time moving and thinking like someone between ape and human than anyone other than Big Foot.
I asked him if he ever looked at our early hominin ancestors and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be one of them. He said that he and Terry Notary, the ape movement coach for all the actors, are “fascinated by human evolution in that respect. We have even done a test piece where I played that next stage—somewhere between ape and human … I almost feel that Caesar is closer to human in a sense.”
That’s why he says it was important to him that he wasn’t just “mimicking ape behavior.” He “always approached Caesar as a human in an ape’s skin.”
And that may be why Caesar comes off so convincingly—and why you can take him as a proxy for extinct species. The latest fossil finds are showing that our actual ancestors may also have felt like us before they looked like us.
Homo naledi, described by Berger and his team in 2015, might be the best example: an apelike creature in some respects (it had a brain the size of an orange) that apparently acted like us in at least one significant way—disposing of its dead in cave chambers reserved for that use.
Serkis says that in some ways he thought of the young Caesar as similar to a young virtuoso pianist, precocious mathematician, or gifted child. All the differences aside, that kind of sounds like Homo naledi as well—a species whose behavior is developing faster than its body.
Caesar really begins to turn heads when he starts to speak, for instance, when he refuses to obey a command by uttering “no” in what Serkis calls an “emotionally charged, apelike way.” We can watch that scene and imagine it playing out for our ancestors with any number of first words that expanded their vocalizations beyond standard calls.
But we’re not the only animals to create and give meaning to specific sounds. National Geographic Explorer Karl Berg has found that green parrotlets assign individual contact calls to each of their offspring, and some dolphins have also been shown to use names. Who knows what else is going on out there?
In the second movie, which takes place ten years later, Serkis explains, “we see this big transformation. He’s become not only a more mature adult chimpanzee, he’s also evolving his cognitive and linguistic skills. He’s increasingly more emotionally articulate, constructing sentences that are not just driven out of an emotional urge but are thought through.”
At this point, we can presume Caesar would no longer fit in on Twitter.
One thing we can’t presume is what species of hominin would have first spoken that way. One clue would be the discovery of hyoid bones of earlier species. The hyoid is a small, fragile, rarely preserved part of the voice box, and some scientists figure that if a species had a hyoid like ours, it probably had the same vocal flexibility as us and would have been capable of speech. If it had an apelike hyoid, it couldn’t have produced enough different sounds to have an elaborate vocabulary. A counter argument is that the lips and tongue can add a lot of variety to any single sound produced by the throat.
Of course, speech or no speech, an early hominin might still have had elaborate humanlike thoughts and might even have expressed them in sign language, something that’s also illustrated well in the Apes films.
Whereas Caesar makes a struggle and a point of developing verbal speech, most of the other apes stick with signs. By the third film, we’ve seen it handled so casually for so long that it doesn’t even seem unusual. That’s invaluable for helping to visualize the possibilities of the experiences of our early ancestors.
Using sounds or hand signs, once our ancestors developed enough language, they were also able to convey more complex thoughts—and even thoughts about thoughts. Caesar, too. This is where Serkis says the ape begins to get into philosophical and moral questioning. “He begins to use empathy to structure this ape society and to create tenets like ‘Ape shall not kill ape,’ ‘Knowledge is power,’ and ‘Apes together, strong.’”
By the third film, Serkis felt Caesar’s apeness was handled clearly enough by his appearance. “I purposely made him much more humanlike in every way,” the actor said. “The way he would sit down. They way that he would stand. The way he strokes his brow when he’s under pressure.” And we know how strange it can be to see an actual chimp mimic human behavior, such as sitting in a chair or drinking from a glass.
It goes to show how distracting anatomy can be when we try to imagine the physical capabilities or interior life of a creature. If we can so easily think of a chimp as practically human just because of the way it sits or strokes its brow, we should remember, as we look at human ancestors, that apelike body parts don’t necessarily indicate apelike behavior.
“We are closer to our cousins than we choose to believe,” Serkis continues. “That’s why human rights for apes is becoming a big issue and is so important. I think that what is extraordinary about this metaphor of a planet of apes is that it asks these moral questions about how we have the ability to objectify the other and to see ourselves as a supreme species. And you see what damage we do to the planet the moment that we do that.”
Meeting of the Minds
Other recent discoveries are showing that some very different hominin species survived to share the Earth for a time with modern humans. That means that while Planet of the Apes might not be our actual future, it was in fact our past.
“We used to think it ridiculous: What would it be like to be on planet Earth with another sentient [creature]?” hominin-fossil finder Lee Berger asked. “It’s intriguing to think that it almost certainly occurred. And not only in a single situation, but at the very least in three and possibly five situations that we now know of.”
These five possible Planet of the Apes moments would be modern humans (who appear as early as 300,000 years ago in Morocco) meeting hulking Neanderthals (who lasted till about 48,000 years ago) in the Near East and Europe, Denisovans (close Neanderthal relatives) in central and eastern Asia, tiny “hobbits” on the island of Flores (up until at least 50,000 years ago), cave-loving Homo naledi in South Africa (first samples dated to between 230,000 and 330,000 years ago), and even the old titan of evolution Homo erectus itself. There are some contested dates from Southeast Asia that put H. erectus, which first appears two million years ago, surviving to less than 20,000 years ago. That’s a lot of overlap.
It was likely surprising for explorers in historic times to encounter unknown human cultures for the first time, but Berger thinks meeting new species would have been “staggering.”
“Can you imagine the difficulty of that? To realize that the things that you feel separate you from the animal kingdom don’t? The entire first half of the  movie was the astronauts trying to cope with the impact of that.
“Our ancestors did it in real time. We’re now doing it through paleoanthropology.”
Those encounters, said Berger, “would have likely one of two effects given that we’re alone on the planet today: either we absorb them through interbreeding or we out-breed, out-play, out-smart, or out-disease [the other species].”
Epic battles and killing aren’t likely to have been necessary because the things we do inadvertently are devastating enough for other species. It’s often only through a concerted effort on our part that other large-bodied species, or even other human cultures, are able to persist in a landscape humans move into.
Touching on that, Serkis says the latest film “is really about empathy and connecting us to that notion that we are perilously close to not having empathy for our own kind—even just different cultures, different people—let alone different species and the planet itself.”
Our Planet, With Apes
Karin Konoval has plenty of empathy for other species.
When she got the role of Maurice in the first new Apes films, she began visiting some relatively nearby orangutans at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. They didn’t just inform her performance. They also opened her eyes to just how intelligent real-life apes are.
And she’s not alone on the set. The series’ creators and producers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, writer Mark Bomback, director Rupert Wyatt, and writer/director Matt Reeves, all grounded the films with a deep respect for each of the great ape species and for the ape characters themselves. That appreciation of our fellow primates even extended to a partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute to provide care for rescued chimpanzees at Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in Republic of Congo.
“My sense of what I’ve brought to Maurice through all three films has been that anything he does, I’ve already observed in the orangutans that I’ve gotten to know over the past six years,” she said. “And I mean that sincerely.”
She continues, “I actually feel that their level of intelligence is so extreme, their sentience is so high, and they are such observant apes, that without receiving any of the drugs that the characters in the Apes movies receive, they are already doing very sophisticated thinking and are incredibly creative and technically adapted in all kinds of ways.”
That level of understanding is so high that her greater concern isn’t about making Maurice seem smart enough but about making sure it’s clear he’s still a nonhuman primate.
“I can’t lose his physical integrity because then it would look ridiculous,” she confesses. It’s especially tricky in scenes where Maurice walks upright. “If I stand up too far,” she says, “I can feel I’ve lost his orangutan integrity.”
Orangutan integrity. Definitely worth holding onto.
With individual personalities so clear in the Apes movies and in the living apes around us today, it makes me wonder how close we are to learning individual stories from our extinct ancestor species.
“I think we’re a ways away from that,” Berger says when I ask about it. “But due to [the multiple well-preserved skeletons of] Austalopithecus sediba and naledi, and some other finds like Sima de los Huesos, we’re reaching a stage where we’re beginning to story-tell around who each of those individuals were, and what was affecting them during life. The more the science progresses, the more we know about an individual’s lifespan—so the storytelling is going to become more and more like what we see in archaeology, where you wonder over what happened to this individual. And that’s kind of cool.”
End of the Article of the Planet of the Apes
At the end of all our conversations, it was a sense of the individual creature and his or her story that seemed to come out paramount in terms of our ability to identify with them, and imagine them living and acting in their world.
The surprising realization though, was that you don’t have to concoct a science-fiction epic, or try to imagine too much of what things were like in the past. If you just open your eyes and open your perspective to the animals that we share the planet with now, you see that there are already other beings here entirely worthy of respect and consideration as individuals—and as other people.
“Bingo,” Karin Konoval replied. Through acting in these films, she said, “I actually wound up opening a door for myself. I still feel like I’m at the tip of the iceberg and I will be a student of orangutans for the rest of my life now.”
I wonder if she’ll get an “Apes together, strong” tattoo.
(War for the Planet of the Apes is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, a division of 21st Century Fox, which is a partner of the National Geographic Society in the joint venture National Geographic Partners, LLC.)