Anatomist Dr Alice Roberts is the latest person to ask âwhat makes us who we are?â? in this new three-part miniseries from BBC Two, which examines how our bodies have evolved down the millennia. In the opening episode ‘Bones’, she’ll be looking at our skeletons (‘Guts’ & ‘Brains’ are due to follow..) From her perspective, it is the construction of our bodies over millions of years that reveals our identity, but unfortunately this makes for dull television in some places. Tonight’s documentary takes place primarily in scientific labs and on barren African plains, with only the hostâs narration to occupy attention. Alice is a good sport and certainly knows what sheâs talking about, but you can only see so many skeleton reconstructions before you start to hope for someone walking around dressed like a caveman.
Although stretched at times, the episode is certainly educational and does have its highlights. Alice visits chimpanzees personally to illustrate the differences between their skeletal structures and ours, going as far as pulling out one of their relativesâ skulls in front of them. She visits toddlers just learning to walk, comparing this to our speciesâ struggle to become bipedal and uses cutting-edge technology to reveal how our bodies were changed with our environments and contributed to us dominating the planet’s food chain. At one point she even attaches electrodes to her gluteus maximus to measure its importance in our ability to run upright. This is followed by several butt close-ups which provide the most entertaining, if least informative, segment of the programme.
Origins of Us examines two big milestones in our development, the ability to walk upright and to use our opposable thumbs for tool-making. The programme combines lab demonstrations, visits among apes and Aliceâs own body to illustrate how these milestones have influenced the way our prehistoric ancestors lived. This can be captivating for moments but tends to get boring as the illustrations run on, presumably for the slower members of the audience but perhaps also to stretch the episodeâs two broad concepts into an hour long documentary.
Learning how the most basic aspects of our lives, that is walking and holding objects, has separated the human race from other animals and led to our domination of the planet is intriguing and the question of our identity is a compelling one. Hopefully in the next two episodes Alice will look at more complex aspects of our development without repetitive examples and find more reasons to put electrodes on her butt.