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Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Incredible Human Journey, BBC2

Did we like it?
An entertaining and enlightening odyssey into the very origins of our species, guided by the charming, erudite and passionate Dr Alice Roberts, but which is however tainted by that recurring blight of BBC natural history of the presenter being clumsily integrated into the otherwise beguiling narrative.

What was good about it?
• Even though she didn’t have the definitive answer to the question of how humans made it out of Africa, Dr Alice made the trip engaging and fascinating.
• After the initial misstep of the vain efforts to make an arid ditch miles from everywhere interesting, the second leg took her to the coast of South Africa where she learned about how the humans who had migrated there were using tools more advanced than their forbears. The stone edges had been sharpened to a barb to enable the hunting tool to be more effective.
• While the experiment she conducted on a couple of hunters from a tribe at first seemed to be another tiresome narrative indulgence turned out to explain how humans have adapted to their environment through the shape of their feet – which are moulded for long distance running – and the way that this tribe have evolved their language to include plenty of high-pitched clicking that doesn’t travel far thus alerting the potential prey during a hunt.
• The next step was to compose a theory about the route that people took on their way out of Africa. She discounted the common belief that it was across the land bridge that links Africa and Arabia in Egypt, and instead suggested that the more likely path was across the Red Sea that separates Yemen from Djibouti, arguing that climate change has increased the gap from a manageable 11km 100,000 years ago.
• Venturing on to Oman, she came across ancient stone tools littered across the desert and, with the help of Indiana Jones-wannabe archaeologist Geoff Rose, set about explaining how the Indian monsoons create patches of verdant splendour amid the harsh desert climate, and that before the sea levels rose all along the coastline there were fresh springs of water to support the humans as they travelled further afield.
• It was during these stages of the journey that Dr Alice conveyed that David Attenborough-like enthusiasm for imparting knowledge, of helping viewers to comprehend the magnitude of the discoveries and the achievement of humanity in escaping from its origins.

What was bad about it?
• If the human race had the same tremulous origins as this programme, then our species would have been buried under an avalanche of ignorance and indulgence before we’d clambered down from the trees.
• Alice opened the show with: “They say we are all children of Africa; but if so, why do we all look so different?” Even allowing for the fact that the BBC have recently disgorged enough programmes about Charles Darwin to fill a Tory MP’s swimming pool, the basics of how organisms adapt and change to suit their environment cannot be novel to a viewer of this type of programme.
• And this was compounded later on when Dr Alice gave brief credence to the theory that people evolved separately around the world into humans rather than from a singular African source, which is almost as improbable as that fatuous fable served up by the Bible. But this was a needless and baseless fabrication only included to frame and bolster the truth of Africa’s legacy.
• Early on, Dr Alice also inserted herself into the show rather more prominently than was justified. Thankfully, she removed herself to the margins once the vague prologue was over and before she became a grotesque intrusion in the vein of Lost Land of the Jaguar and Oceans.
• She said: “Anthropologists have a good idea of where humans originated. I’m trying to get there, but it is in one of the remotest parts of the continent.” Extraneous in that sentence is “I’m trying to get there”. Far too often we had Dr Alice’s travails thrust upon us that were utterly irrelevant to discovering more about the earliest humans.
• As she trekked to the site we learnt about how the neighbouring tribes constantly fight with one another and how the heat made her tired – all very interesting but not of use for this programme. But this was trumped, and blessedly curtailed, when she tried to mimic what life must have been like for early humans in such an inhospitable environment of the African bush. So she intrepidly made her bed on the floor, while she shone a torch at growling beasts while filming her imagined terror on a hand cam – just like prehistoric man.
• But this episode also highlighted one of the problems of the whole escapade, the paucity of knowledge. How did Dr Alice even know they slept on the floor, and what the predatory fauna was at that time?
• This sense of vagueness made other parts of the show seem like iterative assumptions rather than founded on hard scientific evidence. However, it was also thrilling to witness the human imagination at work piecing together the fragmented jigsaw with much the same ingenuity that our ancient ancestors might have used to spread all over the globe.


Mac Slack said...

Please. Surely, if Alice Roberts took herself as seriously and held herself in the high regard the reviewer appears to, her program would have been as dry and offputting as the review ...

Anonymous said...

Just watched the first 15 mins of this series and was put off by the self-indulgence of the presenter. Also by the amount of contrivance and manipulation in the filming. I couldn't escape the impression of lack of integrity about it all, treating the viewer as a chump. I had to stop the video to check what the reviews were like, to see if the series got any better or this was a taste of what it was all like. Thanks for the review. The review seems fairly spot on, to the extent which I have watched this series.

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