Published February 01, 2011 · Estimated reading time: 5 minutes · Filed under , ,

The Human Family Tree (2009) [rating:2.5/5]
Journey of Man (2003) [rating:3.5/5]

This past Sunday I took my sister to see The Human Family Tree (2009) presented as part of the Redpath Museum documentary film series. While my sister enjoyed it thoroughly, I was somewhat disappointed. Throughout the movie, I was wondering why it was a complete rehash of a documentary I had seen years earlier called Journey of Man (2003). Even the presenter looked the same. Turns out, it was almost the same documentary, and not surprisingly, the presenter was also the same individual: Dr. Spencer Wells, an American geneticist and anthropologist. The Human Family Tree has received glowing reviews on Amazon, and indeed appeared to be promising at first– but in my opinion left much to be desired.

Journey of Man was a rather groundbreaking film back in 2003. The Human Family Tree, however, basically covered the exact same ground that had been covered six years prior adding only nicer graphics and more human narratives. Of course I understand not wanting to make a film based only on new conjectures that may very well prove to be wrong, but it would have been interesting to learn how recent developments in genetics, fossil discoveries, and new paleoclimatic data fit in the bigger picture of early human migration. Not that there is anything wrong with being wrong– had the film been produced a year later, they could have included the rather startling evidence that non-African humans have 1-4% of the genome in common with Neanderthals (instead of insisting that the Neanderthals died out).

While I understand one can’t possibly delve into scientific intricacies in a 90 minute film, the Multiple Dispersal Model and the exact mechanisms and time-line of early human migration remain subjects of intense debate between archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, geneticists, and others. When I watch a scientific documentary, I appreciate a look at different views, or at the very least a mention of existing debates in the field– this doesn’t detract, but rather adds to the merit of the work being described. The film’s discussion of genetics was also incredibly vague and simplistic, some of the “fluff” could have been cut to provide a more satisfying overview for those of us who are interested in the nitty-gritty, without alienating the rest of the audience.

Towards the end, The Human Family Tree was as subtle as a jackhammer in conveying its overarching message, that is: we all come from Africa, color is skin deep, we’re all the same. Kum ba yah. In the movie they introduced New Yorkers of many different ethnicities from one street, all interested in learning about their ancestral heritage. Their narrative was wonderfully constructed at first (I remarked to my sister “This is cute!”), but after a while, the human factor overwhelmed the flow of the film and detracted from what should have been the focus– the science. Modern human populations, specially highly mixed populations, aren’t really representative of the isolated ancient populations the rest of the film was referring to. I think a much more nuanced way to approach this would have been to, based on genetic markers markers, trace and display the various ancestries of the individuals. But then the film wasn’t really going for nuanced.

Speaking of nuances, back when I watched Journey of Man I cringed at some of the dialogue and the interviews which were, for the lack of a better word, patronizing towards indigenous populations. Spencer Wells would march to an indigenous person (in particular the Navajo), and inform them that they migrated to their land from elsewhere (in the case of the Navajo, East Asia). The indigenous person would refute him with a “No, we’ve been here for all of history…” and Wells would appear startled… just shocked.

In The Human Family Tree, Wells interviewed the urban New Yorkers who, in contrast to interviewees in the previous film, were enthusiastic to recover a “lost” part of their background. But the subtext to this is that these populations have not faced the existential crisis that indigenous groups such as native populations in the Americas have faced. So it is rather understandable that a person who considers a land their ancestral home, a person to whom a land is an ancestral home, would be rather resistant to the line, “Native? We came from somewhere else, but you came from somewhere else too.” The issue here is not really sugar-coating science in favour of being politically correct, or hiding scientific truths to avert hurt feelings. It’s more about what is being said, who is doing the telling, to whom, and why. At the end of the day the scientific method is not in itself inherently political, but the questions we ask, the conclusions we draw, and how these conclusions are presented are always embedded in a socio-political context.

Despite my criticisms, I still think that the films are worth seeing given that so many others have enjoyed them (including my family), and they are indeed far better and more accurate than many other made-for-TV documentaries. I should add too that a scientist-in-training who tries to keep up on recent literature on the subject, I might not have been the target audience for these particular films. On the bright side, through reviews of this film I found out about The Incredible Human Journey (2009), a five-episode documentary series on the same subject by the BBC– if the BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries was any indication, this will be quite comprehensive and awesome. I just need some extra time.

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Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi

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