The Incredible Human Journey episode 5 – The Americas

The Incredible Human Journey episode 5

The Incredible Human Journey episode 5 – The Americas: Alice Roberts investigates how humans may have reached North and South America, looking at routes across the Canadian ice sheet and from Australia across the Pacific. For Stone Age people, reaching North and South America seems impossible – on each side vast oceans, and to the north an impenetrable ice sheet that covered the whole of Canada. So how did the first Americans get there?




Dr Alice Roberts discovers evidence for an ancient corridor through the Canadian ice sheet that may have allowed those first people through. But there are problems – in particular some very ancient finds in southern Chile seem to suggest a very different way in to the Americas. Amazingly, an ancient human skull discovered in Brazil even points to an Australasian origin of the Americans. Could a route from Australia across the Pacific have been possible? A surprising answer to the problem eventually comes from a Canadian forensic scientist more used to solving murder cases.


The Incredible Human Journey episode 5 – The Americas



Until about 12,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. The Neolithic Revolution (the invention of agriculture) first took place in Southwest Asia and spread through large parts of the Old World over the following millennia. It also occurred independently in Mesoamerica (about 6,000 years ago), China, Papua New Guinea, and the Sahel and West Savanna regions of Africa. Access to food surplus led to the formation of permanent human settlements, the domestication of animals and the use of metal tools for the first time in history. Agriculture and sedentary lifestyle led to the emergence of early civilizations.

An urban revolution took place in the 4th millennium BCE with the development of city-states, particularly Sumerian cities located in Mesopotamia. It was in these cities that the earliest known form of writing, cuneiform script, appeared around 3000 BCE. Other major civilizations to develop around this time were Ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley Civilization. They eventually traded with each other and invented technology such as wheels, plows and sails. Astronomy and mathematics were also developed and the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. There is evidence of a severe drought lasting about a hundred years that may have caused the decline of these civilizations, with new ones appearing in the aftermath. Babylonians came to dominate Mesopotamia while others, such as Poverty Point cultures, Minoans and the Shang dynasty, rose to prominence in new areas. The Bronze Age suddenly collapsed around 1200 BCE, resulting in the disappearance of a number of civilizations and the beginning of the Greek Dark Ages. During this period iron started replacing bronze, leading to the Iron Age.

In the 5th century BCE, history started being recorded as a discipline, which provided a much clearer picture of life at the time. Between the 8th and 6th century BCE, Europe entered the classical antiquity age, a period when ancient Greece and ancient Rome flourished. Around this time other civilizations also came to prominence. The Maya civilization started to build cities and create complex calendars. In Africa, the Kingdom of Aksum overtook the declining Kingdom of Kush and facilitated trade between India and the Mediterranean. In West Asia, the Achaemenid Empire’s system of centralized governance became the precursor to many later empires, while the Gupta Empire in India and the Han dynasty in China have been described as golden ages in their respective regions.

Dr Alice Roberts – The Incredible Human Journey episode 5

Alice May Roberts FRSB (born 19 May 1973) is an English biological anthropologist, biologist, television presenter and author. Since 2012 she has been professor of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. She was president of the charity Humanists UK between January 2019 and May 2022. She is now a vice president of the organisation.

After graduating, Roberts worked as a junior doctor with the National Health Service in South Wales for eighteen months. In 1998 she left clinical medicine and worked as an anatomy demonstrator at the University of Bristol, becoming a lecturer there in 1999.

She spent seven years working part-time on her PhD in paleopathology, the study of disease in ancient human remains, receiving the degree in 2008. She was a senior teaching fellow at the University of Bristol Centre for Comparative and Clinical Anatomy, where her main roles were teaching clinical anatomy, embryology and physical anthropology, as well as researching osteoarchaeology and paleopathology. She stated in 2009 that she was working towards becoming a professor of anatomy.

In 2009 she co-presented modules for the Beating Bipolar programme, the first internet-based education treatment for patients with bipolar depression, trialled by Cardiff University researchers. From August 2009 until January 2012, Roberts was a visiting fellow in both the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Department of Anatomy of the University of Bristol. From 2009 to 2016 Roberts was Director of Anatomy at the NHS Severn Deanery School of Surgery and also an honorary fellow at Hull York Medical School.

In February 2012 Roberts was appointed the University of Birmingham’s first professor of public engagement in science. Roberts has been a member of the advisory board of Cheltenham Science Festival for ten years and a member of the Advisory Board of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath since 2018.

Writing in the i newspaper in 2016, Roberts dismissed the aquatic ape hypothesis (AAH) as a distraction “from the emerging story of human evolution that is more interesting and complex”, adding that AAH has become “a theory of everything” that is simultaneously “too extravagant and too simple”. She concluded by saying that “science is about evidence, not wishful thinking”. Roberts and Aoife McLysaght co-presented the 2018 Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London. She is president of the British Science Association; her term started in September 2019. In January 2021 Roberts presented a ten-part narrative history series about the human body entitled Bodies on BBC Radio 4.

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