2001: A Space Odyssey opens 4 million years in the past on a species of early hominids that haven't developed a single tool or language. No spaceships, no androids, no virtual realities. Heck, there's not even a robotic dinosaur clomping around the savanna.
Instead, Kubrick opens his film with the equivalent of a prehistoric nature documentary. You half expect David Attenborough to be narrating as the hominids forage for food, try to evade the predators, and get uppity with the tapirs.
The question many first-time 2001 viewers have here is why? Why does a movie that sits so high on the top science fiction films lists begin in such a science-free era?
Before we discuss their purpose in 2001, let's get a few details out of the way.
We refer to these human ancestors as "the hominids" or "early hominids." Technically speaking, a hominid is any member of a family of erect bipedal primates, and this classification includes gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. It doesn't just refer to our prehistoric ancestors. In fact, humans still qualify as hominids today, so feel free to give our tree-dwelling relatives a great-big welcome-to-the-family next time you see them.
The film's hominids are likely members of Australopithecus afarensis, an extinct species hominid that lived between 3 and 4 million years ago. These guys provide the earliest evidence of tool use and meat eating, and the famous fossil Lucy was one of them. We wanted to simplify things though, as "early hominids" is way easier to say and doesn't make our spellchecker bug out as much.
Also, while studying up on 2001, you might notice the name "Moon-Watcher" pop up here and there. Moon-Watcher is the name of a specific man-ape played by Daniel Richter, and he's the hominid who simultaneously invented tools and the game of Whack-a-Mole when he smashed a skeleton with a bone.
In Clarke's novelization of the story, Moon-Watcher is the point-of-view character for the prehistory section of the story, but in the film, we view this section of the story as being about the evolution of humans as a group.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes once described the life of man as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." If the opening scene to 2001 been around in his day, he could have shortened his famous quote by saying, "Basically that."
The key thing to take away from these opening scenes is how stark and difficult life is for our early hominid ancestors. They scrape by, picking leaves off withered bushes and ticks and mites off each others' backs. They're so nonthreatening that the tapirs barely pay them any mind and leopards can attack them without fear.
The scene where the early hominid groups fight each other over the water hole sums up the evolutionary struggle at play here. The water hole is tiny, more mud than actual water, but in this dry and unyielding environment, having access to such a valuable resource is worth fighting over. Although most of the fighting is literal chest thumping, it shows the lengths these pre-humans must go to to survive.
For the human race, this is a time when evolution and the survival of the fittest wasn't an abstract notion discussed in biology class before heading home for a weekend of binge-watching Orange is the New Black reruns on Netflix. It was a fact of life.
One day, the early hominids wake up to discover that a giant black monolith has mysteriously appeared in front of them. This scene lays the groundwork for images, themes, and plot points to come later in the movie, and its purpose is susceptible to differing interpretations of the film.
But for our purpose of analyzing the hominids, we need to consider how they interact with the object. They're scared at first, but ultimately their curiosity wins out and they draw closer to the object. Curiosity is a characteristic shared by the film's key characters. Floyd touches the monolith in a similar fashion, and Bowman's curiosity leads him into the Star Gate. This is one of the many links the film makes between the spacefaring characters and our prehistoric ancestors.
As they approach the monolith, they lie down in front of it and begin to touch it with a sense of both foreboding and reverence. The imagery, mixed with Ligeti's Requiem gives the scene a sense of religious significance. Maybe the film is suggesting that this encounter with the unknown is ultimately what led to the birth of religion, and that we've been unconsciously carrying this moment around with us as a species ever since.
Speculation aside, it's clearly implied that the contact with the monolith begins to change these hominids, even if the exact details remain a mystery. This leads us to—
The Evolution Revolution
The most important development of this section of the story is the invention of the tool and technology by our ancient ancestors. When Moon-Watcher stands over a tapir's bones, he cocks his head slightly, and if this were a cartoon, a big light bulb would flash over his head. He lifts a bone and smashes it down on top of the skull, shattering it to pieces while "Also Sprach Zarathustra" plays triumphantly in the background. We know the scene's important because it goes all slo-mo on us.
These guys have taken their first evolutionary steps to becoming human beings, and it wasn't the development of language, agriculture, or civilization that made the step possible, but rather the invention of tools. In this way, the movie seems to be subtly suggesting that what makes us human, the key defining feature that makes us who we are, is our ability to create technologies. So let's all move to Mountain View, CA this minute.
Using the new bone club—patent pending—our early ancestors are able to dominate the natural world as never before. They kill tapirs and eat meat for the first time, and this protein-rich diet gives them more strength and also feeds their developing gray matter. Not to mention earning them a fortune from their three-volume Paleo Diet book series.
After enough of them have learned to use the bone club, they go back to the watering hole and kick butt on the group that took it from them earlier. When the rival alpha male attacks, they beat him to death with their clubs and scare off the group. Didn't take long to invent warfare, then.
During this scene, notice that the hominids with clubs have begun to stand up straighter and more human-like than the hominids without, who still slouch in more ape-like postures. It's a nice image showing how the development of tools has begun to lead to the evolutionary path that will eventually result in modern humans.