Origins of Us – nature’s story with Dr Alice Roberts

Origins of Us LogoOrigins of Us, the new Natural History three-part series from BBC Productions currently airing on BBC 2 (and on BBC HD and iPlayer, the latter subject to usual time constraints), explores human evolution.

It aired after Channel 4’s new series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking  it exploring how science is striving for humankind’s next leap forward. A welcome two-hour celluloid science session of a Monday evening. I am hoping the BBC and Channel 4 get embroiled in an escalating TV science war vying to produce and schedule ever higher quality and ever greater quantity of science programming, an antidote to the endless cookery and home improvements shows that saturate our schedules. And I am not averse to a Sophie Dahl or Kevin McLoud but all things in moderation – even Crime drama’s have their limits, just about!

The opening one-hour episode of Origins of Us is called Bones, the next episode is Guts and third and final episode is Brains.

The aim of the series then is to explore the evolutionary development of humans focusing on our bones, guts and brains.

Origins of Us Episode One BonesThe programmes are presented by Dr Alice Roberts. Viewers may be familiar with her from archaeological programmes such as Time Team and Extreme Archaeology – proving that presenters of archaeology programs don’t have to be living fossils themselves.

Archaeology and Natural History are a natural enough step (sorry!) though Origins of Us is not Dr Alice Robert’s first foray into Natural History programming or indeed those specifically about Natural Selection having presented the BBC series The Incredible Human Journey and an episode of Horizon earlier this year titled ‘Are we still evolving?’.

Origins of Us Sahelanthropus

Skulls of Sahelanthropus or Toumai – and Chimpanzee – which is which?!

Are indeed Natural History TV Presenters still evolving? Some may have argued that David Attenborough is that roles natural full-stop but Dr Alice Roberts does prove otherwise!

Dr Alice Roberts herself is not just a TV presenter but author, Anatomist and Physical Anthropologist.

She is an engaging, impassioned and informed presenter. The content of Origins of Us is presented in an accessible way so as not to be so dry as to verge on an Open University Documentary Tutorial, but not dumbed down to insult our intelligence either.

The first episode ‘Bones’ looked at how our skeleton reveals the evolutionary journey of our ancestors. The BBC webpage for this program explains more about the purpose of the series and the background of Alice Roberts.

In their words this program is ‘a journey through your own body, 6 million years and 300 000 generations of our family, from a tree dwelling ape in the forests of Africa, to you and the six billion other humans on Earth today.’ The BBC’s Family Research series Who Do You Think You Are? for the whole of humankind.

The web-page also provides some great art visualising our ancient ancestors from Propliopithecus right up to we modern Homo Sapiens.

There is also a link to Dr Alice Robert’s blog on the series. She also has her own website. Or if you prefer to digest her thoughts in bite-size she tweetstoo.

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo heidelbergensis

The nub of the first episode was exploring what it was about we humans that caused us to diverge from our nearest animal relatives chimpanzees and to look at the first forest dwelling ape to stand up on their own two feet and walk, six million years ago in Africa.

The program commenced in the jungles of Uganda observing chimpanzees in their natural forest habitat and examining how their anatomy allowed them to climb and then jump from tree to tree as oppose to how ours is built to allow us to be upright, to walk and to run.

The show goes on to explore variations in our skeleton to that of a chimpanzee such as how our spine joins to our skull, the shape of our hands and feet (did you know that 25% of your bones are in your two hands?!) and of surprising significance to me at least the role of our posterior in our human motion.

Origins of Us Babies in motion

Early Ascent

One charming section of the program exploring human motion saw Dr Alice Roberts among a group of babies and toddlers – some of them walking, some of them not quite there.

A later section has Dr Alice Roberts wired up as she is monitored on a running machine exploring the surprising muscle combinations required for this such as a ligament in our neck essential for keeping us balanced when we are running.

Origins of Us - Running Machine Alice Roberts

Dr Alice Roberts on Running Machine

As I share this with you I am sitting down in front of my iMac – typical of my sedentary lifestyle – and typical I suspect of the majority of you reading this. But as Alice Roberts points out even the most active of us today is sedentary compared with our first human ancestors who spent most of their time not even walking but running – for prey, for safety, the proverbial fight or flight.

Finally the first episode explored our tool-making abilities with the perhaps surprising revelation that it was not the making of tools that defined us from the other apes but how we made use of those tools.

Also a quick mention to the musical soundtrack by English composer Niraj Chag though it should be added that the sounds of the African jungle were captivating enough.

Origins of Us

Chimpanzee and Human skeletal hands – we are the big thumbed humans…

I am greatly looking forward to the next ‘Guts’ episode.