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 41.

    Congratulations, Dr Roberts, on a very intersesting and thought-provoking programme, clearly and slowly explaining human evoluution. Not the full picture, of course: you can't pack everything into a series like this.

    I don't want to get into the Creationist-Evolutionist debate here (it would be endless), except to say that I was once a Creationist, but having closely studied Genesis I really can't see how science can be based on it. (I'll come back to this later of anyone's interested).
    What I want to ask you, Dr Roberts, is to clarify something about human evolution. On the basis of the classic Darwinist model, I understand that the evolutuon of any organism is the result of genetic mutation acted on by natural selection. For example, a particular ape develops amylase in its saliva, which enables it to digest starch, and this helps it to diversify its diet, thus increasing its chances of survival. Its offspring inherit the amylase gene and so this characteristic gradually spreads throughout the population. But the script of programme didn't explain it this way. Dr Roberts, you seemed to be saying that early hominids started eating tubers and thus (as a result) developed saliva cotaining amylase. Similarly, you seemed to be saying that by eating meat we developed sharper teeth, and by behaving in various novel ways (e.g. running, making tools) we developed certain anatomical characteristics. This is surely putting the cart before the horse. Could you clarify? Thank you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    It makes me laugh thinking about Darwin's ideas. Has anybody from this sirious scientist thinking about how the recombined DNA can exist? Does anybody really eat up this tale about the fortunate electric shock in to the warm sea of ammonias what suddenly created such a sofisticated information system. I want to believe. :-)

    What if you people are souls? What if two or more atoms will never think that "I am"?
    What if they have never seen thoughts in those photos just like thermo scans of a running processor these show electric flows in a hardware called brain? What if there is no evolution - by the way why should it be? Why an atom or two would want to move together toward showing higher survival potential? Why people cannot see from their eyes the existence of life? Peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I was simply appalled that someone who calls herself an anthropologist could conflate evolution with a notion that there is such a thing as cultural evolution. First year undergraduates are disabused of this 19th century myth. I refer of course to dr. Robert's presentation of a group she visited as some sort of prehistoric survival, living at the edge of civilisation, clinging on and spending their whole time hunting and foraging. Need I say any more? It was depressing in the extreme to see the BBC pedalling the same nonsense that was not even forgiveable a century ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I am enjoying this series immensley. Watch first two episodes so far and am looking forward to the third.
    One aspect I find particularly exiting is the great advances that are being made with the aid of modern technology. For example the animated 3D graphs of Alice's gloved hand with pressure sensors revealing the importance of the enlarged thumb for using tools.
    I think the scientists are doing a great job in piecing together the past with clues like this.
    BTW evolution is no less a fact than that of the case that Earth orbits the Sun. The evidence is overwhelming. Only religious prejudice continues to doubt it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Hey Alice, my daughter wants to marry a chimpanzee. Should I tell her
    a) No, you shouldn't marry your cousin
    b) No, think how the hairy kids will get bullied in school
    c) No way, first sign of a row and he'll rip your face off
    d) No dear, he'll never get a job
    e) Look I've told you, stop anthropomorphizing!
    Whatcha think Doc?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    As the series producer for Origins Of Us, I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to post your comments. The content of the programme has clearly ignited a lot of interest. Human evolution is an area of much debate, even within scientific circles, and we worked hard to present some of the best respected scientific research and thinking that has emerged in the last few years.

    There have been some really interesting points raised.

    #8 LizF and #37 Linderella both asked why we didn't include the aquatic ape hypothesis. It is an interesting idea, but whilst the theory is well known in the popular science literature, it's not one that has much support amongst physical anthropologists. There's an interesting critique in the Journal of Human evolution:

    #10 Tangoruffian is spot on that the use of fire was a major breakthrough - the ability to cook food opened up a whole new range of foodstuffs and increased the calorific value of food. But as far as I'm aware there is no specific mechanism to suppress the fear of fire - apart from the cognitive ability to control it.

    #25 Bundu you are right that standing up to reach branches isn't going to make an animals legs longer. The theory (based on the work of Robin Crompton on brachiation in orangutans: ( is that reaching branchings is purely about an upright posture. Longer legs are thought to be an adaptation to walking - longer legs are more energetically efficient - and there's little doubt in scientific circles that a changing climate and more variable habitat were crucial factors in the evolution of walking.

    #40 Justin Cannon asked about Alice and the carrots... Alice did a simple test - eating half a days worth of calories in carrots, first raw and then cooked - to illustrate the wealth of research that is underway in both animals and humans on the energetics of eating raw versus cooked food. What scientists have found is that although cooking doesn't alter that calorie content of food, the net energy gain from cooked food is greater - up to 30% greater (depending on food type). This is because cooked food is easier to digest, so you spend less energy breaking it down.

    #41 David Monkcom thank you for your kind comments. Apologies that there was lack of clarity about the increase in salivary amylase in the homo genus. As you know, the work is looking at how our diets have changed since our ancestors left the forests, by comparing our salivary amylase with that of chimpanzees. Both chimps and humans have salivary amylase - it's simply that humans have 6-8 time more. This is due to a simple mutation that has led to multiple copies of the amylase gene, that then spread throughout the ancestral human population. There must have been a significant advantage in human evolutionary history to digesting starch - and the current thinking is that is related to tubers.

    #43 AJ the Hadza are a modern human population. What makes them of interest to anthropologists is purely that they are living in the same environment and on the same foodstuffs as early hominin populations. It's thought that the way this affects their society may tell us how it affected the society of earlier hominin people.

    #7 Derek - there's no doubt that human intelligence is a critical factor in the success of our species, and I hope you enjoy tonight’s programme looking at the evolution of our large brain.

    Finally thank you # 6 Tim, #29 sanity, #24JGAR, #35 Shandchem, #38 Stu, #39 hguillemain, #44 PSH for all your kind comments - I'm glad you've enjoyed the series so far - and that you enjoy the final episode tonight!

  • Comment number 47.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    This wasn't high on my priority to watch - don't know why - but I'm so glad I did. Now watched the first 3 episodes and I have to conclude that this series totally kicks butt! Human evolution and evolutionary psychology are fascinating subjects and its good to see some of the latest ideas in such an accessible series. Alice Roberts explanations are exceptionally clear and along with her pleasant and distinctive voice makes a great narrator. The music is good as are the graphics. Top stuff!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Such a refreshing look on human evolution. I wished there were more episodes to watch. I have taken the lesson to look at my body in a different way, and yes maybe to appreciate it a little bit more as it carries that much history with it.

    Dr. Alice Roberts wins you over with her enthousiam and eloquence about the subject and the overal look and feel of the series feels to me like everyone in the team shared the same passion. Well done.

    Furthermore, to all my fellow posters; I guessed that if the programme engaged you to think in a new way, either about our evolution or maybe how you use your body, no matter what your beliefs are, then please agree to congratulate the makers. Being able to think about this is also an attribute that makes us all human.

    If there is anywhere I can contribute to help you guys win awards/ vote etc etc, please do not forget to post where!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Thank you for all the interesting ideas and feedback. Series Producer Zoe Heron has already responded to many of the comments here, but I'd like to respond personally in relation to a few subjects.

    #3 We didn't just cover the savannah theory; in fact, we presented this as one of the alternatives but spent more time discussing Rick Potts' 'variable selection hypothesis', as well as mentioning new research on the possible origins of bipedalism in an arboreal context. The 'Aquatic Ape' doesn't stand up to scrutiny, as I think most researchers in this area would agree, despite popular enthusiasm. More on this in a short essay on my Facebook page:

    #5 I don't want to get into creationist debates; I'm a scientist and this was a science series. In response to specific comments, though - of course evolution is a theory, and it's the theory which best fits the evidence. "Some scientific answers please Dr Roberts, not pure conjecture" - I object to this. None of the content was conjecture - unless absolutely, explicitly stated. The series is based on current research, published in peer-reviewed journals. I have listed just of few of the relevant references on this Facebook page:
    "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!" Whilst we not have millions of fossils, we have plenty of specimens of H erectus, and later species such as H antecessor, H heidelbergensis, H neanderthalensis and early H sapiens that show exactly the changes you allude to.

    #13 As a pale-skinned European, it would be foolish for me not to use sunscreen in Africa. Skin colour maps well onto latitude; it is likely that our ancient African ancestors had dark skin.

    #43 "I was simply appalled that someone who calls herself an anthropologist could conflate evolution with a notion that there is such a thing as cultural evolution." I think a PhD in physical anthropology means that I'm not misleading anyone by calling myself an anthropologist.
    Last year, the Royal Society saw fit to schedule an entire day of talks by leading researchers entitled 'Culture Evolves':
    I visited the Hadza group to talk to modern people who are subsisting by hunting and gathering. I did not suggest that the Hadza could be viewed as a model for human ancestors, merely that we might learn something from this comparative cultural anthropological approach, especially in the context of food provision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    People should be aware that science does not claim to have definitive absolute answers to questions such as "are we descended from apes?". Without a time machine it is impossible to be 100% sure about any events in prehistory. All we can do is form the best explanation for the evidence we see around us today. Theories are constantly changing and being refined when new ideas or evidence arise - this is why science is so exciting!
    I felt that the series raised some interesting topics for debate, I especially found the information about neanderthals fascinating. I would be interested to learn exactly how much DNA we share with them, and whether the proportion of neanderthal DNA varies in different parts of the world. I'm sure we all know someone who looks like they have a fair amount!
    I read an article a while ago about a 24,000 year old burial of a child that appeared to have both human and neanderthal traits (at the Lagar Velho site in Portugal). If interbreeding was fairly common, could it be possible that modern humans are a hybrid species of Cro Magnon man and neanderthals?
    This would make neanderthals part of the same species, but a different race, as only members of the same species interbreed naturally. You could make a TV series about this topic alone!
    Overall, a thought-provoking series, at a time when few of these exist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The Dr presented her own opinion on the fossil remains as if it were fact (see episode 1). She would say things like "We now know x, y and z", whereas a good scientist would be honest and use phrases such as "It is now thought" or "In my opinion" or "There is concensus" etc etc. I am clever enough to realise that not all statements made by scientists are scientific statements, however many will be misled. The fact is that there is a wide spectrum of opinion in relation to the fossils the Dr produced in episode 1, many experts disagree with her opinion. The BBC should not allow this woman to get away with making dogmatic statements about the nature of the fossils and what they allegedly prove. She should of course be allowed to provide her opinion, but not to be dishonest and pretend that her humble opinions amount to scientific fact. A misleading and therefore dishonest display of arrogance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Well done for a fascinating series. For me the ground-breaking highlight came in the third instalment when Alice Roberts was interviewing the mother in the remote African village and the interview transformed into real dialogue. The mother's interrogation of Dr Roberts about her own childcare arrangements enabled the mother to be seen as a full human being with an equally inquisitive intelligence and not merely as an informant. Delightful. I hope this lead will be followed.


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