What a piece of work is man

Up until now, nature documentaries have neglected to showcase one of the most adaptable, resilient species of the animal kingdom: humans. The BBC’s latest offering, _Human Planet_, seeks to rectify this oversight. Each episode of this beautifully filmed eight-part series, narrated by the inimitable John Hurt, hones in on specific environments all over the world, “far from the city lights”, and the ways in which its human inhabitants use their ingenuity to adapt to them, “face to face with raw nature” (according to the blurb). It reveals otherwise unknown ways and means of living in hostile and seemingly uninhabitable climates to the average sofa dwelling TV viewer.

Caught in an age of rapidly advancing technology, industrial expansion and in a society which is growing increasingly concerned with the ethics of environmental degradation, we are all too aware of our uneasy relationship with nature. Whether it means to or not, _Human Planet_ plays on this, showing its technology-addled audience the lifestyles of those who have to rely on the basics, navigating and exploiting extreme conditions in territories that we understand the human body isn’t equipped to withstand. To these people, the simple things that we would take for granted hold an extraordinary value. Pa-aling divers in the Philippines, diving 40m deep, use garden hose-style breathing tubes via a dodgy compressor to lay huge nets on the sea-bed to catch enough fish to earn a living, leaving themselves vulnerable to decompression sickness and death. The Korowai tribes in the rainforests of West Papua build houses in trees purely out of sticks, twine, bark and palm leaves using Stone Age-type tools, shimmying up and down the 35m high trees with remarkable ease.

The complex relationship between nature and humans, a deep connection apparently forsaken by modernity, is explored at length. We see people surviving by means of interspecies collaboration, as bottlenose dolphins herd hefty amounts of mullet to fishermen in Laguna, locals in the Altai Mountains domesticate golden eagles to hunt with in barren landscapes, and Masai children whistle to honeyguides, small birds which, er, guide the children to honey. On the other side of the spectrum, hunting is an unavoidable subject in a documentary that looks at human survival. Some accounts capture the hunter-prey relationship so indiscriminately that it would make any animal lover wince. The Awa-Guajá tribe tuck into a bucket of skinned monkeys; rather enchantingly unicorn-like narwhals are speared and baby auks are ripped apart by Inuits, all in front of the unflinching camera lens. This is survival in its most brutally honest portrayal, as humans defiantly assert their place in the food chain. Just watching this game of dominance take place can prove draining, as David takes on Goliath in many scenarios. Three Dorobo hunters in Kenya stride straight up to a pride of hungry lions in order to steal their kill. A teenager in Mali faces off a herd of angry African elephants, armed only with sticks, having raced them to a waterhole in a country gripped by drought. _Human Planet_ thus invites you to partake in its resolute celebration of the human spirit.

There is an occasional preachy note, which has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as we can’t really expect the BBC to simply gloss over the issue of thinning ice in the Arctic or to boast the first ever aerial footage of an uncontacted rainforest community without mentioning the ramifications of cutting down rainforests. This aside, _Human Planet_ is a complexly gripping watch and is certainly a visual feast. There is still one more episode to be broadcast and, if you haven’t already got round to it, past episodes are still on BBC iPlayer. Catch them before they’re wiped off the face of the Internet.


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