Walking with Cavemen

How far back can you trace your ancestry? Thanks to DNA testing, at least one resident of Cheddar, England, can connect himself to "Cheddar Man" (who died around 7000 B.C).

Meanwhile, more than 95 percent of modern Europeans are descended from one of just seven women whose lines trace back some 150,000 years. While even the most dedicated genealogists can't track a direct line back even as far as Cheddar Man, we can get a general idea of how the extreme far end of the family tree lived, through BBC's companion site to their new series, Walking With Cavemen.

Forming a trilogy with 1999's Walking With Dinosaurs, and the later Walking With Beasts, Walking With Cavemen completes this prehistoric history collection as it follows the story of human evolution.

While the website will no doubt be an added bonus to those with access to the TV series, Cavemen also has more than enough content to justify a visit from those who can't catch the series on the Beeb or local rebroadcasters. The layout of the presentation is conservative (no doubt due to an effort to maintain a consistent look across the BBC's offerings), but the lack of design frills makes it easy to keep track of which areas of the site have and haven't been surveyed.

The first site-suggested area of exploration is the Caveman Challenge - a seven-step Flash interactive which tests visitors' ability to survive their own personal evolution from ape to man. In my attempt, progress was temporarily stalled at about 2 million B.C., with the Paranthropus boisei (the dead animal carcasses that were to be my sustenance kept disappearing) but I eventually achieved a "97 percent Homo sapiens" status.

Below the Challenge, four Fact Files take closer looks at various hominid milestones - the Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, Gigantopithecus and Australopithecus afarensis. Each Fact File includes a description, a summary of the evidence of its existence, and a "identikit" that lists detail, such as the species' diet and range, and provides a handful of stills, audio and video clips, and 360-degree views of the subjects' skulls.

Other features include episode summaries of the television series and a Chronology of 3.2 million years of evolution, while an index along the left side of the home page offers more Fact Files (both human and animal), a series of four In Depth presentations ("Were the Neanderthals our ancestors?"), and a scrollable combination of timeline and Family Tree. Most pages offer additional information through collections of BBC and external links, and if your curiosity has been sufficiently aroused, there's also an invitation to enroll in the Open University's online course, " Explaining The Emergence Of Humans."

With onsite links to Walking With Dinosaurs and Beasts, a quick visit to Walking With Cavemen could easily develop into a mini-marathon, but if you've got an interest in prehistory, this is a great place to start.

Walking With Cavemen can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/cavemen/.

Jim Regan is a graphics artist and writer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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