AIRING: February 26, 2015


The series ends with a spectacular journey at sea, as Thompson confronts one of the enduring mysteries of prehistory: how did our Stone Age ancestors settle lands across the ocean?   Learn how new discoveries in the properties of early sailing vessels, experimental anthropology, and ancient DNA research are changing our understanding of the earliest sea voyages, from Easter Island to the Bering Strait.

This episode begins in the birthplace of boat technology with extremely rare footage of a once-in-a-generation skin-cutting ritual of the New Guinea’s Crocodile People.  Discover how humans began to cross the waves of the sea in our planet’s “sailing nursery” – Austronesia – and learn how sailing first evolved.  Thompson visits the legendary Hokule’a, the sailing canoe built by Native Hawaiians to bring back the art of sailing by the stars, as it departs for a journey around the planet – without instruments.

Many experts weigh in, including New Zealander Geoff Irwin, an archeologist who spent a lifetime arguing the South Pacific was colonized by planned expeditions thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.  On Easter Island, Thompson’s cameras gain exclusive access to world famous DNA hunter Eske Willerslev as he discovers genetic proof that South America was discovered by Polynesian sailors.  And finally, Thompson travels to Siberia, where new DNA research finally pinpoints the ancient origin of Native Americans. (see an interactive timeline)

The final episode ends with a sequence two years in the making, as Thompson joins a group of Inuit sea-mammal hunters living in extreme isolation on the Russian Bering Strait.  There, he helps build a walrus-skin umiak, travels over spring ice to an island of cliffs out to sea, and descends a 100-metre cliff to film the astonishing practice of nest raiding.

At a time of anxiety for our species’ future, The Great Human Odyssey offers a vision hope based on a new knowledge of our species’ past.

“Humans were forged by calamity”, says Dr Niobe Thompson.  “Through the experience of near-extinction, we became tenacious, virtually impossible to wipe out, incredibly good at dealing with change.  We became fast-breeding settlers, a relentless colonizer.  With the evolution of the modern brain, our species became incredibly adaptable.  That… may be our salvation.”