The Great Human Race, authentic survival television

The Great Human Race, authentic survival television

National Geographic Channel’s The Great Human Race is a late entry in the sprint for wilderness survival programming audience. It’s a powerful entry and much more than wilderness survival. GHR reaches for anthropological authenticity. The scope and breadth of GHR exceeds competitors geographically and intellectually. Viewers follow the tribulations of our archetypal founding pair of survivors along the path of early humans from African origins, onward. Four episodes have aired to date, six remain. This is the venerable  National Geographic of my youth.

Photograph by NG Studios/ Griffin Kenemer
Cat Bigney and Bill Schindler, The Great Human Race. Photograph by NG Studios/ Griffin Kenemer

Episode one revisits Homo habilis, a 2.4 million year old hominin adapting to life on the East African savanna without fire, without tools.  Episode two revisits Homo erectus, a long lived hominin beginning about 1.8 million years ago. H. erectus harvested fire from natural causes, learned to manage fire, then produced fire by friction. Episode three revisits the origin of our present day species Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago in Ethiopia. Episode four follows Homo sapiens out of Africa about 125,000 years ago through migrations along the Arabian Peninsula due to climate change about 75,000 years ago.

National Geographic Channel cast an Adam and Eve duo–after ‘the fall’, both ate of the apple of knowledge long before NatGeo tempted them with The Great Human Race. These are serious students of human–make that hominin evolution and experience, not scheming lollygagging reality stars. Their episodic challenge, though shorter in duration than some, equals that of other productions by way of intensity. Archaeologist Bill Schindler and survival skills instructor Cat Bigney try to sur-thrive using only methods and resources available to hominins living the primitive stage they portray in each weekly segment. Their challenge is brutal, their efforts prodigious, their suffering real. This is courageous programming. I wonder how much support they enjoy during their week or so in the field producing each segment? GHR features teamwork and primitive skills, successes and failures served up through in-field on camera demonstrations and narrations, each explaining a hominin challenge and problem-solving, often tool-making appropriate for the stage of hominin challenge portrayed. This is a unique production, no less than expected of a National Geographic documentary.

Co-star Bill Schindler no doubt technically advised the production of GHR. Schindler is an experimental archaeologist, an anthropology PhD and associate professor at Washington College, Maryland. He brings decades of experimental methods to the production. Co-star Cat Bigney brings wilderness survival skills and long experience earned as an instructor at Boulder Outdoor Survival School and wilderness medicine instruction.

GHR is visually appealing. Our chiseled archetypal pair, Schindler and Bigney, adorn themselves in smoked brain-tanned skins, tanned furs, perspiration, soot, and blood. They trek ever onward through challenges, through time and extraordinary landscapes attempting to exhibit the adaptations and advances marching with hominins northward, out of Africa, through Europe and Asia, onward into North America. Schindler is physically powerful and academically incisive. Bigney’s piercing eyes and deliberation in word and deed are powerful. Both are serious practitioners, cooperating partners in survival. The drama is in the challenge, not the relationship–an improvement over the run-of-the-mill survival program these days.

The Great Human Race, like all attempts at solo and small group native survival reenactment, suffers a fatal limitation. Hominins were not independent of hominin groups–never. Separation, banishment was fatal. Every individual was interdependent with extended group individuals–large groups. Team sports is a useful analogy; think of a chief as head coach, other elders–specialty coaches, young adults–players. Nature was referee, survival of their collective young the whole game. They played for keeps. Often, failure was the rule, not the exception. Every adaptation was purchased by differential survival. More than any other feature of our species communication and cooperation in extended groups was and remains the hallmark adaptation of Homo sapiens.

The Great Human Race is produced for National Geographic Channel by National Geographic Studios. For National Geographic Studios, executive producers are Brian Lovett and Peter DeLasho; executive vice president is Jeff Hasler. For NGC, executive producer is Robert Palumbo; vice president of production is Matt Renner; and president, original programming and production, is Tim Pastore.

Tom Bain, Outdoor Readiness

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