Origins Of Us: Studying chimpanzees

Monday 17 October 2011, 16:39

Dr Alice Roberts Dr Alice Roberts Presenter

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Filming for Origins gave me the opportunity to do something I've never done before: to observe our closest cousins, chimpanzees, in the wild.

Earlier this year, on 5 March, I met up with a crew I knew very well - we'd filmed before on Incredible Human Journey - in Heathrow's Terminal Five.

We flew to Entebbe in Uganda, then drove some six hours to Kibale - the famous wild chimpanzee research station.

We arrived at the research station at dusk.

We were given a very serious health and safety induction which included: how to behave if a chimpanzee charged at you (stand up tall and wave your arms); how to behave if a forest elephant headed straight for you (stand aside); how to deal with army ants (don't stand on them).

The next day, we set off around 7am, walking into the forest, up a dirt track at first.

We were led by field guide Francis, who had worked at Kibale for 19 years.

On our team, assistant producer Mags Lightbody had been there in those early years, helping to habituate the chimpanzees to human presence.

Dr Alice Roberts with a chimpanzee

Dr Alice Roberts holds a chimpanzee at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center. Strict rules in the National Parks mean that no one ever touches a wild chimpanzee in Kibale.

Five field assistants came with us to help carry all our gear into the forest. We turned off the track, down a steep and narrow path.

The forest was dense but the paths were well-used - by animals but also researchers.

Still, there was some pushing through undergrowth and our porters carried machetes to clear awkward or dangerous branches.

The forest was wet and getting steadily warmer as the sun climbed higher above us.

I was getting steadily warmer as well, as we trekked up and down through a series of thickly forested ridges and valleys.

At the bottom of the valleys, we would find ourselves splashing through small streams, or almost getting mired in boggy patches, which had been made even boggier by elephants, their massive, round footprints forming deep puddles.

Climbing a steep slope, Francis paused and whooped loudly, and I heard an answering whoop not too far away.

He was calling to the field assistants who were already out in the forest, with the chimpanzees.

We were very close, and in fact, when he pointed to the top of a tall fig tree just over the crest of the hill, I could see movement amongst the leaves.

Leaving the porters and the bulk of our gear behind, we carried on, as a smaller team, and came across the four field assistants and postgraduate students, all armed with notebooks.

Six or seven chimpanzees were high in the tree, eating a breakfast of figs.

They lay in the crooks of forked branches, reaching out to pick the fruit, and occasionally moving to a new branch, with a rustle and a small shower of falling leaves.

After about half an hour, they started to come down from the tree, and then they were off, knuckle-walking at a fast pace through the forest, and we followed them at a discrete distance.

They didn't stay move as a group. They came down out of the tree singly, although little ones stayed close to their mothers, jumping onto their backs for a lift once on the ground.

They kept in touch with each other with occasional grunts and pant-hoots as they dispersed in the forest, but they also seemed to know where they were headed.

Francis said the fig tree was a favorite place to start the day, but they'd stop off at other trees throughout the day.

They liked eating fruit in the morning, and ate leaves on the ground in the afternoon.

There were about 1800 chimpanzees in the whole forest; the group we were tracking comprised around 50 chimps, but this was also broken up into smaller groups of 15 to 20.

And all the time, groups would be splitting and fusing, with individuals moving between groups - chimpanzee society is very dynamic.

As the chimpanzees moved between trees, they were all around us in the forest, and would often pass by very close, sometimes a metre or two away - which was both terrifying and exciting.

Francis was very aware of where the chimpanzees were around us and would warn us - "There's someone over there," he would say.

The Kibale chimpanzees aren't hunted for bushmeat, and they're never fed by the researchers in the forest, so these chimpanzees viewed humans neither as a threat nor as a source of food.

Getting so close to the chimpanzees whilst they effectively ignored us was a huge privilege.

They were behaving naturally, just getting on with chimpanzee things, whilst we watched them.

Observing chimpanzees in this way is valuable and fascinating in its own right, but it also helps us understand ourselves.

We start to see where the real similarities and differences lie, we can identify the things about humans that are truly unique, when we compare ourselves with our ape cousins - with whom we have a common ancestor, going back some six to seven million years ago.

We had a good day's filming; cameraman Paul Jenkins was delighted that he'd been able to capture so much footage of the chimpanzees.

So, while it was still light, we started to head back to the research station.

We may only have been about a mile away from the compound, as the crow flies, but it took about an hour and a half to get in and out of the forest.

We were all happily tired at the end of the day, and settled down for a well-earned beer and a hot supper.

Going to bed early, I made sure that my mosquito net was safely tucked in under the mattress, and listened to the sounds of the forest again as I dropped off.

We'd be back in the forest again in the morning.

Dr Alice Roberts is the presenter of Origins Of Us.

Origins Of Us starts on BBC Two on Monday, 17 October at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I tried to watch this program and I couldn't. It started all wrong. What we need to know is where the apes came from i.e. the origin/beginning of things. Either scientists admit that they don't know, that God exists and he created the universe. Your version of human evolution is not going to repair the damage caused by scientists that black people are apes, the insults which you are aware of. You will still have to explain how the different races, languages came about, ended in specific places. Unfortunately contrary to scientific belief the bible answers this simply and clearly whereas science does not have a simple and straightforward explanation/starting point. Its all about fossils, dna, genes

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    All white people in Africa came from Europe if they knew that they originated from the dark continent they would know it whereas the bible traces everybody clearly from Israel how they split up and ended up where they are now. I am not a religious fanatic but it makes sense to me and unless scientist offer something more believable I'm sticking by it. There are bound to be similarities between humans and animals but it does not mean that we came from them. I think scientists must despise the human race to think so low of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Interesting to hear how the different parts of the body are different from those considered our nearest relative, so I felt I did learn something interesting and useful. However, I was disappointed, although not surprised, that the Aquatic Ape theory is ignored and simply covers the Savannah theory. Of course it is very difficult to cover all the questions we are likely to raise and there are so many different theories. Would like to see a programme covering some of the alternative theories though. As always, good try BBC!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Lizzie I'm afraid the problem appears to be as you say: "I tried to watch this program and I couldn't."

    Lizzie, I would implore to actually watch a lot more of these programs - the cosmos, evolution of the earth, evolution/extinction of species on it. It's fascinating stuff and, most importantly, backed up by lots of evidence that makes it factual. So much evidence that it would be impossible to demonstrate it in just one one-hour documentary. It's far more inspiring than the evolution of an idea over 2,000-4,000 years that came from the minds of influential spiritual leaders / prophets - ideas that have been reshaped, segregated and contradicted themselves over that very short time in human history.

    Unfortunately none of this evolution evidence was available 2,000 years when humans became evermore inquisitive about the stars above, the world around them and how they came to be. They needed answers as much then as we do now but today the answers are far more convincing and proven. The most exciting part is we can always add to that and there's more yet to be learned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Now I’ve watched the programme. I do not mean to be disrespectful and have appreciated where science was presented as science however please allow me to express my problems in understanding. It seems that we started to run and therefore developed the necessary physical characteristics to run and because animals such as lions were around in our Savannah environment at the time we needed sweat glands so that we could endurance run so we developed sweat glands which enabled us to outrun the lions and so we survived (then why was Dr Roberts afraid as she walked in the Savannah?). Then we started to use tools so we developed thumbs that could grip - so that we could use tools. All this twisted logic and leaps of faith and way- out conclusions of what happened without even a hint of being able to explain the mechanism by which we made such changes take place! Would this not have involved impossibly dramatic changes in our DNA? The excuse that “it took millions of years” still does not explain the mechanism. Then we only saw a handful of remains - compared with the millions that should have been found by now exhibiting the claimed self-motivated gradual changes to our present form. Were it not so sad it would be comical. Some scientific answers please Dr Roberts, not pure conjecture – or be honest and humbly accept that we are fearfully and wonderfully made!
    Comment prior to watching:

    Whilst I enjoy the variety and general production quality of BBC science and nature programmes I feel it necessar,y in the interests of fair representation
    and truth, to comment on an underlying and unwarranted bias.

    Comment prior to screeing:
    As I write "Origins of Us" has not yet been screened but, based on the annotated picture of a skeleton on p39 of the radio times, I anticipate a continuation
    of the BBCs rigid support of those who, in the name of science, claim evolution as fact rather than as a theory.

    In the picture, similarities in skeletal structure are taken as reasons for jumping to massive conclusions. A time period of 2 million years
    since "our ancestors Homo erectus" is quoted. Since we have presumably found the remains of Homo erectus then presumably we have also dug up millions
    of remains which clearly prove that the gradual changes claimed to have taken place have indeed done so. If this is not the case, then presumably the possibility has been proven by
    scientific demonstration. If neither are true then it can only be claimed as a theory - and a very tenuous one at that!

    This bias is not without implications and hence responsibility. The theory of evolution ultimately leads to a lack of absolutes, moral chaos and a meaningless existence.
    It would appear that the BBC chooses to ignore that body in the scientific community which recognises that the beauty and complexity of nature are not the highly unlikely
    product of chance but point to a creator and hence the opportunity for finding true meaning in life.

    Are you willing to present the other side and recognise the right of licence holders to unbiased programming?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm not an anthropologist, and I'm not a cynic. Maybe that's why this programme made me happy! Whether the science was correct, or whether a certain theory was given an adequate airing, for me was irrelevant. It revealed the fundamental beauty of our origins. Thank you, Dr Roberts!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I have just checked the comments regarding "Origins of us." There are many mixed views and I am sorry, but I must add mine. In my own way I have also been researching the origins of us, but down a much different path. Dr Roberts did a very interesting and absorbing description of how we arrived to where we top the evolutionary scale. She rightly concentrated on the physical evidence, after all what else is there? My research however is about the intelligence factor, which preceded all that, which her programme was about. Without which the programme could not have been made. This takes us back to the very beginning and I have to ask myself: did it all happen randomly or was it designed from the very first life-form? I am referring to a natural source. If this is so, our inheritance is mind boggling! The Reality That Will Explain The Whole!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A great programme, beautifully photographed! It's a shame that some people find the idea of evolution so threatening - I think it's a beautiful thing! So much diversity of life. There are lots of interesting debates to be had, though. I too am always a little disappointed that the role of water is often overlooked in human evolution, although I do think the full blown aquatic ape hypothesis has some serious flaws - the early appearance of bipedalism in ape species that had no clear association with water, for example. But, wading is often overlooked as one possible motivator and selection pressure for upright gait - might confer a significant advantage if fish became an important source of food. Also, it seems unlikely that we would evolve sweating as a means of cooling unless we had a plentiful supply of water. Fascinating questions - can't wait for next week's episode :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Interesting point LizF (re: "it seems unlikely that we would evolve sweating as a means of cooling unless we had a plentiful supply of water.")
    ...though the African landscape was very different 1-4 million years ago and there was a lot more water/river supplies then. But as you rightly say they would have needed water to sweat, well if this water dried up (which it did in many areas) they would have needed to move out of those dried lands (which they did)...and spread to asia and europe they did but only in the last 100,000 years i believe

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    An interesting program and some very amusing comments. If people like Lizzie and Alan have such little minds as to need a creator to feel comfortable with life, then as long as they dont use that as a reason to hurt others I say leave them off. None of us can escape our own minds and if we need a crutch to get through the day so be it. That said, I'm not 100% on the side of Dawkins and his self proclaimed big brained lot either (and only partly because of his appalling public personality), I mean if your willing to believe in a creator, then you could believe she made the world 5 minutes ago, fossils in the ground and memories in our head. (although I wish she hadnt created me with this shoulder pain that is keeping me up if thats the case). If she did create the world on Sunday 24 October 4004BC (happy birthday world!) then she put some serious interesting messages in the ground for us to work out. Generally I think science V religion is a very poorly formed debate. Sells a lot of books though.
    Anyway, Alice if you do read down this far, there was a serious point I've always thought of whenever people talked about what marked humans out as special. As a heating and lighting engineer, I would naturally think that using fire was the big break through for us. I mean if beavers became the number one species they would point to their dam building history and say it was their teeth that marked them out. In fact nature seems full of creatures using things in a cleaver way. But only one creature made use of fire and thus opened their up some many new environments to develop into. Is there some chemical process in the brain that suppresses our fear of fire? If so how did this evolve?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Well, that was my fist blog and this is my second. It is amazing what conclusions were jumped to about the size of my mind and my religious beliefs! I only ask for some serious consideration of the points I made on a scientific basis. By the way on entering this blog I was intersted to note that the caption under the picture reads ""How our bottoms are DESIGNED for running".

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    In response to Tim - I fully acknowledge that the programme was enjoyable based on its production quality, lovely scenes and the very pretty Dr Roberts for whom I have the greatest respect as a person – but surely truth also matters . An analogy might help. Once there was a van carrying small tins of oil paint and it crashed, accidentally and the paint tins fell off and broke open and you arrive at the scene and there you see a very beautiful painting. Would you come to the conclusion that all that paint had somehow fallen precisely so as to create the painting? – just possibly. Would it matter to you how it got there? Perhaps not - from the point of view of your being able to enjoy it. Then suppose, whilst you are absorbed in admiring the painting someone, by the name of Rembrandt, tapped you on the shoulder and said are you enjoying my painting? Would it matter to the artist? Would the artist matter to you? How much more complex is the human body than a painting! Once I too was blind and could not see but the artist tapped me on the shoulder - may He do so to you and to Dr Roberts and to all who partake in this modern pastime of blogging - then what joy there would be in knowing the "artist".

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    As the implausibility of our ancestors running around the Savannah at breakneck speed has been alluded to by (Alan 17/10) may I make the following point? The clip of Doctor Roberts running in the heat started with her wisely covering herself in “Blocker” I believe. If that were the case then unless our primitive ancestors had access to similar products our species would have surely died out there on the Savannah, would they not?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Davsut, did you not watch the program? Doctor Roberts is not what you would call a typical specimen of Homo Erectus from over a million years ago(nor our ancestors further back from the African continent). Homo Sapiens (i.e. us humans with physical characteristics like us) have been around for 200,000 years. As is evident those that moved out to the Asian and European continents in that time have developed different superficial characteristics.

    Up to 30,000 years ago there was even a completely different species to us, Neanderthals whose bones have been found all across Europe. It seems they died out as our Homo Sapiens spread across Europe 30,000-60,000 years ago

    As for humans outrunning lions, that's not what was being demonstrated. There are many animals that share lands with lions in Africa today that have found the skills to survive and thrive. In a head-to-head situation they wouldn't stand a chance, nor would we. One of our ancestors key advantages that was being demonstrated is the ability not to outsprint them but to run for long distances...thereby when you see a threat in the distance(another survival advantage of standing on two legs) you can get running and keep running.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Amongst religions, Christianity seems to have a special problem with science in general, and evolution in particular. I was fascinated to find this quote from an 18th century Muslim scholar, Ibrahim Hakki Erzurumi; "between plants and animals there is sponge and between animals and humans there is monkey". Darwin may have been a little late :-) BTW, I'm an atheist so have no axe to grind!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    i was dissapointed with this programme,it seem to me that the big questions were just ignored and twee pictures of chimps were shown instead,i.e mammals are the only creatures with hair and i think that the way our sweat glands were just barely mentioned astonishing,the human sweat gland is a wonder,every hair on our body has one and they all have a 17 components to work,how did these evolve?i know that the soft tissue from our ancestors will never be known but the way this programme skipped this and other vital things was in my view a let down

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I watched this program last night and quite frankly I was extremely disappointed. I have never heard so many "if's", "Buts", "Maybe", "Could Have", "probably", "We Think", “almost certainly” and perhaps in a factual program. an then mixed with "Not a Shadow of Doubt" The program has done very little for the theory of evolution.

    As usually with these evolutionary programs nothing mentioned about biogenesis or the unproven abiogenesis. That is that life has only ever been see to be created by life and despite decades of research no one has ever been able to create life from non-life, an absolute must for evolution to be faceable.

    There is a section showing the most important skull ever found as it showed when man started to walk upright as the spinal cord came out of the base of the skull and not the back. Just one skull. I have a friend who was severely deformed at birth whose spinal cord comes out of the back of his skull like a monkeys. If they dig up his skull in a million years’ time will the say that we all walked on all fours.

    They found the next very important skeleton of a 3 foot girls and said that she walked upright as could be seen by the joints of the bones in the ankle because it had a square shape. Only one foot was present on the skeleton and I cannot recall seeing a skull. Once again my friends ankles are very similar to a monkeys allowing him to walk on all fours comfortable. If they find his bones they will almost certainly conclude that we walked on all fours.

    Lastly, not a shred of evidence. No details as to how they dated the bones, no transitional fossils, no direct link between ape and man. Complete assumptions. No mention of the Cambrian explosion, a monumental episode in fosil records. Nothing mention about the extinction of Homo Erectus long before the appearance of modern man.

    So many questions that were simply not answered or even mentioned. Evolution is still very questionable despite the fact that our government allows it to be taught in our schools. This program has shown just how volatile evolution is and has done more for Darwinian objectors than anything that I have seen. Sorry, but if I watch next week it will be to see if the same charade takes place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Our ancestors became bipedal due to plummeting temperatures with climate change - apes walk upright in snow as they don't like their 'hands' getting cold. See last winter's You Tube of Gorilla walking in snow at

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Sorry Alan, but anyone who comes out the the type of tripe you do deserves to be called small minded, because you obviously haven't read very much of worth and you are so insecure about not having a god to believe in. "The theory of evolution ultimately leads to a lack of absolutes, moral chaos and a meaningless existence." is a quote from someone who has never read a book on humanist values. If you want to seriously question science then at least understand it. Science (and the maths it is based on) do not prove things right. They prove them 'wrong' and 'not yet proven to be wrong'. There are no truths in science. Look up Godel's incomplete theorem if you doubt me. If you want to make a serious argument for religion, dont go spouting rubbish about beauty you can see and no-one else can. Science has produced some of the most wonderfully beautiful things in existence. Had Rembrandt or deVinci been alive they (of all the artists) would have been scientists as their art is rational and very mathematical. Instinctive artists, such as Titian or Monet, would still have been artists. If you want to develop an argument for religion worth putting forward read the work of William James. Some of the most interesting, intelligent and challenging people I know are religiously minded. I'm not running you down because of that, I running you down because ... never mind. Not worth the hassle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I don't think you are being honest here. Science, what is it? It is man's interpretation as to how our planet and universe works. Science holds no certianties it uses hypothesis to determine the answers to problems. It then makes tests, collects information and then analysis it. It then does it all again to insure that the result are what they should be. If they are not then it changes the hypothesis. For some reason over the last few centuries science has decided to turn it's attentions on what happened in the past, something that it is ill equipped to do. Nothing that was shown on this documentary is testable. Absolutely nothing. Unless you can observe a transition from one species to another you have nothing. Unless you can replicate such a transition, test it and measure it you have nothing. That is the fundamental nature of science, consequently, evolution is not a science. At best it is educated guesses. Religion is irrelevant to the documentary. This is man overstepping the mark and forcing a falsehood to be the truth. The sad part is that parents are allowing guess work to be taught as fact to their children.

    The program did nothing to convince me that my ancestors were monkeys. This girl said that 99% of a chimps DNA is the same as our. What does that mean. A bananas DNA is 67% the same as ours. Have we defended from a banana? Take a ford cortina and a ford corsiar. Many of the parts are interchangeable as am intelligent designer used the same parts on both vehicles. Would you say that the corsair evolved from the cortina. No of course not they are separate models but both are cars. The documentary made a poor job of convincing the audience that we evolved from apes. I suspect that there will be some cartwheeling going on in the creationist movement after watching that


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