Sunday, July 26, 2015

Interview with Dr. Niobe Thompson of The Great Human Odyssey

Wazzup Pilipinas!

This is an interview with Dr. Niobe Thompson of The Great Human Odyssey which will air on the 2nd of August, 8:00 p.m. on Discovery Channel.

Media: My question is about the Homo Sapiens, right, what was it about them that make them outlast (inaudible) before them, I mean, such the Neanderthals and all that, who were quite strong and you know, and very intelligent? So what was it about the Homo Sapiens that helped them evolved especially during that particular era in earth’s history which was very volatile?

Niobe Thompson: That’s a great question and we’ve been asking this for a long time already, and I wish I had a definitive answer.

I think that the mystery of our survival and the extinction of all of the human cousins is one of the things that keeps me coming back to, you know, the story of human evolution. I have a personal opinion, and that is that really it was our ability to work together.

Neanderthals and other human cousins closely related humans you could say were very intelligent, very resourceful. The Neanderthals survived for 10 times longer in Europe than humans have so far. So you know, these were formidable human-like creatures. But what none of them had was the ability to work together in a group. I don’t think that any human intel, modern humans, Homo Sapiens has had the ability to speak. I don’t think that Neanderthals or Denisovans or other forms of Homo Erectus had language.

And what language did is it brought us together and it released us from the present moment, so that we could begin to remember the past, we could begin to talk about the future. Perhaps this was the beginning of religious thoughts that the first moment that we could look into the future and think about mortality, our death.

I think that language made so many other things possible. And ultimately you mentioned the volatility of our earth home, climate change and geological instability. When humans are faced with a challenge, it’s only through binding together and relying in each other and finding comfort in community that they get through. And so I really think it was what we, anthropologists call our prosociality, our intensely social nature that helped us survive. 

Media: Now as far as evolution goes on, it does not stop. So did any other species come out of the Homo Sapiens, or did the human race just stopped at that point? 

Niobe Thompson: Well you're absolutely right. We are evolving, and we’re evolving at just the same speed as we always have been. But at this moment in time, we sit right out at the end of a very lonely branch of the evolutionary tree. There’s no one else remotely like us. So you know, what I often say when I'm talking about the ancient world that we -- the early humans lived in is that it was like Middle Earth, right? It was like a world full other creatures a lot like us, creatures that we may even have been able to communicate with, and certainly we did interbreed with the Neanderthals and other archaic humans.

But they all went extinct and there’s only us today. But if we manage to survive, and I think that’s certain because our record is short. If we manage to survive, I think there’s every likelihood that some point in the future that Homo Sapiens could produce multiple branches of descendants that are -- would be considered different species.

Media: OK. And just one thing, native tribes have their own tale on how they got here. So when you go to them and explain your theories, how did they take it?

Niobe Thompson: Well, you're right. In my experience, every indigenous culture has some kind of creation myth. And those creation myths typically clash with what, you know, population genesis has to say about human migration.

So you know, I always look for the points that we can agree on. And one thing that I often find we agree on is that humans are always in movement. And I think from the outside, we often assume that indigenous people simply believed that the place they live in has always been their home.

But if you dig into their stories, their myths of origin, very often those stories include coming from somewhere else. And so that’s a place where we can find a common language and we can, you know, we can talk about how humans are always in movement, we always have been in movement, we always have been adapting to new environments, and we’ve always been explorers, looking for new opportunities by moving on.

So you know, really it’s just a matter of finding those places where you agree. 

Media: When you went into these areas to see the natives, I mean, you would’ve done your own research before that, you would have your own perceptions before you went. Was there anything that really surprised you that maybe, you know, sticking to what you have researched and throw it out of the window?

Niobe Thompson: I would say that the sequence in the third episode, about human adaptation to the sea that we shot in the (Cepess) region of Papua New Guinea was an experience I’ll never forget.

So we took our crew to a very remote village in the Pacific Region of Northern Papua New Guinea to film a male initiation ritual. And these are the Crocodile People. They call themselves the Crocodile People. They live in a kind of water labyrinth environment in this swamp region. And they always worship and fear the crocodile. Because the crocodile is the most dangerous animal in their environment.

And so when boys reach a certain age, they go to this initiation ritual and they cut hundreds of times, and the scars heal in a certain way so that their skin through keloid scarring takes on the appearance of a crocodile. And that’s how they become a man.

And when I was studying the shoot up, you know, again, I worked in this for a year. I went to Papua New Guinea in person almost a year before our shoot. I thought, well this is a fascinating example of a culture that is adapted to a water environment. And maybe it gives us some insights into the first, you know, water people.

But our experience was totally different. What we came away from the initiation with was this incredible respect for the value of initiation rituals. You know, initiation rituals in the west have almost disappeared. We don’t really initiate our young people in any way into the adult world. And initiation is much more than, you know, a single event. It’s a whole process of education. And with the Crocodile People, after the skin cutting, the boys stay in this spirit house for three months and that’s the first time they're exposed to all the stories of the man. And so the boys actually take on this knowledge of how to be a proper citizen in this culture.

And I was just so inspired by this, and I really, you know, mourn the fact that hear in Canada, we don’t have anything like that. There is no sense of initiation in Canadian culture. And it’s something I really wish we did have.

That’s tradition. The tradition of initiation is something I think we’ve lost.

Media: Now, about the human evolution thing, right, do some races have -- I have to ask, do some races seem to evolve faster? Because I recently read that people -- the Dutch people are seem to be going at a faster rate than other races around the world?

Niobe Thompson: Well, I think you're touching upon the question of epigenetics, which is the next frontier in the study of genetics.

Of course, you know, the genome of the Dutch really has not changed significantly in the last several thousands of years. And yet, in the last few hundreds of years as you say, Dutch people have been getting radically taller and bigger. And that really is epigenetics at work. It’s the ability for proteins on the outside of the gene structure to switch on and off in response to conditions in their environment.

And so you might have heard that if you are overweight, you can pass on the propensity of obesity to your child. That is an epigenetic change.

And so I think, you know, this is an example of how something we just didn’t even suspect was possible 10 years ago in the study of genetics is now emerging.

That’s not to say that we evolve, our genes change in response to our environment. The basic genetic structure doesn’t change. But the way that the gene activates, the gene that we already have activates, can respond to our environment.

I would not say that there are certain races that are evolving faster than others. And you know, the question of races is an interesting one. If you look at genetic diversity in humans today, there’s less genetic diversity in all 7 billion of us than there is in one troop of West African chimpanzees. That’s just amazes me. But it shows you that all humans are extremely closely related. And the reason we’re so closely related is because we descend from a very small group of humans who were surviving about 150,000 years ago.

So there is no such thing as race. You know, skin color is one thing, but if you dig below the surface, you’ll find that genetically human beings on earth are practically identical. 

Media: So as you point out, we all came from the same source. But how is it that one group seems to be getting larger than the others?

Niobe Thompson: The question of the Dutch?

Media: Uh-huh.

Niobe Thompson: Well, as far as I know, I mean, this is not something I know that much about, but what I do know is that the Dutch are responding to very favorable conditions for growth, which essentially boils down to good nutrition, a good public health lack of disease. You know, the Dutch have had a very good diet, a very nutritious diet full of fat and dairy and meat for longer than many other cultures, even other cultures in Europe.

So for example in the United Kingdom which is -- has been a very unequal society for until very recently, only people at the very top of British society were getting good nutrition. And so you saw this in World War I when all of the soldiers of the Commonwealth gathered in Europe to fight, that the infantry, the British infantry, the privates, the working class English were a lot shorter than infantry from other Commonwealth countries where nutrition was better.

So you just basically get a big difference over just a couple of generations through good nutrition alone. 

Media: As an anthropologist, as a documentary filmmaker, I mean you’ve seen, you’ve read, you’ve heard about the horrible things that humans do to each other. I mean, from perhaps the weakest species on the planet, we emerged as the strongest, most resourceful, most intelligent.

Do you think that if dawned on people how special we are, they would quit doing the things they do, or do you think they’ll just make things worse?

Niobe Thompson: That’s a wonderful question. And you're getting at something that I thought about a lot but have never made into a clear point in my films.

My films going back over the years are always about the miracle of our species, back at a time when we weren’t writing the history yet. So it’s what the deep past can tell us about our species.

And I find time and time again these stories of incredible bravery, curiosity, inventiveness. You know, the very fact that humans lived everywhere from the hottest deserts to the coldest tundra or out on the seas on tiny islands or up on the mountains, really does show you what a miraculous creature we are. And you know, it’s a wonderful thing to discover about yourself.

I don’t know if learning that kind of a thing would make us better to each other. But I think a story like The Great Human Odyssey does help show our common humanity. It helps to show that you know, not very long ago, all of us were just a small group of people hanging on in Africa. I mean, we all descent from a group of survivors that’s somehow found a way to escape this mega drought in the interior of Africa to find a new way of life on the coast and then to rebuild from there.

I think when you look at human -- the human story from that perspective, it’s harder to see the differences. And you know, if you think about the sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East for example, and then you step back and you think -- but we’re all descendants from this tiny group of (colorful) humans, I mean how can we see each other as being so different after when this is our common heritage.

I just rely on people to connect the dots. I think that the most I can do is tell these stories and let people come to these understandings themselves if they ever do.

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