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Opinion

Come along for the ride on humanity's long journey

The film crew captured the extremely rare skin-cutting initiation ceremony of the Crocodile people in Papua New Guinea.

The film crew captured the extremely rare skin-cutting initiation ceremony of the Crocodile people in Papua New Guinea.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/2/2015 (1343 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How did we get here?

The question, for the purposes of the discussion that follows, is concerned not with wherever you or I happen to be sitting as we read this, but rather the place that our species has come to occupy at this moment in our planet's evolutionary history.

In other words, it's one of those great big questions whose answer is both difficult to discover and hard to comprehend.

But Canadian anthropologist, author and filmmaker Niobe Thompson (The Perfect Runner, Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands) gives it his best shot in the new three-part documentary The Great Human Odyssey, which premières Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBC's The Nature of Things.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/2/2015 (1343 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How did we get here?

The question, for the purposes of the discussion that follows, is concerned not with wherever you or I happen to be sitting as we read this, but rather the place that our species has come to occupy at this moment in our planet's evolutionary history.

In other words, it's one of those great big questions whose answer is both difficult to discover and hard to comprehend.

But Canadian anthropologist, author and filmmaker Niobe Thompson (The Perfect Runner, Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands) gives it his best shot in the new three-part documentary The Great Human Odyssey, which premières Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBC's The Nature of Things.

And the result is a fascinating and engagingly accessible exploration of human evolution, focused mostly on trying to figure out why we — homo sapiens — among all the upright-walking ape-descended species that once inhabited the African continent, were able to adapt and survive when all others became extinct.

In the series' first instalment, Rise of a Species, Thompson travels to southern Africa — the so-called cradle of civilization — to visit with a tribe of Kalahari bushmen whose lifestyle and hunting-gathering techniques are virtually identical to those employed by their ancestors thousands of years ago.

The nomadic Badjao in the Philippines are the world's last traditional free-divers, using no breathing apparatus.

The nomadic Badjao in the Philippines are the world's last traditional free-divers, using no breathing apparatus.

As narrator and guide, Thompson does an excellent job of creating a conceptual bridge connecting the present-day society he's observing with the earliest humans. Our ancestors had the ability to overcome what one observer calls "the cruelty of the African climate," suggesting that homo sapiens' evolving brain function allowed the species to avoid extinction during periods of extreme climatological upheaval.

"With homo sapiens," says Thompson, "a mind had evolved that could outwit the twists and turns of the African climate. It was the evolution of adaptability."

Thompson describes an "evolutionary bottleneck" — a mega-drought that enveloped Africa during a global ice age nearly 100,000 years ago, which brought the humanoid species to near-extinction — as a (literal) watershed moment in its evolution. Driven by the need to find food and water, the few remaining members of the species travelled to the coast of southern Africa, where they found bountiful resources that allowed them to regenerate and repopulate.

The Great Human Odyssey also sheds some interesting light on the notion of fish as "brain food." Several scientists offer their beliefs that by becoming aquatic hunters and harvesting a steady diet of seafood rich in long-chain fatty acids, these transplanted humans provided themselves with a new variety of nutrients that accelerated brain evolution and led to the development of language, tool development and artistic expression.

"As far as we know," Thompson says, "the very moment we became modern humans, we became artists. Art-making is the signature of our species."

It's an awe-inspiring exploration of human development, and Thompson makes the story fully relatable without giving the impression that anything is being dumbed-down for our benefit.

Subsequent chapters (Feb. 19 and 26) will follow humankind on the long journey out of Africa and into every other part of the globe. In the final instalment, Thompson travels to Siberia in search of newly discovered DNA evidence that might pinpoint the origin of Native American civilization.

It isn't nearly as long a journey from here, where you're reading this, to there — in front of the TV, where you'll watch — so you might as well make the trip. Three episodes from now, you might even feel like you've evolved a little bit.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Brad Oswald

Brad Oswald
Perspectives Editor

After three decades spent writing stories, columns and opinion pieces about television, comedy and other pop-culture topics in the paper’s entertainment section, Brad Oswald shifted his focus to the deep-thoughts portion of the Free Press’s daily operation.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at 8:33 AM CST: Replaces photo

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