Last week I wrote about the first episode of the National Geographic show “The Great Human Race”, featuring experimental archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival expert Cat Bigney. Today let me discuss the next two episodes.
I really wish they gave some attention to bare feet as part of the great human race.
In the first episode, Bill and Cat started in Tanzania and “emulated” Homo habilis, by which they meant that they only had the most primitive of a stone tool. Except, when they said they would not use any “modern tool”, they somehow forgot their shoes.
That continued in the next two episodes. In fact, if anything, it got worse.
Here’s a graphic from the show, with the various humans they’ll be looking at all lined up.
(Click on any of the pictures for a larger version.)
You can see Homo habilis back at 2.6 million years. The second episode, “Fire”, dealt with Homo erectus, at 1.8 million years, and then in the next episode, “Hunt”, Homo sapiens arrived on the scene at about 200,000 years ago.
They also show a map.
If you look closely, you’ll see a faint red line that starts in Tanzania, heads up into Siberia and across the Bering Straight, and ends up in North America. I’m guessing that the later episodes will follow that line as time progresses in the development of humans.
The point of “Fire” is that Homo erectus had started to tame fire, so this episode deals with that while Bill and Cat are in Uganda. We are again told that they will use “the primitive stone tools of the time”.
But again, we see them with another tool that Homo erectus didn’t have: footwear.
Now, the show knows that’s not accurate, because they regularly show graphics showing how their subjects really (or reasonably) looked.
OK, Bill and Cat do have another tool not shown in the graphic: clothing. But I’ll grant them that (even if it is a bit hokey looking). This is American TV after all.
But the effect of footwear matters, and it matters a lot in the strategies Homo erectus would use. Let me explain. No, that would take too long. Let me sum up.
The show starts with noting that Homo erectus did not start fires; Homo erectus harvested it. They’d be able to find existing fires from lightning strikes and then carefully husband it along. So the program shows them examining a recently burned over area.
Footwear makes a difference there, in two ways. First, they’d have to be just a bit more careful running around there. There is a certain cavalier attitude that wearing footwear generates. But second, and maybe more importantly, with footwear on they are turning off their sense of touch. A bare sole would easily detect differences in heat and help lead a person to a hotter spot where fire (or a coal) might still be present.
But of course there is no discussion of this in the program.
Bill and Cat then travel north, trying to keep a small coal lit, which is what we are told that Homo erectus would do. This bothers me a bit since in reality, humans would not just have been two people, they would have been a whole community. And the human race would not have spent all of their time moving great distances as a whole. They would have settlements with maybe 15-30 individuals who would all help.
The show kind of intimated this, saying that Bill and Cat would have had some help, but that was all.
Later in the program, after showing them having trouble keeping their coal lit, it was time to show the invention of starting fire on their own. Of course they have to do that dramatically.
Cat is approaching a stream carrying the coal. She mentions that the rock she’s on is slippery.
(Note to Cat: in that situation it would be better to go barefoot and have a much better feel for what you are stepping on.)
But then, oh my goodness, she slips and soaks the ember.
She acts it out fairly well, but it was clearly staged to force them to make fire.
They decide to try to start fire using what was probably the oldest way of doing so, using a fire plow. And of course, they are still wearing their other “tool” on their feet.
And of course that makes no sense. Because if you have footwear on, you is removing one of your most human of skills: manipulation (or should I call that podipulation). Cat realizes that.
Finally, Bill realizes that, too.
Here it’s not manipulation or holding down the stick, it’s just overall better coordination.
They fail at the fire plow (in order, I guess, to show us another way before the show ends) and move on to a simple hand drill.
Again, their footwear is an impediment, so it remains off.
What really bugs me is how the footwear comes on and off without a mention of it at all. It really is an important element of what is going on, and it seems to be invisible to these anthropologists (it turns out they both have anthropology degrees).
The third show in the series is “Hunt”, and we are now up to Homo sapiens. The great human race is now going to be shown moving from scavenging other kills, or hunting using thrown objects (like rocks or bones), to deliberate hunting of larger animals with spears.
Here’s their depiction of an early Homo sapiens.
Yup. Barefoot. Good job.
But let’s see what Bill and Cat are wearing.
OMG. What they heck are those on their feet? Why are they wearing them?
In this episode, what they are doing is finding the materials to build a decent spear, so they look for and find obsidian to make a goot spear point, and bamboo for a good shaft. They are in the Ethiopian highlands.
Now, the program has them climbing huge areas all the way to 13,200 feet. It’s standard survivalist-show stuff. They are huffing and puffing from the altitude and dramatizing how hard it is.
Except human communities, the way it really happened, would not have been scaling peaks to find these things. They would have been well-aware of their neighborhoods. They would have generally gone around all the difficult high points.
Anyways, during one of their climbs, I got a good look at Cat’s footwear:
Hmmm. I’m pretty sure that rubber lug soles, even if strapped to funky leather wrappings by funky leather thongs, are not authentic.
They start off the episode harvesting sinew (or, as Bill puts it sin-oo) from a scavenged dear.
Of course, the program knows they are not authentic, since they then turn that last scene into a sketch.
Hey, look. The footwear magically disappears!
And I still haven’t figured out why they are wearing those monstrosities on their feet.
So they conquer those high peaks, come back down again (partway) and end up in the uplands, where they can find their bamboo.
The uplands are grasslands and woodlands and tropical highland forest. There are trees and streams and bamboo. And then Bill
It’s soaking wet around here. The ground is soaking wet. My feet are soaking wet, the humidity’s high. It’s freezing cold.
Here they are.
Let me give you a hint.
Your feet are soaking wet because you’ve got those monstrosities on them. If you were barefoot the water would not be being absorbed by all that leather and being held next to your skin. And 47° ought to be perfectly, extremely, comfortable for going barefoot (that is, for those who aren’t shoe-addicted). 47° also isn’t really freezing cold. Yes, you need to keep your core body temperature warm, but if you do, conditioned feet think 47° is positively balmy.
OK, later in the evening they show the temperature dropping to 38°, but bare feet are also quite happy with that, as long as they are moving. There is really no good reason for their anthropologists not to have been barefoot. And there is really no good reason for mukluks.
I guess what bothers me the most about this show is that some producer sat down and decided that, “Geez, survival shows are all the rage right now. How can we meld that with something science-y?” And that’s what’s happening on this show. There’s about 5 minutes of showing some particular survival skill that is put into the context of when it was probably discovered by humans, but there is nothing about how humans really lived.
And back then humans lived in family groups of a certain size. And they didn’t spend their time exploring new areas they weren’t familiar with. And they had a whole infrastructure to rely on. And when they did move, moving their whole group, they probably moved a fairly short distance where they didn’t have to learn a whole new environment at once.
I think it’s also pretty clear, from the opening graphic at the top of this post, that humans will be shown heavily shod from now on. And that’s just not accurate. Even when humans got to North America, we know they always weren’t heavily dressed up like that. We know that natives on the Aleutians often went barefoot (because of the Japan current), and that by the time they got to the Northwest Coast of the United States they went barefoot all of the time.
I suspect we won’t see that. And I suspect I won’t bother writing any more blog posts about this show.
Because this show is just a survival show with a few overlays.
I’ve been told that I really need to write a book about the history of bare feet. This show almost sparks me into considering that more heavily. I wonder if I could get a NatGeo show out of it?