Why did you become a documentary maker? “I’ve been making films since 2007, when I left my job teaching anthropology [at the University of Alberta, in Canada]. I’ve always been fascinated with aspects of the human journey that science is shedding light on for the first time. I’ve made films about the earliest peopling of the Americas; about the role of endurance running in human evolution; on the Inuit in the Arctic.
What’s the story behind your new television series, The Great Human Odyssey? I was looking for the opportunity to do a big project and ask questions with a broad brush about the origins of our species. That opportunity came about for several reasons. One of them is the pace of discovery has really accelerated in recent years, with the arrival of ancient- DNA-analysis technology. And so we’re learning a lot of new things about our origins and our journey out of Africa that wouldn’t have been possible to know a few years ago. The Great Human Odyssey is the first series of this size in a decade to really look at these questions. We were able to ask certain questions for the first time, like, what happened when Homo sapiens met Neanderthals?”
What is the most surprising thing you have learned from researching four million years of human history? “The revelation that planet Earth has been a very volatile home for our species. The period of time in which humans evolved – the past million years – has been the most volatile period of climate history since the dinosaurs went extinct, 65 million years ago. What we see is that accelerating climate volatility really affected our homelands in Africa. So the question for me became, how did we survive that? The human species had a particular ability to adapt to change.
We are spectacularly good at dealing with volatility, adaptation and migration. We built social structures to deal with the challenges of a changing climate that other species were not able to do. That really is a lesson from human history and it’s a marvellous thing to think about in the context of the changing world we live in today.”
Has your research and work changed how you think about what it means to be human? “Absolutely. I am quite concerned about the future of our species. Making this film taught me that our species has a record of dieoffs, difficulties and recoveries. I don’t think that gives us a free pass, but it does give you hope that we have in our evolutionary history incredible stories of survival. I think I came out of this project with a lot more hope than I went into it with. We are the only species that has been able to remember the past, imagine its future and then adjust behaviour in the present. That is an extraordinary power … and it’s up to us to use it wisely.”
The Great Human Odyssey, a three-part series produced, written and directed by Niobe Thompson, premieres today, at 9pm, on Discovery Channel.