NOVA: Great Human Odyssey
Airs Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Sunday, March 3 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2
—Follow our ancestors’ footsteps out of Africa along a trail of fresh scientific clues to help unravel the mystery of how we got where we are.—
Our ancient human ancestors once lived as tiny bands of hunter-gatherers scattered across the vast continent of Africa. Numbering no more than a few thousand, small groups of these intrepid humans began to move out of Africa — eventually reaching every corner of the earth.
How did these early humans overcome the world’s most difficult terrain and ultimately dominate the planet?
How did our prehistoric forebears acquire the skills, technology and talent to thrive in every environment on earth?
And how did they cross the furnace of the Sahara or survive frigid ice ages or manage to sail to the remotest Pacific islands?
In “Great Human Odyssey,” a special two-hour presentation, NOVA takes viewers on a spectacular global journey through the past, following our ancestors’ footsteps out of Africa along a trail of fresh scientific clues to help unravel the mystery of how we got where we are.
Our species has the unique ability to live almost anywhere, in any climate and any terrain.
NOVA crisscrosses the world to examine why and how Homo sapiens has spread everywhere — from the far corners of Africa to the Siberian Arctic to the Pacific Islands and the Americas and beyond.
The film features interviews with leading historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and geneticists, opening a door to a world of fascinating new discoveries about the origins of us.
With unique glimpses of today’s Kalahari hunters, Siberian reindeer herders and Polynesian navigators, NOVA unveils the amazing skills in these traditional hunter-gatherer communities that hint at how our ancestors may have survived and prospered long ago.
“‘Great Human Odyssey’ takes NOVA viewers on a spectacular adventure across several continents to trace our human origins and learn about our ancient past,” said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer for NOVA. “Filmed on a grand scale, as never before, the documentary sheds light on the incredible journey undertaken by our ancestors and the strategies they employed to adapt, survive and prosper on an ever-changing planet.”
Throughout the film, NOVA follows anthropologist Dr. Niobe Thompson as he travels the globe, searching for echoes of the past in the skills of people living in remote and demanding environments — conditions that may be similar to the ones our ancestors had to surmount on their global journey.
For decades, anthropologists have been observing such societies trying to understand their social, cultural and spiritual beliefs, and how they live their day-to-day lives — from the food they eat to the natural medicines they use.
In Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, Niobe is given a rare opportunity to see the San Bushmen hunt for food in this desolate landscape and how they store water in ostrich egg sip wells similar to those from 60,000 years ago unearthed by archaeologists.
In remote Tawi Tawi in the Southern Philippines, he joins the great Badjao “breath hold divers,” exploring the possibility that early humans sought food by learning to adapt to the pressures required for deep-sea hunting.
Niobe also travels to the Siberian Arctic for an intimate look at the unique Chukchi reindeer herders to perhaps understand how Homo sapiens may have survived the deep freeze of the Ice Age, while the more cold-adapted Neanderthals declined to the brink of extinction.
In the Bering Strait, Niobe gets a firsthand look at the light but sturdy umiak, a skin boat many experts believe may have been used by the first people to enter North America by skirting the icy Bering land bridge.
And in the Pacific, Niobe meets the crew of the Hokule’a — a sturdy replica of an ancient Polynesian sailing vessel. Ancient Polynesians sailed the Pacific, using only the stars and the currents to guide them, and very likely made it to the Americas long before the Europeans. Today the Hokule’a is still plying the ocean, led by sailors skilled in the techniques of traditional navigation.
Niobe also learns how the existence of sweet potatoes in the Polynesian islands and Polynesian skulls found in Chile seem to prove that Polynesians did indeed reach the Americas.
And recent genetic studies of Pacific islanders have revealed that their origins are actually in Asia, upending a long-held belief by many, including Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, that humans in South America settled the Pacific by drifting to places like Hawaii on small wooden rafts.
Until recently much of our ancestors’ early history remained a mystery. But now, new archaeological discoveries are beginning to reveal their complex evolution, their strategies for survival and their relentless drive to reach everywhere.
NOVA meets with Ethiopian paleontologist Dr. Berhane Asfaw, who helps give viewers a picture of early Homo sapien development through the discovery of the Herto skulls, the most complete early human skulls ever found, and the recently unearthed Halibee skeleton, the most complete early Homo sapien remains discovered in Africa and likely to represent the population that eventually began leaving Africa to populate the world.
The film also explores how archaeological findings, such as projectile and multi-component tools, carved symbolic art, ochre body paint and even early musical instruments, point to the importance of a shared cultural identity for our Homo sapien ancestors.
The appearance of complex tools and art forms has often been linked to the emergence of symbolic language — a critical development in the modernization of our species.
NOVA also visits the frontiers of genetic science to show how DNA is changing how researchers understand early human migration.
Viewers are introduced to molecular biologist Dr. Sarah Anzick, who worked on the Human Genome Project.
When she was only two years old, an ancient burial site containing the bones of a 13,000-year-old Native American boy was discovered on her family’s land.
This was one of the oldest human skeletons ever discovered in North America, and when, as an adult, Sarah began working on the Human Genome Project, she realized an opportunity to uncover the true origins of Native Americans might lie with the DNA from this ancient child.
Working with an international team led by Danish geneticist Eske Willerslev, she and the group were able to extract genetic material from the skeleton and by doing so discovered the true origins of what is now being called “The Anzick Child.”
The child’s DNA confirms the Asian roots of all of today’s Native Americans — ruling out a controversial theory that some ancestral populations might have crossed into the Americas from Ice Age Europe.
Remarkably, close to 80 percent of all Native North Americans carry the Anzick genome, and this number rises to more than 90 percent in Central and South America.
So a once tiny group of hunter-gatherers represented by this ancient Montana child became the ancestors of nearly all Native Americans, including those such as the Maya and the Inca, who created the great ancient civilizations of North and South America.
NOVA accompanies Anzick and Willerslev as they share their significant findings at an emotional meeting with Crow historian Dr. Shane Doyle, who helped bring news of this important discovery to many tribes in the west.
“Great Human Odyssey” chronicles how humble hunter-gatherers living a precarious existence in Africa would eventually reach every corner of the earth. Our ancestors’ adventurousness, creativity and adaptability got us this far. But are we as capable of adapting to the changes to come?
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