Film Report: National Geographic’s “The Human Family Tree”

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In the documentary “The Human Family Tree,” the National Geographic’s Genographic Project leads the viewer on a journey that illustrates the various paths humans have taken from the beginning point for all of us: Africa. All humans, regardless of race, originated around the middle of Africa; according to the film, three quarters of our entire existence as humans occurred there. The film’s main focus was on Africa, as it is the central point of existence when it comes to evolution. It all began with the San tribe, bushmen who were the very first humans, or as the film put it, the “scientific Adam” and the “scientific Eve” from whom all men and women came. These bushmen are the base of the human family tree.

The first branch in the human family tree occurred 150,000 years ago when the San tribe split into two groups, the other being the Hadzabe bushmen. As the film indicates through a traveling timeline, the main reason for separation and travel was usually climate change, and back then the change was due to an ice age. Though lands were frigid up north, Africa was drying up, and people needed to move to in order to survive. The African deserts became so dry that there was barely any food or water. Though anthropologists can’t be certain, they estimate that there was only about 2000 humans at one point—in other words, we were an endangered species. 

About 70,000 years ago the drought let up, and people moved beyond Africa. The human population thrived and would continue to thrive for the rest of our existence (so far). People traveled in every direction. Many went south to the bottom of Africa, while others ventured east towards Asia. Many of those who went to Asia ended up walking right onto Europe, as the two continents back then were one: Eurasia. 

It was approximately 35,000 years ago when humans took their first steps on what is now Europe. They grew as a civilization, creating tools and art like the famous, ancient art on cave walls (like the bull) in what is now France. Humans developed for reasons besides artistic ability—we had to evolve to be able to build weapons in order to survive living amongst Neanderthals. About 2000 years after humans first arrived in Europe, the Neanderthals went extinct. 

Only 20,000 years ago the first humans stepped onto the land of America. Because the ice age connected lands together, people could walk from Europe into the Americas without even realizing it. That was the case until about 9,000 years later, when the ice age, once again, let up. This time it separated the people of Europe and America, and the Americas would remain isolated from all other humans until the land’s rediscovery by Columbus thousands of years later in 1492.

The filmmakers use remarkable graphics and maps to illustrate the many paths different humans took. What is perhaps most remarkable is that they can now use science to trace back any individual to where they were any number of thousands of years ago. People may have the rough idea that we all came from Africa, from the exact same location, but it’s another thing to see the details of our history drawn out. National Geographic’s Genographic Project began this film—and ended it—with stories of individuals from one of the Earth’s most diverse places: Queens, New York. This is a city of immigrants, and here the Genographic Project had 100 people swab DNA from their cheeks so that they could use “markers” to trace back where each individual came from. 

“Markers,” as shown in the film, are DNA strands that mark the tiny places in our DNA where human differences occur. The places we differ really are tiny, they are part of only .1% of our genetic makeup—the rest of our DNA, all 99.9% of it, is identical. Scientists have devised these markers to show the changes that make someone’s skin pigment, eye color, or body build different. There are four genetic codes that differ in people, named by the letters A, C, G, and T. What makes people appear different is where those letters fall in their DNA. Some people might have an A where a C is for someone else, and other may have a G somewhere where others have a T, or an A or C. It mostly depends on where someone came from, and what the Genographic Project found was not always what people expected.

People think that because they look a certain way, they must have originated from a certain continent (long after the leave from Africa). However, this is not always the case. One of the individuals from Queens, Dave, is an African American who was shocked to find out that his ancestors came from Europe, not Africa. He almost seemed upset when everyone gathered to find out what their “markers” revealed—he seemed to have his identity invested on the fact that his ancestors were African. Indeed, someone in his family tree was African, but one of his great grandparents was also European, and met his African ancestor in Europe. As the film pointed out, during times of slavery, when Black people were brought over from Africa, much of their histories were entirely lost, so Dave never really had a way of knowing where his roots were. 

Many people in this diverse sample group of humanity were surprised to find out where they came from. One woman had a hunch that there was some Asian in her—and there was. Her ancestors were the first Native Americans, but those Native Americans had previously walked over from Asia before the continents split. An interracial couple was comforted to know that they had the same ancestors and could try use that fact to ease racial tension between the man and his girlfriend’s racist parents. The woman and her parents were Asian, and the parents did not approve of her dating a white man. The couple, however, had been together for four years, and saw no cultural differences big enough to keep them apart. 

What is interesting about the human family tree is that it reveals how much we all have in common even though we appear so different. On one hand, couples like the above, are representative of a world that has fought and killed each other for centuries over perceived differences—differences in religion, race and country of origin. It may shock many to think that we all actually came from the same country, in fact the same race as well. The people in the Queens study appeared so different, coming from all over the world, yet found out that many of them were much more similar on the inside than they looked on the outside. 

People like the parents of that interracial couple may fear that if everyone produces new generations together, regardless of race and origin, that they will lose their traditions and maybe even their genetic traits. While their genetic traits do sometimes seem lost as they transform into new, mixed DNA strands, they could not be further from the truth when they worry about mingling with foreigners. It turns out almost all of us are foreigners in one way or another, and we all came from the same place. It is surprising and astounding to many—including myself—that humans have fought over nationality and religion for so long when really, we are all basically identical.

This was a really interesting look at humanity and the tree that we all came from. It is perfect for an anthropology class because it introduces people to the notion that all humans are actually the same. It introduces the idea of DNA and helps us to consider how our species has survived—which in some ways is a miracle due to all the climate changes and that one particularly bad ice storm. Finding out that so little of our genetic makeup made many people in the film feel closer together, and surely a hope for the Genographic Project was to spark that feeling, making us realize that many of our boundaries are completely mental. I would recommend this film to students and friends alike because I found it eye-opening and educational.

Work Cited

The Human Family Tree. Dir. Chad Cohen. Perf. Spencer Wells. National Geographic, 2009. Film.