The Great Human Race: Science and Archaeology Experts Discuss Humankind’s Ancestral Journey

All people can trace their roots to the savanna of East Africa, home of one of the first members of the human species — Homo habilis.

This Monday, in the series premiere of The Great Human Race, experimental archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney attempt to face what early humans did, as they work together to survive in the wild savanna just as primitive people did 2.6 million years ago — without any weapons or fire.

As we get ready to introduce this exciting new series, we’ve invited prominent voices in the fields of archaeology, experimental archaeology, science and primitive technology to weigh in on the following questions:

Do you think that experts today can accurately replicate the challenges that Homo habilis faced thousands of years ago? And do you think that experts today could survive and thrive as Homo habilis did? 

Here’s what they had to say:

Paleoanthropologist Dr. Briana Pobiner of Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program reflects on historical records in her response. “Compared to us modern humans, Homo habilis had a different body size and shape: They were from about 3 feet 4 inches to 4 feet 5 inches and weighed on average 70 pounds, with both absolutely and relatively longer arms and a lower face that jutted out with larger teeth. It also had a much smaller brain size than modern humans, made very basic stone tools and there is no evidence they had the capacity for language,” Pobiner says. She continues, “They faced the same kind of survival challenges like procuring food and water and avoiding predation that any other animal faces, which can be replicated on a basic level. But modern humans have much more sophisticated communication, cognitive abilities, manual dexterity, and experience with a huge range of knowledge and familiarity with technology far beyond what Homo habilis ever experienced. And while the ecosystems during the time of Homo habilis roamed Africa (which is where their fossils have been found) may have been roughly similar to today in terms of vegetation, there was an amazing array of different predators — like giant saber-toothed cats — and prey animals. So while I’m skeptical that one could accurately play Homo habilis in the modern world, I can see how it would be entertaining to try.”

ScienceBlogs’ Greg Laden of Greg Laden’s Blog answers the question at hand quite simply: “No, this is too hard.” He continues, “But we can try, and in so doing we can develop some interesting thinking about early human evolution.” Laden whips out some Archaeology 101, noting, “Homo habilis was not, of course, a human, but we assume that this early hominin had some incipient human traits, further developed with early Homo erectus/ergaster. The two rules of being a human hunter-gatherer refer to important aspects of living off the land that my research indicates apply to modern humans living without agriculture or animal husbandry as a source of food. I don’t know if these rules applied to earlier hominins or not … that is the $64,000 question.”

Dr. Javier Baena Preysler, professor of prehistory and director of the Laboratory of Experimental Archeology at UAM-LAEX, writes at Paleoaprende that he can see how, through the use of experimental archaeology, we could, with much care, replicate the challenges Homo habilis faced. Preysler explains, “Homo habilis and some other ancestors built up their own culture by the experience acquired with time and mainly under the natural selection laws (if we eat something poisonous, we will die). But our society has built a new culture based on ‘cultural experiences’ that put us away from nature.” On the other hand, he does not believe humans today could survive as Homo habilis did. Preysler explains, “We are not the same species. Even our philosophy is not equal, our feelings and perceptions differ from the past.” He continues, “As experts of the past, we are specialized in different aspects like lithic knapping, or fire reconstruction, diets in the past, etc., but this doesn’t mean that we as individuals could survive in the same conditions as the past species.”

Archeologist Maria-Louise Sidoroff, Ph.D., states bluntly that if the word “accurately” were taken out of the first question, her answer, simply, would be “yes.” Sidoroff explains, “Experimental archaeology research projects are designed to develop data for inferences about past material culture based on environmental, archaeological and ethnographic evidence. In present day African savanna regions, the conditions should be similar to the savannas that provided subsistence for Homo habilis.” She answers the second question noting, “Survival skills previously acquired by experts Schindler and Bigney ensure their survival in a savanna environment but they lack the environmental knowledge that was probably shared among Homo habilis by members of the band with some previous knowledge of the resources. Schindler and Bigney already have the ability to develop and maintain the efficiency of their tools. New skills they need to develop alone in the field are knowledge of how to access savanna food and water sources and to maintain constant awareness of life-threatening dangers from predators and environmental change.”

Roeland Paardekooper, Ph.D., of EXARC writes, “The evolution of humankind dates back about 7 million years, when walking upright began, and has still not ended. This evolution was not a linear one moving toward what we are now. It is not even a family tree, but a series of lines of development, which cross each other, split and merge. A high number of different kinds of humans lived simultaneously.” Paardekooper continues, “Homo habilis was a very early human being, without weapons or fire. Who knows what was in their mind? We cannot imagine how different life was for them compared to ours — not only regarding techniques used, but also in cooperation and communication. Their environment was the African savannah, their tools mainly rocks and perishable materials, their main challenge: survival. Imagine that it was the survival of the fittest — not of the smartest. It would be unfair to call them primitive in a derogatory way: For them it would be as hard to survive in our world as for us in theirs. The ones who could adapt best as well as the luckiest would survive. Their main quality was in their ability to cooperate with each other, to form social networks. Ninety-nine percent of our past is Stone Age, so just imagine the impact of that on who we are and what we do.”

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan of the University College Dublin School of Archaeology and director of the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture refers to experimental archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival instructor Cat Bigney’s task at hand in the series. “Cat and Bill offer us here some sense of what Homo habilis’ life experience was like, but of course we are totally unlike them. They were amongst the first hominids to use stone chopper tools, but they didn’t hunt or use fire, and their means of communication was rudimentary at best, so Cat and Bill — despite being the experts that they are — are almost at a loss in that world,” O’Sullivan says. He continues, “What Homo habilis had of course was a much more embedded sense of their environment, the plants and insects that they could source and eat, the occasional sources of protein, fats and marrow through eating carrion, and the vital sources of water and finally the places of shelter and safety. What this episode also very effectively communicates is the foreboding and constant sense of vulnerability and fright, the basic hardness of life, that Homo habilis endured — as well as their hard-learned knowledge of the dangers that literally lay in the long grass — keep an eye out for the big cat lolling in the sun!”

Professional archaeologist and one of the founders of the Society of Primitive Technology Jack Cresson writes, “We can only replicate what is known, from the body of science and research available. Yes – certain levels of accuracy can be mastered and presented regarding “technology” and the inferred range of natural materials and processes, as well as economies and the physical nature of bipeds. Cresson continues, “However, many many unknowns will always have to be accessed and accounted for…”.

Dr. Linda Hurcombe of University of Exeter’s Department of Archaeology, College of Humanities, emphasizes, “To tackle some of these issues in more detail we have to think through a couple of key aspects. Homo habilis was physically different from us. This species still had toes and hands better adapted to climbing than ours and getting off the ground more easily is a safety issue when people are in environments where there are large predators. The story of human evolution is above all that of a social journey.” Hurcombe continues, “Putting two people in a savannah environment disadvantages them as there are only two, but on the other hand they are fit and active without children and infants. The physical differences come into this again in that Homo habilis infants would most likely be able to cling onto their mothers, but for most modern humans climbing while holding a baby is a challenge of a different order. This kind of programme can make people — academics and public alike — think through some of the challenges faced by our ancestors.”

Thank you to all our experts for sharing their uniquely important perspectives on this intriguing topic. Tune in to The Great Human Race this coming Monday, Feb. 1, at 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.

Comments

  1. mccardt
    February 7, 6:23 am

    hi

  2. Christina
    Chicago
    February 26, 11:34 am

    I’d like to know if Kat and Bill got sick? They ate raw meat that had flies on it and drank stagnant water! It’s disappointing that we don’t learn what effect those choices made on their bodies.

    They constantly spoke about having to do everything Homo habilis did, but there they are wearing sandals with rubber soles!! Seems inconsistent with the whole premise of the show, especially when every other sentence out of their mouths is “we’re doing this just like Homo habilis would have done.”

    Props to Kat though. She was strong and determined! There are not enough women being portrayed in this light on tv.

  3. Kathy
    Boston
    March 3, 2:17 pm

    I loved the show. Was fascinated by the knowledge and history. However, i was COMPLETELY ANNOYED by the inaccuracy of the “drawings” which did not show the black skin of our true ancestors from the continent of Africa. Come on! Let’s do it correctly. Why the deception? When you do things correctly, you contribute to the proper balance of truth in the world which is obviously askewed with the rampant racism we see across the globe. GET IT RIGHT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. STOP BEING A TOOL AND BE COURAGEOUS LIKE YOUR TRUE ANCESTORS.

  4. William Stetler
    Colorado
    March 8, 4:32 pm

    In the episode called adrift bill and Kat built a boat I noticed that cat kept getting up on her knees does changing the center of gravity of the boat and making it problematic whether they were going to reach the island without either tipping over or falling off

  5. Denise
    NJ
    March 10, 8:15 pm

    My family enjoys the show, but if you don’t get a thesaurus for the word, “resource, ” we may have to start a new drinking game! Please, adjust the script to expand everyone’s vocabulary. Thanks.

  6. Abromm
    NY
    March 14, 9:36 pm

    Great program. A lot to think about.

  7. John m Cioffi
    Winthrop Massachusetts
    March 15, 2:16 am

    Hey Cat and Bill I’ve been reading some of the most recent comments about some of the atire the both of you have been wearing and I would just like to say to the people who have been writing it with no offense intended,let’s not be to petty please.I think you both have been doing a great job with the show and really don’t think it’s necessary for the both of you to destroy your feet just to get your teachings across to us fans.I am very enthused by your willingness to teach and to educate us on our earlier heritage….thank you for your dedication to your show..P.S. if you ever want a guest student for the show I would be totally willing and able to be part of the experience..thank you.John.

  8. Lynn
    Seattle
    March 18, 10:22 pm

    Kathy from Boston,

    Except they weren’t black. That came later. A chimps skin color is tannish. The black skin color of sub saharan africans developed later after several hundred thousand years of natural selection favoring darker skin colors because people with darker skin color were less likely to develop skin cancer.

  9. Lynette
    Tennessee
    March 21, 5:35 pm

    It really bugs me when ‘intelligent’ people don’t know the proper use of ‘I’ vs ‘we’. I would think if Kat and Bill are in a teaching position, you would have given them a quick grammar course. You DON’T USE ‘I’ in every reference. Thank you

  10. Mike
    Nj
    March 21, 10:08 pm

    Lynn from Seattle… THANK YOU! You beat me to it. Always so quick to pull the race card, even on the comment section of a tv show. Lmao

  11. Dave Marshall
    West Virginia
    March 22, 12:34 am

    The show were they were hunting Yak, if they it was that cold or they stayed in the shelter. The fire would be closer than 10 feet or the stream would be completely froze over. They probably stayed in a camper like the camera men.

  12. Dave Marshall
    West Virginia
    March 22, 2:27 am

    They need to place their fire as close as they can or in their shelter, wear head gear, wear pants, not a dress that stops at her underarms. Don’ give up on starting a fire. I’m no expert, but this show needs someone to show them how to survive if they actually want to make people believe the show. Kat with her boots and her strapless dress. Give us a break!

  13. Tracy
    Natick,MA
    March 28, 9:50 pm

    Love the show!!! Was wondering where Kat and Bill lived? Are they married, do they have children?

  14. Ann
    Chatham, NY
    April 3, 9:48 pm

    I’m still totally irritated by the misuse of the English language. Presumably these people have some sort of advanced degrees. WHY DIDN’T ANYONE CORRECT THEM WHEN THEY SAID “for Kat and I” instead of properly “for Kat and me”?
    You wouldn’t say, “for I”. It doesn’t change when you throw another name in.

  15. Jarrod
    Lincoln, NE
    April 7, 7:22 pm

    I call BS on this show. After going through all the trouble of putting traction on their leather shoes, letting everyone know how dangerous it was to walk the glacier, they come down the final slope wearing boots. Bill clearly doesn’t have the ropes wrapped around his shoes but it then seen walking with them on. I guess bad editing.

  16. Jim
    Pennsylvania
    April 10, 3:01 pm

    Ann,

    You would use the term “Kat and I”, instead of using “Kat and me”, its just that people have been speaking the wrong way for so long, the “right” way seems wrong.

  17. Autumn
    Phx, AZ
    April 12, 1:20 am

    Are you serious people? The most intelligent and thought provoking comment you can provide is about their grammar? I would like to see you go out and take oon this challenge and then see how much you care about proper grammar…a bit petty and juvenile don’t you think? Bill and Kat – you are an amazing team!! Finally a show without ridiculous arguments. They were a team at all times and had their eye on the end goal at all times! Kat you are an inspiration, I would love to learn primitive survival from you! Keep up the great work!

    P.S– I don’t care what you are wearing on your feet either!

  18. Wallis Rainwater
    Florida
    April 12, 7:12 am

    I love show. They do take license sometimes. When Bill preparing footgear for glacier crossing, he used modern rope. No way 15000 years ago could they have spun that modern rope.

  19. Wallis Rainwater
    Florida
    April 12, 7:15 am

    Love the show. They do take license sometimes. When Bill preparing his footgear for glacier crossing, he used modern rope (no way could they have spun that rope 15000 years ago) while Cat used leather thongs.

  20. sandy miller
    Fl
    April 12, 3:43 pm

    It seems like they waste alot of time and gas returning animsls to owners.They have1 dog or cat and both vehicle’s go to return it, why? It kinda looks like Karissa and the rest have to make sure they get there extra pat on the back, y’all are doing good work, dont get me wrong but enough with all your facr time everyone’s grateful. Now collect your big checks and go find my kitty.

  21. kathryn peliska
    minnesota
    April 13, 1:14 am

    I am an archeologist. I have studied every so called fact this show has told us, (spoiler alert) 90% of the facts they say or dhow is incorrect. Honestly I had high hopes for this show but after episode 1 it became more of an annoyance than a pleasure to watch. number one the dress code,( sorry if you cant show our ancient predecessors as naked as they were) 2 the shoes/sandals whats withe the rubber souls, 3 pleistecene landscapes were different than ours look it up no dessert in thd middle east that was just for viewer fun. 4 hunting technology was off by thousands of years. 5 agri/ domestic was off dogs came first. look it up bill and cat not havving domestic dogs is bs . 6 going to america the coast line was different and boats were skin and wood frame, like bull boats. ps the first accepted and documented society in north america was at monte verde not washington(look it up)! stop making our hob harder as archeaologits and tell the truth about how we developed, when and what we domesticated and when/how we got to america(20 kyrs ago) austrailia(40k yrs ago) i watch this show now only to enrage my fury about how even so called experts would allow this bs to be aired to the next generation. ps i teach them ( the next generation) in 7 grade history.

  22. Kay rogers
    April 13, 11:32 am

    Love the show. Where do Bill and Cat go after each episode. Do they go home for a while and prepare for the next show?

  23. Hank figueroa
    Palm coast
    June 1, 7:32 pm

    Love this show , to get to see how early humans would have approach every land ,, I think will and cat do a perfect job

  24. Kim Andersen
    Denmark
    August 10, 2:47 pm

    Embarrassing show. Dont know where to start. Seems so fake, clipping is bad going back and forth between days. They dont show they hard parts, its POOF fire, POOF crossed the Water that they had ben taling about. Fishing salmon with a net, sure, if you have rope and tons of time. Make a fork. Surprised to see its not bad actors, but apparantly somebody WHO knows about survival. very bad show.