The journey of a lifetime: Bajao divers featured in The Great Human Odyssey
Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo (The Philippine Star) - August 1, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - On “The Great Human Odyssey,” a three-part documentary series airing tonight on the Discovery Channel, anthropologist Niobe Thompson takes viewers on the journey of a lifetime, visiting and documenting some of the world’s last remote cultures, in an effort to understand how the early homo sapiens endured against all odds, adapting to all environments – from icy to tropical – to become the world’s only global species.

According to ancient climate research, the human species evolved during a very volatile era in earth’s history. Information on the film’s website says: “Like all other kinds of human species that once inhabited our world, we should have died away. Instead, our species survived, mastered the oceans and eventually colonized Australia, the South Pacific and the Americas. New discoveries in ancient DNA research are changing our understanding of the earliest sea voyages, from Easter Island to the Bering Strait.”

Thompson travels back in time to see how humans have adapted and survived.

“My films going back over the years are always about the miracle of our species, back at a time when we weren’t writing the history yet. So it’s what the deep past can tell us about our species,” he tells STARweek in an exclusive phone interview from Alberta, Canada.

“I find time and time again these stories of incredible bravery, curiosity, inventiveness. You know, the very fact that humans lived everywhere from the hottest deserts to the coldest tundra or out on the seas on tiny islands or up on the mountains, really does show you what a miraculous creature we are… it’s a wonderful thing to discover about yourself.”

One of the ancient cultures highlighted in the documentary is that of the Badjao indigenous people. Thompson says he became interested in the Badjao as a filming subject after seeing a segment on them in the BBC series “Human Planet.”

“Human Planet was a mega series about five or six years ago that did look at free-diving cultures and had a sequence with the Badjao,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful sequence but they were not able to film in the Philippines because of the security situation in Mindanao region and in Tawi-Tawi.”

For The Great Human Odyssey, Thompson wanted to bring his crew to film the Badjao in person. It was very important to the team because, Thompson says, “We weren’t able to find a present day culture that could demonstrate the incredible human ability to breath-hold dive anywhere but in the Philippines. We had done some location scouting in Myanmar and Thailand with the Moken who are a free-diving nomadic culture. And they’ve almost entirely lost their traditions of free-diving. Our research told us that the only place left where there is an intact free-diving culture is the Tawi-Tawi area of Southwest Philippines. So we were really motivated to bring our crew there.”

Examining free-diving was important because it shows the human’s ability to adapt to water. “We have a physiology that is very similar to whales and seals… Somewhere in our past, we were selected for diving. There was an environment in our past where it was advantageous to have the ability to dive,” says Thompson. Breath-hold diving, he says, is a unique evolutionary discovery.

After almost a year of planning and coordinating with partners in the Philippines and the local government of Tawi-Tawi, the shoot finally pushed through. They became the first foreign film crew to document the Badjao.

“I have to confess that we were nervous going there,” Thompson shares. The Zamboanga siege had forced the team to cancel the shoot that they had originally planned in October 2013. Navy SEALS and a Philippine Marine Task Force accompanied the crew everywhere they went. “I have to say that once we got to this region, we did feel safe and the people there were absolutely wonderful. And we never got a sense of the security problems there.” 

At the Badjao village, Thompson came face to face with the man he had been wanting to meet – 63-year-old Badjao elder, Santarawi. The anthropologist had been training in Canada for about a year to be able to join the Badjaos in free-diving. “I managed to hold my breath for about two minutes,” he says. “I kept on turning to see what Santarawi was doing. He was so calm.” Seeing the old man effortlessly holding his breath at the bottom of the sea made the pain and fear Thompson was feeling just drift away. “Santarawi gave me a little bit of his power, I felt.”

The exciting underwater footage, as well as stunning aerial shots of the Badjao village on stilts, made the year of planning worth it. “If you look at the film, you can see that it was a terrific success and we’re so happy we went there. It is literally my favorite location from the entire project.”

The filmmaker-anthropologist reports the sequence on the Badjao is also one of the favorite sequences among audiences around the world who have seen the documentary.

Aside from featuring the Badjao, the documentary, which was filmed over 18 months across five continents, also gives never-before-seen glimpses of the Crocodile People of Papua New Guinea, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and more. Thompson and his crew waited two years to get a shot of Inuit hunters climbing ice cliffs to collect arctic bird eggs on the Bering Strait.

From arctic Siberia to the deserts of South Africa to some of the most advanced DNA laboratories in the world, the documentary uses interviews, recreations and cinematic footage to retrace the steps of the first humans in their journey of survival.

There are also behind-the-scenes clips on their website that show what the filmmakers went through to produce the documentary. The audience also gets to understand some of the processes of getting to each place, more about how the people there live and the geopolitical context of the place. “This is so that the audience can understand them as real people in the present day,” says Thompson.

The anthropologist says: “I think a story like The Great Human Odyssey does help show our common humanity… We all descend from a group of survivors that’s somehow found a way to escape this mega drought in the interior of Africa to find a new way of life on the coast and then to rebuild from there.”

Reflecting on what he learned from the almost two years of documentary filmmaking and even more years spent on research, Thompson imagines where humankind is headed as we continue to evolve. “I think one of the lessons that you get from our incredible journey out of Africa that started with barely surviving a massive drought is that our survival has never been guaranteed,” he says. “We’re very adaptive. We’re good at moving to new ecosystems and making them our home.”

However, he notes, “Now there’s 7 billion of us on the planet. And that’s a situation that our species, frankly, has never faced before. We are the most successful mammals on earth by biomass and by numbers. And so a lot of the things that we’ve relied on in the past to keep us alive are not available to us anymore. We don’t have the ability to move like we once did. The world is a crowded place and there are borders, which is a new thing for our species.”

He goes on, “Also, we’re the first species that has been able to change its environment as radically as we have.” This, however, has brought about both positive and negative change. “Now we’ve got the problem of climate change. And I think that we’re about to face massive challenges because with a planet of 7 billion people, which is crowded, consuming at the rate that we do, if you have major disruptions in the earth’s ability to provide us with food due to climate change, that will create massive problems.”

The reality, says Thompson, is that humankind may very well face detrimental circumstances. He and many of the scientists that he has had the chance to interview agree. “I think the chances are we’re facing a big die-off, but we will survive. We always have survived, and we always have faced die-offs… I think that there is a real chance of that because that has been our story until now.”

So the story of the homo sapien continues. It is a story of survival and resilience, a journey lived one step at a time.


The Great Human Odyssey will premiere in the Philippines tonight at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. For more information and behind the scenes footage, visit or

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