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 21.

    Since the beginning of time, humans have searched for answers. Where do we come from and how did we get here? Anthropological study, the theory of evolution, explanations of how humans could continue to learn about our beginnings. To try and say that evolution can be easily attacked without religion is just a front.

    Organization does not mean that there must be an organizer any more than a correlation doesn't prove causation. In the game of randomness, all scenarios are given equal weight, and just like you find the image of Jesus on a slice of bread, you can find something else which appears structured in a random world. I have met so many people in West Valley Detention Center who learn to believe creationism because that's how inmates deal with their life's perils. We on the outside have a better chance to sort out why our DNA is similar to a banana without blindly accepting it.

    That isn't an argument for evolution, but the argument against is worse. Evolution pretty well explains small adaptations and adjustments in a species as the years go by. As far as going from one species to another, no theory is fail safe there, certainly not creationism too. Keeping an open mind and searching for the answer is the best we can do.

    Let's also not forget that science isn't all about theories. It's about proving them too. That's what the scientific method leads you to, a proof of a hypothesis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I am sorry to tell you that science is all about theories. That is exactly what it is. When it is proven it then becomes technology. Antibiotics is no longer a science. It is a proven fact and is now a commodity. It took science to discover it. The theory of an intelligent Designer using DNA from a living organism to create another living organism is a scientific theory. It can be replicated and tested and retested giving the same results. The is only one variable missing, the intelligent designer so it remains a theory.

    Of course you cannot mix evolution with religion. They contradict each other.

    You do also realise the most religions believe in a creation which makes them creationists. It is not a religion it is a belief in a litral creation

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I also forgot to mention. The adaption you speak of is microevolution which is a fact proven by science. Macroevolution, on the other hand, has no evidence to substantiate the hypothesis. Transition from an ape onto a human is macroevolution and contrary to what this lady says there is no definitive proof for it. I am not religious I just don't like to see falsehoods force on society as the truth. It is better to say we could have evolved from apes as we could but to say we did as though it is fact is dishonest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    What an interesting and illuminating programme, carefully and clearly presented. Well done BBC and Dr Roberts.

    Curiosity about where we came from and how we fit into our world seems to me to describe quite nicely the ancient texts that are being blamed for closing other viewers' eyes and minds to the evidence. Keep using the big brains, and (if you've grown up in the UK) be cautious about lions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Excellent programme! Exactly the reason why I pay my licence fee! However I am bit disappointed by the quality of the debate from the Creationists - reactionary and a teacher I would say "5/10 - could do better".

    Anyway, I feel that standing up on branches to reach fruit is not the reason for longer leg bones...I'd like to see if the evidence supports that.

    I feel that climate change is the driving factor for evolutionary change: forest becoming savanna requires a different skillset for survival. In that environment there is a need to see long distances, view potential predators/leadership challengers etc.

    Savannas are often covered in long golden wheat like grass (Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecosystems) and so standing upright/longer legs would certainly by an evolutionary adaption that gave survival/reproductive advantage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    As there appears to be a block on the number of words I am posting this in two parts. Part 1

    Here are some questions. If these questions can be answered convincingly by present mainstream theory then I would find it compelling, but I doubt they can be.

    Why do we humans use only about 10% of our massively supercharged brains, yet savants can somehow access parts of the remaining 90%? I realise the exact figure is open to dispute but there is vast untapped power in the brain.

    Why is our skin is so poorly adapted to the amount of sunlight striking Earth?

    Why are we are so physically weak compared to our closest genetic relatives?

    Why cannot megalithic structures like the Pyramids and others all round the world be duplicated today?

    How could the ancient Sumerians know Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto existed when we discovered Uranus only in 1781, Neptune in 1846, and Pluto in 1930?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Part 2
    Why do humans have a gene pool with over 4000 genetic defects, while our closest genetic relatives, chimps and gorillas, have very few?

    As we share a common ancestor as the apes why is it, given that we do far more walking than they do, that we adopted a less efficient way of walking?

    Why is the human genome clock only about 200,000 years old but anthropologists insist we descend from creatures 6.0 million years old?

    Why do humans in no way resemble those ancient so-called “pre”-humans?

    Why do humans have 46 chromosomes while our closest genetic relatives (sharing over 95% of our DNA) total 48?

    Why did homo sapiens appear along with all his domesticated crops and animals over night in evolutionary terms?

    Why did homo sapiens first appear in South Africa?

    I find this far more compelling because it can answer all the questions and many more without resorting to a supernatural god.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Alan - I can answer your questions.

    1) Tools were made and tools were used. Then our thumb lengthened to make using to tools easier. Not having a long thumb does not prevent the invention and use of tools. This was implicit in the programme.

    2) No we didn't become endurance runners to outrun lions, and this is patently obvious because we can't outrun lions. So you've completely misunderstood what was being said. What Dr Roberts specifically said is that we can chase any animal on earth in the hot mid-day african sun until it keels over from exhaustion. This is how some tribes still hunt today. However some animals, like lions, wouldn't run would they? Think about it, they have big claws and big teeth - it is far easier for them to attack us rather than run away. In fact the only mention of lions in the programme wasn't to with this point that you've mixed it up with.

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    Comment number 29.

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed this programme. To see the evidence to back up explanations was fascinating - for example, the adaption of bones for walking rather then climbing. The segment explaining our adaption to hunting in the mid-day sun of the savannah presented the idea very clearly - one of those "now you've explained it, it seems obvious" moments. I'm surprised some commenters found this hard to follow, but I'm glad the programme didn't pitch itself at the lowest common denominator like so many science programmes like Horizon do these days. I'm looking forward to the next episode.

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    Comment number 30.

    Well I am really glad to know that I did not start life swinging from a tree. That I am fearfully and wonderfully made. If the question is do I believe that there is a creator you bet your life I do! Its so great to know that I was created and did not evolve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    In looking at further contributions to this blog it is encouraging to see that not all support the theory of evolution – based, as it was presented, on a scientific basis. There does however seem to be a common thread of connecting a creationist view with religion and that religion and science should not be connected to which I’d like to respond. I have not, I believe, appealed to science in the true sense of the word, in support of creationism – whereas the programme presented evolution as being based on science. In terms of a connection with religion I think there is a connection in both views.
    The major role of science has been, and is, the use of our abilities to examine and observe what exists. The results of scientific investigation be it medical, industrial etc. is to use the knowledge gained to manipulate what is there to our advantage.
    As the more scientific contributors have said science involves observation and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Further I would say it generally requires the reproduction of experiments to prove the hypotheses under laboratory conditions. Since this has not been, and I submit cannot, in view of the time periods quoted, be applied to proving the theory of evolution it therefore remains a theory. There is therefore a need to believe that which cannot be proven which we may call “faith”. If we take it further and acknowledge that what we believe influences what we do then we may say it is a “religion”.
    So, in reality the evolutionist and creationist, are on level ground – science cannot be appealed to and both need faith and involve religion.
    So we may resort to partial science i.e. observation and the examination of evidence.
    In terms of belief in creation it is based partly on the evidence of the extraordinary complexity and beauty of creation – only one part being the human body – which would be remarkable if there were nothing else. In addition we have the progress of scientific discovery (since Darwin’s very primitive understanding), including the discovery of DNA - the most complex code in the world. We may mention irreducible complexity – an organ such as the eye which depends on all parts being present in order to function – why and how would a retina develop without a lens and vice versa.
    In terms of evolution, I submit that the evidence is not very convincing – relatively few bones (considering the time elapsed since Darwin) whereas there should be millions of remains of intermediate species and of development within species. No explanation of the mechanism by which major change takes place – only an appeal to millions of years for a possible process to happen. In fact belief has to override the science of mathematics since, in statistics, it is generally accepted that a statistically highly unlikely event will not take place. In evolution theory not just one, but an immeasurable number of highly unlikely events, would be necessary firstly to initiate life and then to produce the variety we see today.
    Why then this tenacious belief in the theory of evolution despite the increasing evidence against it? Well, as I am aware that logic is not sufficient, I appeal to the most trustworthy evidence, not mentioned so far, - the Bible, which contains the creation account and the answer to that question. Just read it!
    No doubt that will initiate a condemnatory response from those who have bigger brains and are very broad minded, except when it comes to the Bible (but have never read it!) – but it’s worth the hassle because who knows what the final outcome may be :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    digressing from the human evolution debate, meet the giraffe, a wonderful example of evolution (or very bad intelligent design!):

    Very interesting stuff!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Post 31. Alan

    Genesis in the Bible is a confused and condensed account of the original creation story told on Sumerian clay tablets which never mentioned a supernatural God creator.

    The Sumerians never referred to God, capital G. They referred to gods, small g. They called them the Annunaki (people who from heaven to earth did come). They knew that these people were flesh and blood beings from another world. In fact they freely intermingled, has sex with them, and on occasions married them producing hybrid demi-gods who were sterile.

    Genesis does give an indication in
    6:1 And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, 6:2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

    They had been created in the image of the gods by a process we know today as genetic engineering and invitro -fertilisation using sperm from hominoids and implanting the eggs in Annunaki females known as birth goddesses. They were initially created as slave labour to carry out mining and farming operations and all were initially sterile. The best hominoid candidate is the Alma of the Tibet region which researchers are 95% certain they have traced. This critter is our real ancestor.

    Transitional fossils showing man gradually developing a pronounced forehead with a larger brain have not been found because there are none. Homo sapiens appeared over night in evolutionary terms together with his domesticated crops and animals because they were all genetically engineered. The writers of Genesis attributed this to a supernatural god because they had lost the knowledge of the Sumerians.

    The Sumerians introduced to the world, art, music, literature, science, astronomy, mathematics, writing, high rise buildings, geometry, law, the principles of printing etc. They knew how the our solar system was formed, the number and composition of the planets and how our earth occupies its present position close to the sun. They knew about the asteroid belt and the appearance of the outer planets before we rediscovered them. In fact their writings allowed Zechariah Sitchin to announce on TV that Uranus and Neptune would look watery and blue/green before Voyager sent back pictures.

    They could not have obtained all this sophistication within such a short period of time or gained knowledge of our solar system unless someone with advanced technology had told ‘em.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I love these programmes and think Dr Roberts presents in a clear and defined way, in particular she is audibly clear. So many presenters speak in muffled tones. However, and it's a Big However... Why, after listening and watching to programmes such as the 'Origins of Us, am I left thinking that there is a wealth of material omitted. I often believe that many or most of the questions or unanswerable aspects and threads are disregarded and this in the interest of a 'smooth running programme' that is a functional-fit and will keep the Presenter as 'on top of their game'. Thus only material that is neatly tied together is presented. I can't help thinking that the material,research,questions and subject-specific considerations which are left out from a production would make a riveting and thought provoking programme. After all, this is what such programmes aim to do,otherwise there is no point to them.

    The music is brilliant.

    How about it BBC. A programme focusing on the omitted material!!!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Thank you, Dr. Alice Roberts, for so beautifully presenting this fascinating series in which the origins of Homo sapiens, their ancestral species and their relatives are mapped through time. The links to key adaptations which have helped them survive in challenging environments is fascinating, including the difference between climbers and upright species. The jigsaw of evolutionary events over several million years has been beautifully presented with sound supporting scientific evidence including the fascinating differences in anatomy between different hominin species. This is a real gem of a series and the truth about our origins is such a pleasure to learn about with the support of so many skilled and dedicated scientists seeking the truth about our origins and their place in history. This is such an important chapter in becoming more enlightened about our place in the history of life on Planet Earth! Brilliant work BBC in gracing our TVs with this wonderful series and for the choice of such a knowledgeable, enthusiastic and skilled presenter!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Roz 01 message 34

    You have a point. There are claims that orthodoxy tends to ignore and marginalize, even suppress, discoveries that don’t fit their theories.

    I wonder what Alice Roberts and her team would make of this?

    No genetic trace on the male side! Probably not connected with the Sumerian gods because they were said to be like us only quite a bit bigger, or rather we like them, but the evidence so far gathered from DNA analysis is already very compelling. A full genome recovery is anticipated to be conclusive. My guess is that they will be connected to the little grey fellows prevalent in encounters of the third kind so popular with sci-fi writers.

    If the genome is conclusive it won’t prove the Sumerian stories as true but it will prove that we have been visited and probably that genetic manipulation has been going on quite recently, for a purpose unknown.

    I wish that someone would arrange a meeting where the traditional Darwinists could go head to head in a debate with someone like Pye about these alternative theories. That really would be interesting. No point in involving Creationists because you can’t prove or disprove any supernatural god claims.

    Pity no one has thought to do a DNA test on some of the more extreme cone heads found throughout the world. These may turn out to be all be down to head bandaging but why not find out? That would also make for a very interesting programme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I watched this programme with interest but was disappointed to find no mention of the Aquatic Ape theory. Our nakedness and our bipedalism, for instance, are inadequately explained by the taking-to-the-savannah theory. It would have added immensely to the debate if Elaine Morgan (The Descent of Woman) had been interviewed for the programme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Really enjoyed this show, including the fact that it was pitched toward a reasonably educated audience. Unfortunately that seems to have left a few of the commenters on here struggling to keep up with its actual content.

    I though that it did a good job of presenting the relevant scientific evidence that related to the theme of the show - i.e. what our bones tell us about our evolution from pre-human to human.

    It saddened me to see some people on here reacting against it out of utter misunderstanding and superstition.

    It is not the job of science programs to humour the religiously deluded by giving any weight to or wasting any time on the fairy stories that they and their religious leaders want to perpetuate.

    One of the most concise and eloquent rebuttals of creationism I have ever encountered is the simple one-panel cartoon at this link:

    Even if we accept that the fossil evidence for evolution isn't 100% (the fossilisation process is such that it would actually be extremely rare for them to be formed, so lacunae are hardly surprising), there are these things called genes which have pretty much made the case, for anyone who has the desire for overwhelming evidence. (As an aside, it always make me chuckle that creationists deride evolution as not being 100% proven whilst asking us to believe instead in something for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever)

    I don't know where we actually came from in the first place (i.e. how life, the universe and everything came to be). The big bang theory takes a good bit of swallowing and I can't pretend to genuinely understand it. I'm happy to just admit I don't know and that we most likely never will.

    However, there is no need to posit a magic man in the sky who made everything, even if the occasional imaginative leap is required in many a scientific theory.

    Good work Alice et al. Looking forward to watching the next episode.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Great stuff, and the presenter is so beautiful

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I have been trying to explain to my friends at work the experiment that Alice carried out regarding the theory on why we cook food - the part with the carrots!

    Could you provide a brief explanation of what happend as they think I am talking rubbish!!



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