A shocking statistic is presented in the opening episode of the documentary series The Great Human Odyssey. At one prehistoric point, humans were essentially on the brink of extinction; the number of breeding adult Homo sapiens that had survived a severe African drought was as low as 600, according to some estimates. "We were so close to disappearing from the face of the earth," says Niobe Thompson, the Edmonton-based anthropologist and filmmaker who directed and stars in the three-part series, which begins airing on CBC's The Nature of Things on Feb. 12. "Then we recovered, and now here we are with seven billion human beings all over the planet. ... We settled every ecosystem ... and we did that because I think we are explorers by nature."
Dr. Thompson certainly has exploration in his own nature. For this $3-million series, three years in the making, he followed reindeer herders during a winter migration in Arctic Siberia; spent two month-long periods, a year apart, living with sea mammal hunters on the Bering Strait; hunted with bushmen in the Kalahari (there's an unforgettable scene involving the capture of a hare); and learned to breath-hold dive (he was trained by a competitive free diver who lives in Lethbridge, of all places). He did that so he could attempt to join the last remaining free-divers, the Badjao, who live in the war-torn southern Philippines and hunt underwater for minutes at a time. In a spectacular sequence that will have viewers holding their own breath, Dr. Thompson plunges about 25 metres to a reef with two local expert divers. "I'm an anthropologist by training, so the research method that I was trained in is participatory by nature. And so what I learned to do as a scientist before I started making films was to form a relationship with people that was authentic by actually trying to get a sense of how they lived, what they did, the challenges they face. So I bring that to filmmaking."
In addition to the stunning visuals, listen for the score; composed by Darren Fung, it was live-recorded by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the chamber choir Pro Coro Canada at the Winspear Centre in December.
The Great Human Odyssey airs on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBC's The Nature of Things beginning Feb. 12. The first two episodes will be screened at a public premiere at Edmonton's Metro Cinema on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m.