AVTR-0: The Narada
Questions have arisen about how it's possible that the Na'vi, the dominant indigenous species of Pandora, fourth moon of the gas giant Polyphemus, in orbit around Alpha Centauri, nearly 4 light-years from Earth, have features very similar to humans. Though they have evolved to be larger and lither, to cope with Pandora's lower gravity and the treacherous ecosystem, they have been described as a visual mix between humans, standing erect and with similar facial and anatomical structure, and lions, with a flat, catlike snout and long, tufted tail (that has a questionable use in maintaining balance). It is especially puzzling, as the lower faunae of Pandora have very unusual, complex anatomy, including six legs, vestigial teeth, and so on. It has been suggested by modern Pandorologists and exobiologists that this is an example of an evolutionary model called "High Primate", suggesting a truly universal quality to natural selection. This does not, however, account for the Na'vi's most unique feature: their brain tendril, that can interact with the various wildlife of Pandora, from its trees to its creatures. It's truly a biological phenomenon, which remains unexplainable.
The answer, though, may be simpler than anyone realizes.
The Avatar program, as funded by the US military and Resource Development Administration (RDA), was not the first of its kind. Very few people know this, however, as the first Avatar program was a secret program. Anyone that's known about it has since died, preventing it from being known.
In the early 21st century, Polyphemus was discovered, with a number of possibly life-bearing moons orbiting it. They were too remote to send manned missions or remote probes to, though, so to study them has not been a priority of any space agency. Though exploring deep space was out of the realm of possibility, development was rapid elsewhere. By the mid-21st century, thanks in part to the continued development of "Synthia", the first synthetic life form, genetic research has reached unheard-of places. One figurehead of the rapid development of this field was prominent East Indian scientist, Chandra Navi.
He had developed many theories and experiments related to synthetic life forms, ones that could learn, solve problems, and possess high intelligence. His work had mainly been in the realm of theories and calculations, however, until he was hired by RDA for what they described as "various research and development related to Unobtanium".
Unobtanium, once an engineer's inside joke about anything that was valuable and essential to a project, but too rare and impractical to actually use, had since entered common parlance as mankind's miracle mineral. A large meteorite made from this solid ore had crashed in the Midwestern US around 2054, and it had proven to be a revolution in energy. It was a room-temperature superconductor, able to store and process electricity indefinitely, a holy grail of energy production. It solved the fossil fuel crisis, as small pieces of this boulder-sized meteor could be used as an incredible power source. Its use also helped spearhead the acceleration of technological progress, allowing the revolutionary research of figures like Chandra Navi.
Once he worked for RDA, though, he was taken out of the spotlight. He claimed to be working on "various projects" for them, but in reality, his work was dependent on one project; one that could change the course of human history.
He was developing an actual synthetic organism, made from a cocktail of the DNA of what he described as "ideal life", including humans, lions, tigers, blue tang fish, and so on. He was also developing technology that would allow them to grow predictably from the embryonic stage, to take exactly as long as it was necessary to incubate them. They could be grown in a pod, and they would grow in that pod for exactly as long as someone wanted them to, and this pod could be fully automated to bring them to term.
They would be the key to exploring the moons of Polyphemus.
This was a government program, kept in the tightest of secrecy, since synthetic life was a controversial subject, especially intelligent ones, made for this unusual use. The program itself had no name, but Dr. Navi, recalling his Hindu heritage, affectionately called it the "Narada" program, named after the messenger sage in Hindu tradition. The creatures he was developing would informally be called the Narada as well.
They were biologically tailor-made for this mission. They would be placed on an unmanned, sophisticated probe, and launched towards one of the moons of Polyphemus. They were programmed to take five years to mature in their artificial womb, being "born" just in time to land on the moon's surface once it arrived. Since its term was so long, it could be fed very minimally, and would be able to forage on Pandora once it arrived. They would be able to breathe any of the different atmospheres of the Polyphemian moons, thanks to the genetics of the animals of Earth's most inhospitable regions. Other RDA scientists installed the probe and the pods with a device that would subliminally implant all they had to know when they arrived; what they were, what they could do, what they were supposed to do, and most importantly, how to report back to their superiors. Cumbersome radio equipment was unnecessary; this was Chandra Navi's absolute masterstroke. The Narada, thanks to a particular mix of animals with strong bioelectrical and neuroelectrical features, could interface directly with their spacecraft, which would be installed as a sort of "mission control" to report back to earth. The signal would take just over four years, travelling at the speed of light, to reach earth, but the Narada would be able to report back everything: what they saw, what they heard, what they remembered, and most importantly, what they studied. They would be bred to analyze the moon, its nature, its geology, everything. They would be the most sophisticated development in space exploration since the Saturn V rocket.
Dr. Navi could barely take that he wouldn't be able to tell anyone about this.
After years of research, the Narada were ready. Twelve Narada, six male and six female (for "backups and a larger survey crew", claimed Dr. Navi), were loaded onto the spacecraft. The craft was never given a name, but Dr. Navi had secretly encoded names into each Narada, like a father names his children.
The probe was launched, and God (and the billions worth of sensitive automatic navigation equipment) willing, it would reach a Polyphemian moon. It would be years before any of them knew that the craft landed safely. They waited in earnest, but Chandra Navi was not let out of government custody, nor anyone else on the Narada program.
It would take about nine years for the craft's first transmission to reach Earth, and the news was not good. "Landing failed, specimens jettisoned and unaccounted for, severe damage to probe."
At first, the program seemed like a waste, but several of the sensors on the probe still functioned, and sent back reports. The atmospheric sensors told the composition of the air, indicating it was quite poisonous. The record of its trajectory from earth was still intact, showing that it landed on the moon of Pandora.
What most drew their attention, though, was its geological sensor. It bored deep into the planet's surface, providing a mineral study. The study exploded with reports of dense unobtanium deposits, more than they could ever imagine existed! The meteorite was still plentiful, but to have as much unobtanium as they could ever need! This caused RDA to urge for funding for a second program; one where the Narada could be surveyors and miners, and return with the goods.
The government deemed this massively impractical, sending out a craft that had to return with not only a large living crew, but also tons of cargo. Dr. Navi, however, had an idea. The subliminal messaging technology used in the pods downloaded information directly into the Narada's brain, almost like a direct stream of remote thought. With a bit of development, he theorized, the consciousness of a whole human being could be inserted into it. The Narada brain and human brain were almost completely identical; the human could be put into a special stasis and "dream" he was in the Narada's body. He claimed, jokingly, to have heard about it from a science fiction story from the 1950s.
If they were going to develop new bodies, though, they would need minds to fill them. They would need to recruit people to occupy the second-generation Narada, so the second version of the program went public. The government and the RDA offered "good money" to military and scientists to take an expedition to Pandora. In the time it took to develop the Narada program, space travel was commonplace, and long-term, stasis-based travel was not out of the realm of possibility.
They knew that the atmosphere was poisonous, though, and couldn't provide protection for everyone, so they claimed that they had "studied the natives" thanks to an unmanned probe that returned to earth with a DNA sample (actually just a slightly modified version of the genome Dr. Navi developed). RDA claimed this was the culmination of fifty years of research, and requested a scientist to help develop the sample into a synthetic copy of the natives that could be remotely piloted. Exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine stepped up to the plate to develop this, and they became the "Avatars", another tribute to Hinduism and (along with the term Na'vi) possibly the last remnant of Dr. Navi's involvement. His absence was explained that he was studying the DNA from the probe, and he named the natives after himself. They claimed they sent the probe in the 2060s, and only now had his studies bore fruit, simply regarded as another "theory". His involvement was also significantly downplayed, claiming it was largely a group effort of RDA's.
This, however, was not the case. The Avatar program was theorized almost as soon as the Narada program was deemed a failure, but the government ordered RDA not to start development for 50 years, so that those with the knowledge of the original project would die out by the time the Avatar program had begun. The members of the Narada program whittled away their lives in government custody, and Chandra Navi, though he fine-tuned the Avatar program in earnest, never got to see the second stage of his creation.
In the 50 years, the unobtanium meteorite was shrinking rapidly, and it was hotly contested. Since RDA claimed a monopoly to it, fossil fuels attempted to compete with it again, resulting in the tripling of production from 2010 levels. The ecological damage to the earth was staggering, and mankind was only too glad for something like the Pandora exhibition, so that there would be plenty of unobtanium for everyone.
One question that was quickly lost in the chaos, though, was what happened to the jettisoned specimens. That is the key to the mystery of the Na'vi.
The Narada on board were all thought to have died, but the crash caused their pods to eject (hence the probe's "jettison" warning) and open prematurely, a safety feature installed into the craft in case something went wrong. Their subliminal in utero education was incomplete; they had the basic instincts to survive on the planet, but they had no language, no task, and no inherent knowledge. Eleven Narada escaped from the crashed probe alive, leaving one unaccounted for. The survivors were confused and oblivious on a new planet, but able to thrive on its surface. No one knows why they started calling themselves the Na'vi, but many think it was Chandra's little signature on his greatest work that the first thing they learned was what they would call each other. It's also possible that Na'vi is a corruption of Narada.
Thanks to their pre-programmed penchant for survival, the Na'vi's evolution was unbelievably rapid. They developed their own rudimentary language, learned to adapt to the harsh environment, and had several children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, burgeoning their indigenous population. They weren't taught where they had come from by the probe, now lost, so they didn't know they were a scientific experiment. Their subsequent generations were raised in this ignorance.
Even with all these boons to their own biology, it was still inconceivable for a species to become so advanced in less than a century, if it wasn't for one essential element: their biological interface with the probe, which Dr. Navi had called their "tendril". It was designed as part of the Narada's biology to connect to the probe, but since that was gone, the Na'vi instead evolved to use it all around them.
Pandora, even as they found it, was a hotbed for biological interaction. Every creature there had a direct line to their nervous system, every plant could connect with every other plant right down to the root, and the sheer electrical energy that pulsated from that land was shown in the land itself. It's the force that made the Hallelujah Mountains float; it was this force, at its most powerful, that allowed the Tree of Souls to bear the voice of the dead, especially its first dead, Eywa, the one Narada that was separated.
The tendril quickly adapted to this natural power. The other animals of Pandora only had "receive" lines to them, only used with certain trees and other organisms, but the Narada's tendril was a two-way connection; it could connect to everything. The Narada quickly discovered this, and this was the biggest catalyst for their rapid evolution. Their language was developed through interfacing with all the nature around them. Their conscious minds, upon death, became part of the planet, making their "final link", joining the collective voice of Eywa, and all the living benefitted from this vast store of collected wisdom. The survival skills they learned from the probe, mainly things like how to build basic weapons and shelter (though they learned more when the clans eventually split from Hometree), helped them stand up to the vicious Thanators and Direwolves that prowled about. The Narada multiplied rapidly, losing their identity as Narada and becoming Na'vi. They become dispersed all across the moon's surface, some staying in the forest, some going to the plains and the coast, becoming the Five Clans.
The Na'vi were claimed to be a "found" native species of Pandora, sticking out prominently against its environment as a wise and proud face against the other mad creatures. They were Pandora's natives, but not in any way RDA, or Chandra Navi, could have ever dreamed.
This bears many similarities to the theory of the Bering Strait human migration, denoting the similarity between Native Americans and Asians. At the tail end of the ice age, around 15,000BC, the sea level was lower, creating a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, where the Bering Strait is now. The humans living there migrated to this new land and spread south, eventually populating much of the land into the various different ethnic groups that make up the native North Americans. They, too, evolved to their environment, and survived and thrived there
until colonization began. Many of them also do not believe this theory, thinking they've always lived in North America and knowing no other land they had before, like the Narada and their blank memories, full of possibility.