"We began to realize with some clarity that we had made a remarkable discovery."
That's celebrated paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey talking about the fossilized proto-human unearthed by his team in East Africa in 1984-86. According to Leakey, the not-quite-human creature probably belonged to Homo erectus, an extinct species that lived about 1.5 million years ago (though other experts describe "Turkana boy' as an example of Homo ergaster). In any case, Turkana boy is the focus of "Bones of Turkana," a one-hour National Geographic special that premieres on PBS tonight at 10 p.m. EST.
"It wasn't us, but it was a big advance on what lived earlier in Africa," Leakey explains in this clip from the video, in which computer-generated imagery morphs the incomplete skeleton into an eerie, ghostlike avatar.
The bones are believed to have belonged to a pre-pubescent male between nine and 11 years of age, Leakey told The Huffington Post in an interview. The creature stood about 5'6" and had a brain about the size of a human two-year-old's.
What else do we know about Turkana boy?
The bones suggest the boy was bipedal, Leakey told HuffPost Science. And since the muscular energy required to walk upright generates significant body heat, we can assume that his body was essentially hairless--like that of Homo sapiens. Perspiration cools the body more efficiently if the skin is exposed to air than if it's covered with hair.
The creature depicted in the video has dark skin. Leakey—a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.—said that was probably an accurate depiction. If Homo erectus was essentially hairless, individuals "would have needed a lot of melanin to protect against the strong sunlight."
Want to see Turkana boy's avatar in action? Check out the video.