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 Its subject has been the focus of several recent TV shows and books, many of them at least partially outdated within months of appearing.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. ``We all want to know who we are,'' says Cronkite at another point. ``I want to take you back. To the very beginnings of human life.''
And that's exactly what the series does, telling us not only about the history of early humans, but the history of the subject itself. We learn of fossil discoveries that sent electric shocks through academia - like the Taung skull, which in the 1920s placed human origins in Africa rather than Asia, as previously thought. We learn of ``Lucy,'' the skeleton named after a Beatles song that was playing in the African camp when it was discovered.
Dr. William Kimbel of the Institute of Human Origins shows us the skeleton of Lucy's pelvis and explains, patiently but not patronizingly, how it proves she walked upright.
Further clues about when and how prehumans started walking are seen in a famous set of footprints made in the African earth. They were left there ``3 and 1/2 million years ago,'' Cronkite says in tones more portentous than any we have heard from him since he covered the rocket-launching that took man to his first moon walk 25 years ago.
You can't blame him for his excitement. After all, these prints are ``the smoking gun of bipedalism,'' as Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio, explains. It's a point that could easily have been lost if stated more matter-of-factly as the camera scanned the ancient trail.
OK, the eerie music and some of the graphics do get a little dramatic, but in the main, the show meets the tricky challenge of making science interesting without trivializing it.
Most important, it helps you gain a sense of the triumph of intelligence as mankind evolved. The program illustrates how many hominid species there were - some enduring a million years or more - and how just one survived. It's an instructive topic.