tue 21/05/2024

Origins of Us: Bones, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Origins of Us: Bones, BBC Two

Origins of Us: Bones, BBC Two

Why does man walk on two legs? Alice Roberts takes a hop, skip and jump to show us

'Pleased to see you,' he said cheerfully. 'I'm in Origins of Us, you know'BBC/Andrew Yarme

I was possibly not the right person to review this programme. I didn't do biology beyond GCSE, can't bear David Attenborough's Natural World programmes and laugh anytime someone says "homo erectus". Nevertheless, Alice Roberts, an anatomist and a woman who clearly knows all the words to "Dry Bones", made Origins of Us on BBC Two last night subtly enthralling, even if it did suffer from a certain amount of documentaryese.

I've always wanted to know where I come from - saying "Edgware" or even, more distantly, "Poland" just doesn't quite capture it. So, watching Alice talk through skeletons laid out like the stars of The Body Farm ("I auditioned for Waking the Dead but I ended up on BBC Two," I imagined one saying), it became clear how we got where we are today from those African forests we inhabited six million years ago.

There was a coherent, reasonably simple story told, even if the reality was spread over millions of years: from the trees to the earth, from the flexible ankles of apes to our hardly bendy ones, from full-body fur to a light coating of hair (not applicable to all of us, obviously). Never has the term "shapely ankle" been used so unironically as when Alice took off her socks to show how far she could bend her foot.

We were also treated to Alice's beshorted glutei maximi  to demonstrate how our bottoms help us run

Rather than use expensive 3D models which lack reality, Alice picked up a six-million-year-old skull and repeatedly jabbed her finger into what I scientifically call the spine-hole. Nariokotome Boy's skeleton (two million years ago) had a brain cavity two-thirds the size of ours (which should be no surprise as he was homo erectus, fnar) but a rotating waist which allowed us to run, compensating for the twisting of the upper body.

We were also treated to Alice's beshorted glutei maximi with electrodes attached to demonstrate how our bottoms help us run, and her hand in a 22nd-century techie glove cutting through a side of beef to demonstrate the power of the thumb, dating from homo habilis, the first to use stone tools, but getting stronger with every text message. (It is perhaps the only part of us still evolving.) It turns out that our ability to sweat is what let us survive life on the African savannah, although quite why we didn't evolve past this offputting distraction when the disco era arrived is not made clear. Evolution has never spent a Saturday night at the Joiner's Arms or it would have reversed that one pretty quick.

For every scientific experiment, there was a shot of Alice in the jungle or a virtual pen-and-ink drawing that would do Grey proud, ie, a perfect mix of scenes, rather than trapping us in a lab. Alice was clearly enjoying the work, too: she could barely refrain from laughing as toddlers strode (and failed to stride) about a playgroup, demonstrating how difficult getting onto two legs actually is. I had expected, after the first few minutes, to be bored, but my attention was kept.

There was an upbeat conclusion from Alice: "We are the most successful human species ever," in that we've survived while the Neanderthals (who get a bad press) et al have died out and consequently never got to watch Arrested Development. But the ultimate lesson of evolution seems a dreadfully selfish one, appropriate for our times, even if Alice didn't describe it as such: when she said that we had evolved to "transform the world around us", she was thinking of art, buildings, mastering science - but what occurred to me was that we have evolved past the point where we have to care about the world. Previously, over millions of years, we responded to the world's demands: now we make it the victim of ours.

Alice picked up a six-million-year-old skull and repeatedly jabbed her finger into what I scientifically call the spine-hole

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That was the most informative and interesting TV programme I have ever seen. Not only was the research apposite but the presentation was joyfull yet unobtrusive. Well done all. Wife says ditto; we're in our 70's and still erectus striving to be sapiens. I'll order the DVD. The grandchildren must see this again and again; so will I.

Very good program. Well made, and anything that would potentially annoy creationists is always worth a watch.

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