“Awash in fresh insights, scientists have had to revise virtually every chapter of the
human story.” Scientific American (2014)
Where did we come from? How did we survive near extinction? And why did we become our world’s only global species? I believe few stories have the power to grip our attention like our very own: the human story.
So when CBC’s The Nature of Things asked me take its audience on a tour of the newest discoveries about our past, learning from the world’s leading experts on human origins and taking part in the lives of traditional nomads and huntergatherers around the planet, it was a dream realized.
I began making The Great Human Odyssey with that conviction that we are a miraculous creature: the only form of life unhitched from the natural limits of an ecological niche, able to adapt to new environments, and change them to suit our needs. The “evolution of adaptability” is our inheritance from a difficult past. At one time, Homo sapiens stood on the brink of extinction, numbering only a few thousand individuals, somewhere in Africa. Soon after that, our species found ways to rebuild, and we colonized the entire planet.
Not all were so lucky. I like to compare the world of our ancestors to Middle-Earth, full of different kinds of walking apes, all much like us. There were Hobbits, Neanderthals, a newly discovered creature called a Denisovan, and an entire cast of Homo erectus characters of which we know almost nothing. Some of our cousins were so like us that we “married” into their lines, or they “married” into ours; our DNA today carries the signals of those meetings.
But where are they now? Since the last Ice Age, humans have occupied a very lonely branch of the evolutionary tree. You have to wonder why we alone are the last surviving humans, and in the same breath, you must marvel at the extraordinary success of our species, at home on every continent, in every climate, on land and at sea.
With this documentary series, I set out to discover what we can know about the ancient world that shaped us, the incredible challenges to survival we overcame, and our difficult journey from Africa to settle all the planet’s diverse ecosystems. In the process, I hope to shed light on our remarkable human flexibility, the essence of our enduring presence in an unpredictable and hostile world.
The more we learn about prehistoric migrations, the more impressive early humans become – they too were masters of exploration, they adapted as they went, and they were brave enough to look over the next hill, or beyond the ocean horizon.
- Niobe Thompson
Before beginning production on The Great Human Odyssey, I had explored other, more recent chapters in our species’ past. The origins of the modern Inuit in a violent invasion of the Arctic 1000 years ago, for the 2009 documentary, Inuit Odyssey. The arrival of humans in the New World during the last Ice Age, an astonishing journey from Arctic Asia when glaciers still covered half of North America, for the 2011 documentary Code Breakers. And then, the role endurance running played in the survival of our early humans, for the 2012 documentary The Perfect Runner.
Each of these journeys into our past reinforced the same lesson: our ancestors were extraordinary people, capable of far more than we give them credit. They were curious and adventurous risk-takers, they were masters of technology, they thought like scientists, and they were fun loving, artistically sensitive, and emotionally complex.
This is why early humans accomplished so much, learning to live well in every environment on Earth, exploring their way out of Africa, onwards to the Arctic, Australia, and the Americas, and finally to the most remote islands of the Pacific. Yet, because these voyages of exploration took place before recorded history, we think of the Age of Exploration as beginning with men like Magellan, Franklin, and Heyerdahl. But the more we learn about prehistoric migrations, the more impressive early humans become – they too were masters of exploration, they adapted as they went, and they were brave enough to look over the next hill, or beyond the ocean horizon.
For me, the question is why? Why are humans so resourceful, so good at figuring out the myriad puzzles that nature throws at us? A clue to our resilience: we evolved during the most volatile era our planet has experienced since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65m years ago.
Humans were forged by calamity. We became tenacious, virtually impossible to wipe out, incredibly good at dealing with change. We became fast-breeding settlers, a relentless colonizer. As soon as the modern brain evolved, our species became unstoppable. The very mind that today believes it needs a new smart phone every 12 months is the same one that invented and adapted its way from the parched Kalahari Desert to the shores of the Arctic Ocean within 1,500 generations. To put that into perspective, before that point in time – over the previous 100,000 generations (2 million years) – earlier humans invented only a single primitive tool, the stone hand-axe.
I am an anthropologist who became a filmmaker. I left university research because I believe the communication of science is my path. I want my children to grow up in a scientifically literate society, where films that explore the natural world play a central role. But I also believe in the power of art to enlighten, and I am thrilled to be pushing the artistic boundaries of film, striving to make science just as spectacular as it is fascinating. The Great Human Odyssey does both; it is a gorgeous and breathtaking cinematographic odyssey and an encounter with cutting-edge