There’s a new show on the National Geographic Channel that’s tracing the early history of the human race. It features Bill Schindler, an anthropologist/experimental archaeologist (and professor at Washington College in Maryland) and Cat Bigney, a survival expert (and primitive skills instructor at the Boulder Outdoor Survival School). What the show does is have them spend about a week trying to live the way human’s did, and using only the skills of those humans, at different times in their remote past.
The first show, Dawn, starts with Homo habilis, ancestors from about 2.6 million years ago. We’re told that they will use “no modern tools”. But see if you can spot their modern tools as they start out.
Yes, that’s right: shoes. And shoes are tools. If they are shod they are using tools that Homo habilis did not have and they are not living the way our remote ancestors did. And that really bugs me.
Granted, Homo habilis probably didn’t wear clothing either, but there is no real need to turn this show into “Naked and Afraid”. Besides, a bit of clothing in the African savannah probably doesn’t change their lifestyle. But shoes, comparatively speaking, make a big difference.
So, they’re plopped down in the savannah and they need to find food, water, and shelter. And, since they are acting as Homo habilis, they don’t even have fire for protection. For the first night they find a baobab tree. Climbing it will put them out of the reach of a lot a predators, so Bills tries to start climbing it.
That sure does look awkward, doesn’t it? And he doesn’t get very far. Neither does Cat when Bill tries to help her.
[Click on many of the pictures for larger versions.]
But then Bill suggests doing what the local Hadza peoples do: pound wooden sticks into the bark of the tree to make a primitive ladder. And then they show us a Hadza doing it right.
So then Bill and Cat start working their way up the tree.
Yes, Cat still has her sandals on in this shot. But then we see her again.
Her footwear is removed, she is much more like the Hadza, but the narrator makes absolutely no comment about her suddenly lack of footwear.
But they do show us an illustration of how Homo habilis could be in the same situation.
Well, at least they are barefoot (and naked, too).
The show does show quite a few more picture of Cat and Bill ascending the tree, barefoot. Bill cautions Cat to try to keep as much weigh on her toes, where the sticks are better anchored (and your foot exerts less torque on it).
But again, there was absolutely no commentary about the sudden switch from sandals to bare feet. Of course, we know why. Because bare feet work so much better so much of the time.
About the only times ancient peoples wore shoes (particularly before they became fashion statements) was for long-distance traveling and for temperature control. (And “temperature control” really means “below freezing” because continuously bare feet are usually just fine above that temperature.)
They do make it up into the tree in time, since it has gotten to be late in the day and the sun is setting. Fortunately for them, there is a full moon, which they show us (good television, eh?).
The next day they find a bit of water and a bit of food. Cat finds some tubers and Bill finds some honey. They show Bill climbing into the (fairly short) tree.
But then, right in the middle of the sequence when he is using a chipped rock to break into the tree to get the honey, the show does what I call “a gratuitous barefoot shot”.
We know he’s not up in the tree barefoot; there are other shots that show that that is not how he is clinging to the tree as he works. It’s just a shot of Bill’s bare foot to show us how “primitive” things are. Gratuitously.
The next night is spent on top of a rock outcropping. When they go to climb it, all of a sudden they are barefoot again.
What happened to their sandals? Why did they take them off? (We know.) But why won’t they tell us? Again, this switching between sandaled and barefoot without any commentary is really rather annoying, as if it is totally irrelevant to anything, and it is not irrelevant to their situation at all!
And in this screenshot we see that they both climbed barefoot, though we do see that Cat carried her sandals up with her, as they are now sitting next to her.
The next night was in a different baobab tree, but this one was hollowed out, so there was no climbing, and thus no bare feet.
Now, I can see people objecting to my being annoyed by the sandals. They could say, “But we don’t want our stars injured.” “Yeah, sandals are a slight departure from authenticity, but they could get hurt.”
I don’t buy it. If you claim to be only using the tools available to your time period, then you don’t show tools (footwear) that are anachronistic. And they introduced the stars to other hazards.
They had them drink water right from a small pool (while worrying about parasites).
They showed them scavenging a fresh kill and eating it raw.
They showed the injuries they sustained maneuvering an acacia bush (with its horrible thorns) that they used to create a barrier to the entrance of their baobab shelter.
Actually going barefooted would not have been any more of a burden.
Now, it may be that they faked some of the shots for safety purposes, e.g., not really drinking the water, or treating it first. They can do that sort of thing for film-making purposes.
But they could also have faked going barefoot so that they would be authentic in that regard. Instead of the incredibly jarring sandals on, sandals off scenes, they could have made sure only to go barefoot when filming the shots for the show.
It was a good show, and interesting. There’s another episode on tonight, “The Great Human Race — Fire”, featuring Homo erectus, and I’ll watch it.
But in regards to faking it, near the end of the show, after they had supposedly been out there 7 days, they showed another moon shot.
And the moon was still full. That’s not the way the moon works.
And having our ancestors wearing sandals 2.6 million years ago is not how that worked, either.