The Incredible Human Journey (2009) s01e02 Episode Script


ALICE ROBERTS: They say this is where it all began.
That we are all children of Africa.
But if so, why do we look so different? And how on earth could a handful of African families become a whole world full of people? I'm Alice Roberts, medical doctor and anthropologist.
I'm fascinated by what bones, stones, and even our bodies can reveal about the distant past.
I'm going in search of the traces left by our African ancestors and their journeys to populate the world.
This time, the most challenging journey yet.
Could people out of Africa really have conquered its frozen wastes? I don't think I've ever been so cold.
And did the journey cause a change in the way people look? or have I got it completely wrong? I'm going to investigate an astonishing idea that the Chinese could be descended from a different branch of the human family to the rest of us.
Come with me in the footsteps of our ancestors, on the most epic adventure ever undertaken.
ROBERTS: Siberia, north of the Arctic Circle.
I'm going to meet one of the most remote peoples on Earth to help solve a mystery.
Why would our ancestors have ever ventured into such a wilderness? We're flying over vast expanses of ice and snow, but I'm getting very close to my destination now.
I'm heading deep into Asia, 5,000 kilometres east of Moscow to the small town of olenek.
I've come to meet the Evenki.
These people are the closest I can get to the humans I think first conquered these lands.
I've arrived on a special day.
It's the annual reindeer festival.
(PEOPLE CHEERING) These animals have been vital to the people of Siberia for as long as anyone can remember.
That's one lost his seat.
People have come to this festival from an area the size of Britain and France put together, to race their reindeer on the frozen river.
But it's also an opportunity for the people that live so scattered across this landscape to come together.
ROBERTS: How our ancestors first came to these cold lands, and then survived here, is a mystery.
So I hope the Evenki can help.
But to find out more, I must leave the festival and head for one of their remote camps.
It's going to be tough.
It's already minus 26 degrees Celsius, and they say it could get a lot colder.
I've got layers and layers on here.
There are two, three, four five with the coat.
And it's absolutely essential that every bit of my skin is covered, including my face.
Because if anything is exposed, it will literally freeze.
But it seems that even my finest 2 1 st-century, hi-tech clothing is no match for the Siberian winter.
Thank you.
My driver is not convinced that this jacket is adequate, and he's given me a reindeer-fur jacket instead.
I think he might be right, because reindeer fur is amazing.
Each of these outer hairs is actually hollow and it's got air inside, so it's fantastic insulation.
And I'm going to be testing it out.
ROBERTS: Wonderful.
Amazing stuff.
To start with, the reindeer fur keeps me really warm.
I even have a go at driving myself.
But as the journey goes on, I begin to feel the cold.
And with the wind chill, the temperature drops well below minus 40.
As the hours go by, it gets colder.
I'm starting to lose feeling in my fingers and toes.
Is it really possible that our ancestors survived this cold? After all, their bodies were not made for this climate.
Because the latest research claims that Siberians, along with most humans, can trace their origins to a tiny group which left Africa around 70,000 years ago.
A few family groups could have followed the great rivers north, around and through the Himalayas.
But we just don't know.
All we have is a few stone tools suggesting someone had reached Siberia by 40,000 years ago.
What could have driven such a tropical species on deeper into the frozen north? The last half hour of the journey is the longest I have ever experienced.
After what seems like forever, the Evenki camp finally appears through the trees.
Oh, God! I don't think I've ever been so cold in my entire life.
That's a six-hour journey.
I saw some of it, but a lot of it I didn't see, 'cause just look at that.
Nothing at all.
Oh, but we're here.
I'm gonna go and get warm.
ROBERTS: I wake up to find the camp in a fever of activity.
Even in bright sunshine, it's still minus 20.
But I feel privileged to be here.
These Evenki are one of the most isolated peoples in the world.
And this is the first time they've allowed their camps to be filmed.
Well, the question that really leaps out is why on earth did the ancestors of the Evenki come this far north? But the answer is obvious.
And in fact, although the Evenki today have herds of domesticated reindeer, they still depend on the wild animals for their meat.
Just as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Well, I'm just about to go off on a reindeer hunt.
So, Vasily, have you got a good feeling about the hunt today? MALE TRANSLATOR: Well, I feel it's going to be a good day.
But you never can tell.
ROBERTS: vasily Stepanov, the brigadier, leads what's known as a brigade of Evenki herders and hunters.
We know that people have been hunting in Siberia for a very long time, because scattered across this vast wilderness archaeologists have discovered ancient butchered reindeer bones, and tools carved from their antlers.
MALE TRANSLATOR: You can see all these reindeer tracks.
They passed through and went off in that direction.
over there.
(SPEAKING LOCAL LANGUAGE) ROBERTS: The brigadier reckons they were here recently, but are moving fast.
After some time tracking, it becomes clear that he won't catch them today.
But his people still need to eat.
So, reluctantly, they choose one of their domesticated animals for slaughter.
But now, as far as the Evenki people are concerned, it's it's dinner.
And the anatomist in me is quite intrigued to see how they're going to skin it and how they're going to cut it up.
ROBERTS: Quite interesting, 'cause they're using the knife with the blade basically facing outwards so there's no chance of cutting through the deeper tissues.
And it's almost bloodless.
I mean, look at that.
That skin is just peeling away.
ROBERTS: For 40,000 years, a key to survival in this incredibly harsh environment has been to use every single bit of the reindeer.
The eyes, liver and brain are delicacies.
The antlers are used to boost male potency.
And that's not all.
MALE TRANSLATOR: Alice, it's like French wine.
(ExCLAIMS) ROBERTS: But food is only one part of survival.
To withstand this terrible cold, our ancestors had to come up with something really ingenious.
Well, compared to the hunt, what these ladies are doing here seems a bit frivolous.
But in fact, it's one of the greatest technological advances the humankind has ever seen.
ROBERTS: our species wasn't designed for this climate.
Yet somehow, uniquely amongst apes, we made it this far north.
And the secret is right here.
Tanya is measuring me up for my very own pair of reindeer-skin boots.
FEMALE TRANSLATOR: okay, that's it.
I've got your size.
Let's get to work.
There's a very specific part of the reindeer hide that's being used here.
You can see from the shape of it that it's the fur from the reindeer's legs that they use to make boots out of.
ROBERTS: But what happens now is the really important bit.
ROBERTS: And this is it.
This amazing technology that makes survival in this harsh environment possible.
And it all depends on having a needle.
Some of the most ancient needles in the world are found in Siberia.
ROBERTS: We'll never know who it was that first thought of carving a needle out of bone.
But the oldest one found dates to around 40,000 years ago.
It's no good having a needle if you don't have tough thread to sew with.
And that comes from the reindeer, too.
(SPEAKING LOCAL LANGUAGE) FEMALE TRANSLATOR: I'm using sinew from the body of the reindeer to make threads for sewing clothes together.
If you use these, it's a very sturdy and long-lasting way of sewing things.
(SPEAKING LOCAL LANGUAGE) ROBERTS: It's humbling that this apparently simple approach still beats synthetic clothing today.
Beautiful! Spasibo.
(WOMAN LAUGHING) ROBERTS: The needle and thread made the difference between death and survival.
Tailored clothes meant people who originated in the tropics could now venture further north than any humans before.
That evening, I get an invitation to join the brigadier's family as they tuck in to the reindeer killed earlier.
And there isn't much else on the menu.
The Evenki's meaty diet may sound unhealthy, but it boosts the metabolic rate and raises body temperature.
Basically, it makes them feel warmer.
As the evening moves on, our conversation turns to an eternal question.
Anatoly, do the Evenki have any stories about creation? About how they came to be here? MALE TRANSLATOR: A bird called the loon dived three times into the sea.
And only at the third time it brought a bit of mud.
And from that mud, the earth arose.
And then the mammoth came along.
And with its tusks, it raised the earth still further and formed the rivers and mountains.
So this is our beautiful story about the creation of the Earth.
(CLANGING) ROBERTS: I feel I understand how our ancestors would have been able to survive here.
But the consequence of having to follow their food would have been an endlessly nomadic lifestyle.
All this commotion around.
People are literally packing down their homes and moving off.
And this is what a nomadic lifestyle is all about.
These people have to move.
They have to take their reindeer to new pastures.
ROBERTS: The only thing the reindeer eat in winter is lichen under the snow.
And they get through it very fast.
So they're constantly on the move to find more.
And the humans follow them.
This is just amazing.
We've got this caravan of reindeer sleighs carrying everything from the camp.
And the entire herd, hundreds and hundreds of reindeer, are following us.
ROBERTS: Finally, the reindeer stop, and so do we.
Everybody joins in to put up the tchum.
There are so few people around the world who still live like this, but once we were all nomads.
ROBERTS: That's got to go on by itself.
So what we've seen today is a nomadic lifestyle in action.
We've seen a whole village being dismantled and moved on.
And it took about 1 0 minutes to put this tchum up, and it's made of large poles and reindeer skin, the sort of materials that would have been available thousands and thousands of years ago.
This is a very ancient way of life.
ROBERTS: And it seems that for over 1 0,000 years this life on the move took family groups right across Siberia.
Recent discoveries tell us that they reached the edge of the Arctic ocean nearly 30,000 years ago.
Humans survived here for thousands of years.
But then a dramatic turn of events changed their journey through Asia - the peak of the Ice Age.
The latest climate research reveals what happened 25,000 years ago, as the Ice Age really took hold.
In places, the temperature reached as low as minus 80.
And it became unimaginably dry.
Such extremes are impossible to survive.
So what happened to these men, women and children? St Petersburg, the former imperial capital of Russia.
The Hermitage is one of the world's greatest museums, home to some of the most celebrated works of art.
But there's something else here, too.
It's not on display, but it's every bit as precious.
Here, in the storerooms, are a few objects that could unlock the secrets of those Siberian families struggling in the depths of the Ice Age.
What is really striking about these objects from the height of the last Ice Age is that they're found in just a few places in the south of Siberia.
Which is interesting because it suggests that as the climate worsened, these prehistoric people retreated into refuges where it still would have been very cold, but they would have been just able to survive.
ROBERTS: People vanished from the frozen wastes of northern Siberia, to the south.
one of the refuges they gathered in is now called Mal'ta.
So can the few remains found here tell us anything about what happened? Just look at these tiny blades from the Ice Age.
They are unusually small.
And the archaeologists think this is because the appalling cold made it difficult to reach the quarries, so the stone itself was such a precious resource that they were using it to its utmost, getting as many blades as they could out of it.
So the blades themselves got smaller and smaller.
And something extraordinary was happening during this period.
In spite of that struggle for survival, there was a blossoming of art.
Now, we may never know the meaning of this beautiful pair of swans to the people that made them, but archaeologists have suggested that they might be hunting charms.
That when the first swans flew, the first deer would appear, and it was the beginning of the spring hunting season.
And how they must have longed for spring.
ROBERTS: Many of the objects in this collection are mysterious.
This unique plate is made from mammoth ivory.
Some have suggested it's a map showing the physical and spiritual worlds, with the connection between them symbolised by a hole in the middle.
These precious bone figurines are among the earliest depictions of people wearing fur - further proof that plenty of these Asian pioneers could sew clothes by this time.
(CAMERA CLICKS) And finally, there are these delicate and beautiful little statues of women.
And some of them are pierced, so they may have been worn as pendants, perhaps amulets.
It's possible that they're fertility symbols, really underlining the importance and difficulty of producing children during such harsh conditions.
And in fact, some archaeologists see this entire, very beautiful collection as a cry to the spirits in a time of stress and struggle.
ROBERTS: It is amazing to think of those ancient people, who after all originated in a much warmer place, surviving in Ice Age Siberia.
But it seems that around this time something else happened to them.
Something which is much more difficult to explain.
This is our best guess as to what our African ancestors looked like.
This reconstruction is based on the skull of a woman who lived over 1 00,000 years ago.
But sometime around the peak of the last Ice Age, the faces of the people of East Asia changed.
Why? Today, from Siberia to Hong Kong, you come face to face with these changes.
Almond-shaped eyes, a flatter face, a smaller nose.
Most of all, we associate these features with China.
And here they have become the subject of great interest - not to scientists, but to the beauty industry.
ROBERTS: For cosmetics companies, understanding variation in people's faces can be big business.
Now, during the Cultural Revolution Chinese women were forbidden from wearing make-up, but now China is one of the biggest markets in the world.
Secret filming.
ROBERTS: Here's one multinational that's in there trying to convince the Chinese to use their products.
Crystal, she has a very traditional Chinese eye.
So what I need to do is make her eye look bigger and more attractive.
So you're actually trying to make her look less Chinese? No! (BOTH LAUGHING) ROBERTS: They claim to have some insight into what is special about the Chinese face.
I'm curious, if a little suspicious.
Now, in here is the wrinkle laboratory where they grade your wrinkles from nought to six.
ROBERTS: The company is trying to compare the way skin ages in European and Chinese women.
Sit down, please.
This is all rather clinical-looking and scary, isn't it? ROBERTS: Carole wants to assess my wrinkles and contrast them with a Chinese woman of the same age.
-Grade one.
-Grade one? CAROLE: Yes.
ROBERTS: That's good.
CAROLE: That's lateral folds.
Grade two.
Crow's-feet wrinkle.
Grade one.
You have very little wrinkle -for your age.
-ROBERTS: Excellent! I've paid Carole to say that.
Thank you very much.
So how does the Chinese woman do? CAROLE: Grade one, grade two, grade one.
-Thank you very much, Carole.
-You're welcome.
ROBERTS: At our age, Carole sees very little difference.
But what happens 1 0 years later? This is a 4 7-year-old European.
This is grade four.
Grade three.
Grade four.
ROBERTS: Compare her with a 4 7-year-old Chinese woman.
Grade two.
It's grade one.
Grade one.
There's a suggestion that Chinese skin ages more slowly.
I'd need a lot more evidence to be convinced.
But that's not nearly as controversial as the whole question of where Chinese features came from in the first place.
It's one of the most fascinating and perplexing questions of our human origins.
Some have suggested that these facial characteristics, like narrower eyes, smaller noses and flatter faces, could have been adaptations to cold, protecting the eyes and reducing heat loss from the face.
It's an alluring idea.
The problem is, there's no evidence for it.
But there are many people in China who believe there's another explanation for the way they look.
And their theory, if proved true, could be absolutely explosive.
ROBERTS: It would mean we'd have to totally rethink our ideas about how Asia, and indeed the whole world, became populated.
Many Chinese people believe that they look different because they are fundamentally different from the rest of us.
The claim is that they come from a completely separate branch of the human family tree, and that they descend from an ancient type of human who arrived here in China nearly two million years ago.
ROBERTS: Before we modern humans existed, there were earlier species of human, such as Homo erectus.
A bit more ape-like than us, perhaps, with a heavy brow and a smaller brain.
About 1.
8 million years ago, the Homo erectus population started spilling out of Africa.
I always believed that Homo erectus in Asia eventually died out, while Homo erectus in Africa ultimately evolved into us, Homo sapiens.
Then, around 70,000 years ago, a tiny group left - ancestors of everyone outside Africa today.
But in China they think this is completely wrong.
I've come to zhoukoudian, near Beijing, where the Chinese say they have evidence that Homo erectus in Asia did not die out, but is in fact their ancestor.
They believe passionately in their separate origin, and it's something everyone in China is taught from childhood.
It's such an amazing idea, that the Chinese originate from a different branch of the human family tree from the rest of us.
And it goes against everything I've discovered so far.
ROBERTS: It was here, early last century, that the most important evidence behind this idea was discovered.
So this is the cave itself? one of China's most revered scientists is Professor Wu xinzhi.
He's dedicated his life to studying what was found here.
-This cave named Pigeon Cave.
-Pigeon Cave? Because here usually there are many pigeons ROBERTS: Right.
WU: living here.
And the main fossils were found over there.
ROBERTS: Half a million years ago, this huge pit was a cave.
And it's here that archaeologists found a treasure trove, incredibly rare evidence of a long-lost world.
The largest collection of Homo erectus fossils ever unearthed.
The oldest skull is about half a million years old.
-Really? -Yes.
And the youngest one is between 200 and 300,000 years old.
So they were living here for For around 300,000 years.
-A long time.
So I believe this is the home base of Homo erectus.
Professor Wu is sure that Asian Homo erectus evolved here into the modern Chinese.
And a few metres away, he shows me where some really crucial evidence was found.
Here, in what is called the Upper Cave, they found more skulls, but these ones were quite different.
This is Upper Cave.
Many human skeletons was found here.
30,000 years old.
ROBERTS: The skulls clearly belonged to our species, but the researchers saw something surprising, too - they appeared to share some features with the Homo erectus skulls.
There are many common features among them.
And I think it is most probable that Upper Cave men are the descendants of Homo erectus.
ROBERTS: Wu believes that Asian Homo erectus evolved into the humans found in the Upper Cave, and that they evolved into the modern Chinese.
So, for him, Upper Cave Man is a sort of missing link, proof the Chinese do descend from Homo erectus.
I'd love to see those ancient skulls, but tragically, in the mayhem of the second World War, the whole collection went missing.
Luckily, before they were lost, plaster casts were made, and now even these copies are considered priceless.
(LAUGHING) So, this is the exhibition room.
ROBERTS: Chinese scientists come here to study the history of their people.
But the casts I want to see are securely locked away.
I will ask him to take out.
Oh, please do.
(SPEAKING MANDARIN) I think I'm going to have to remove myself actually, because I'm not allowed to see the drawers that the skulls come out of.
So, I'm just gonna come and stand back here discreetly.
(WU LAUGHING) Wait for the skulls to appear.
It's sort of layers of security.
We're not allowed to see which key goes into which locker.
He keeps the key so that nobody to know the number.
-Do you know the numbers? -No.
(LAUGHS) No? Even Professor Wu doesn't know.
No, I do not want to know, because if I know that, if it is lost, I have the responsibility.
-But now I don't know anything.
-No responsibility for me.
ROBERTS: Finally I'm allowed in to see the plaster casts of the Homo erectus skulls from the Lower Cave.
And Professor Wu has a surprise waiting.
(ROBERTS ExCLAIMS) You see, this is the original specimen.
That's the original? Yes, original.
As you know, most of the original specimens lost during the war.
I didn't know any of it had survived.
Yeah, after the war we have done some new excavation.
-ROBERTS: Right.
-And got some new specimens.
-This is one of them.
-Can I hold it? Yes, yes.
I honestly thought all the specimens had been lost, but this is an actual fossil of Homo erectus in China.
It was found in 1 966.
ROBERTS: So this is hundreds of thousands of years old, isn't it? WU: So this is another piece.
It's just amazing for me to, I mean, to be holding in my hand this actual fossil, which is hundreds of thousands of years old.
I honestly thought all I would see is casts, is reconstructions.
-WU: Yeah, yeah.
-And this is the actual fossil.
WU: And now you hold original one.
That's amazing.
ROBERTS: But even more important is what Professor Wu has spotted in these fossils.
First, he shows me some features of the ancient Erectus skulls that he believes are typically Chinese.
The face is flat.
The nose is flat.
Not very protrude, as in Europe.
ROBERTS: Yeah, yeah.
And this part is also flat.
So, this part of the cheek bones is sort of rotated like that.
Then he shows me the much more recent Upper Cave skulls and picks out the same distinctively Chinese features.
WU: But it also have the more flat face and a not very protruding nose.
So the features that you're looking at in these skulls are really the features which characterise modern Chinese people today, and the sort of differences between your skull and my skull.
-WU: Yes, yes.
-Yeah, so your face here is like this.
-And mine like -And yours is flatter.
And your nose is flatter here than mine.
So we inherited some features from our ancestor.
ROBERTS: Professor Wu sees a clear line, Homo erectus evolving into Upper Cave Man, becoming today's Chinese.
For him, these fossils prove that the Chinese come from a completely different branch of the human family.
But I can see significant differences between the skulls.
The whole skull shape of Homo erectus is quite different from modern humans.
And even those features that Wu pointed out, the nose and the cheek bones, don't seem that similar to me.
Professor Wu, I mean, you've spent a lifetime studying these skulls, and I'm a complete novice in comparison, but I look at this modern skull here, this 30,000-year-old skull from zhoukoudian, and this looks quite similar to me to other skulls from Europe at the same time, so I don't think It doesn't look Chinese to me.
No, but the profile in Europe is different.
Quite subtle though, isn't it? I'm still not convinced that the Chinese are so fundamentally different from the rest of us.
Professor Wu is so knowledgeable and his arguments are so persuasive, so maybe I'm missing something.
ROBERTS: And there is other evidence to suggest that Professor Wu could be right, that the Chinese do in fact descend from a different branch of the human family to the rest of us.
I'm travelling 2,000 kilometres into Central China, to investigate something that's a real problem for my out of Africa theory.
And it's all to do with stone tools.
Elsewhere in the world, our species, Homo sapiens, is associated with sophisticated styles of tools.
Like these from Europe.
But in China, you find something completely different.
A lot of very basic tools.
A type in fact typical of Homo erectus.
Archaeological evidence, then, that seems to undermine the idea that the Chinese evolved in the same way as the rest of us.
If modern humans suddenly arrived in China, we might expect to see modern-looking stone tools appearing with their arrival, just like in Europe.
But the tools in this part of the world stay looking fairly crude.
And Chinese scientists say this is because there wasn't an influx of modern humans.
But there could be another rather intriguing explanation.
ROBERTS: Archaeologist Dr Joe Kaminga has spent decades working in Southeast Asia.
And I'm hoping that his work might shed some light on this mystery of Chinese origins.
I mean, this really is about as crude and basic a stone tool as you can get, isn't it? Yes, it is.
Which is a bit bizarre, isn't it? Because in Europe at this time they're making quite sophisticated stone tools.
So, I mean, what's going on here? We're in a completely different part of the world here.
In Europe, there are different resources, different plants, different animals and different kinds of stone.
And you have very large cobbles of flint in Europe, but you don't have very large cobbles of flint here in Southeast Asia or in South China.
ROBERTS: But there is something else here, and Joe thinks they could've used it to make tools just as sophisticated as European ones.
Why would you go through so much trouble to make a sophisticated stone tool, beautifully shaped, when you can just take a piece of bamboo and use that, and throw it away when you've finished with it? Because it's everywhere.
You can always get it again, next valley along.
ROBERTS: Joe believes that the crude stone tools were just used to chop down and work bamboo.
(CREAKING) (ExCLAIMS) -Excellent.
You carry it down the slope and I'll follow.
(ROBERTS LAUGHING) Watch your step there.
-Is it slippery? -It is.
(ExCLAIMS) JOE: Perfect.
ROBERTS: It's a tantalising idea, but it's not easy to believe that a flimsy bit of bamboo could ever do the job of a sharp stone tool.
We need to put it to the test.
If you just want to make a small knife, we've got a flake.
-Just saw it.
You can open up the cut by bending the bamboo.
The next step is simply to thin the edge.
And just cut cut it on the inside of the bamboo.
And it should work very well.
It has a completely different texture to wood.
The fibres are very long, very even.
Everything's very predictable.
-There's no knots in it.
And it's as simple as that.
'Cause I think I'm about done.
ROBERTS: Really? JOE: Yeah.
And behold.
It's pretty sharp stuff.
ROBERTS: Bamboo's sharpness comes from silica, a hard mineral also found in sand.
I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to butcher a chicken with it, though.
(CHICKEN CLUCKING) ROBERTS: What are you making now? I'm making an arrow head.
JOE: So I'll just start to shape the point.
ROBERTS: We don't know if ancient people used bamboo arrow heads, but it seemed like a good way to test the limits of bamboo technology.
A very snug fit.
ROBERTS: Now we need to shoot something.
(BOTH LAUGHING) ROBERTS: First, I want to see what Joe's bamboo knife is capable of.
So this is going to be somebody's dinner, hopefully.
Well, maybe ours.
-All right.
-Okay, I'll have a leg.
(CRACKING) You have to saw a bit, but it's getting through it.
Oh, this is pretty good, Joe.
Look at this.
JOE: Good.
Well, we've just disjointed a leg, so that's The bamboo has got through skin, it's got through ligament as well.
So it's doing pretty well, I'd say.
How about that? ROBERTS: And,just how effective is a bamboo arrow? Well, I don't think I'm going to be too adventurous.
Shall I try the arrow head you just made? Go for it.
You don't mind if I step 20 metres aside? Yeah, you keep well to one side, Joe.
I wouldn't trust me with this at all.
Let's have a look at this, then.
(LAUGHS) Can you see that, stuck in the ground? Well, how about we try the cabbage? ROBERTS: I mean, look at that, though.
That's a bamboo arrow embedded in a bit of wood.
(JOE CLAPPING) Arrow in a cabbage.
Well, that's pretty impressive for bamboo technology, I think.
Well, now that you've killed the cabbage, we can have that for dinner as well, with the chicken.
ROBERTS: Bamboo turns out to be surprisingly versatile, so it's at least possible that modern humans from Africa were here using sophisticated tools, made not of stone but of bamboo.
But that still doesn't prove that the Chinese came out of Africa with everybody else.
However, there is something that could settle this debate of where the Chinese come from once and for all.
After that ROBERTS: I'm meeting Professor Jin Li, one of China's leading geneticists.
Recently he led a project that set out to prove that the Chinese evolved independently from everyone else, from Homo erectus, here in China.
Before the project started, I was hoping that I could identify or could be able to find the evidence that support independent origin of Chinese in China.
Because I'm a Chinese, I came from China, and through the education process I always believed that there is something special about Chinese.
ROBERTS: He's singled out a male genetic marker, which only appeared about 80,000 years ago in Africa.
So any man who carries that marker must have recent African ancestors and can't be descended from the more ancient Asian Homo erectus.
Jin took DNA from over 1 60 ethnic groups around East Asia.
over 1 2,000 samples.
And so, what did you find? We did not see any even one single individual that could be considered as the descendant of the Homo erectus in China.
Rather, everybody was a descendant of our ancestors from Africa.
ROBERTS: The result couldn't have been any clearer.
ROBERTS: How does that make you feel, as a Chinese person? After I saw the evidences that we generate in my laboratory, I think we should all be happy with that, because after all, modern humans from different part of the world are not so different from each other and we are very close relatives.
ROBERTS: That's great.
Thank you.
ROBERTS: So Africa is the home of the Chinese.
Jin Li's research confirms that their ancestors, too, were part of that tiny group that left the continent around 70,000 years ago.
And genetics is also helping us understand how people spread through Asia.
our ancestors reached Siberia very early on.
But there was another even earlier migration route, spreading along the coast of southern Asia and eventually reaching China.
one day, as we push forward the frontiers of genetic research, we may even discover the origin of those Chinese features.
So, if they weren't a result of adaptation to cold, where might they have come from? It could simply be chance, or it could be down to sex.
If particular features are considered attractive in a population, then people with those features are much more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation.
And if that group then goes on to flourish, those features could become very widespread.
ROBERTS: And the handful of people with these features certainly did flourish.
Their descendants filled the vast spaces of Asia.
And eventually they would move on from hunting and gathering to build one of the greatest civilizations of the world.
In this city, the hub of the world's second-largest economy, it feels like I'm on a different planet to the one inhabited by those hunter-gatherers.
But is it possible to look back into prehistory and find those early steps, the seeds of civilisation in China? ROBERTS: What was it that turned hunter-gatherers into empire builders? I'm travelling through the awe-inspiring landscape of Guilin, in South China, in search of the key to their success.
This is the Tsung Pien cave.
Excavations here tell us it was once lived in by hunter-gatherers.
And in 2001, a wonderful discovery was made.
These fragments are so precious that I'm not even allowed to touch them.
They are what remains of one of the oldest pots in China.
In fact, one of the oldest pots in the world.
So, who made this pot? Well, the people living in this cave so many thousands of years ago would have been nomadic hunter-gatherers, still living an ancient lifestyle in many ways.
But those insignificant-looking crude pieces of pot mark a great technological leap forward.
ROBERTS: So prehistoric pottery's has also been found in this cave? ROBERTS: Pots are something we take for granted.
But for those ancient hunter-gatherers, pottery was a part of a completely new way of life.
So how did they do it? I'm meeting a team of experimental archaeologists, who think they might have the answer.
The first breakthrough must have been finding out how to stop the pots cracking when they were fired, tempering them by mixing calcite rock with the clay.
And they even have an idea how the pots might have been shaped, thousands of years before the invention of the potter's wheel.
This is very clever.
They've dug a pit here to basically give us the form of the pot, almost like a mould.
And then we're pressing this clay in little slabs down into the (SPEAKING IN MANDARIN) ROBERTS: pre-formed pit.
(SPEAKING IN MANDARIN) ROBERTS: Transforming clay into hard pottery requires firing at a high temperature.
Today, this is done at 1,000 degrees Celsius in a kiln - way beyond the capabilities of those hunter-gatherers.
They would've had open fires, which only produce temperatures of about 250 degrees.
I'm quite doubtful this is going to be enough.
So how's our pot? (ExCLAIMS) I think that's it.
I think that's our pot there, and it looks okay! (SPEAKING IN MANDARIN) ROBERTS: Fantastic.
There are many different theories about why the Chinese hunter-gatherers might have started making pots.
Some people say it was a symbol of prestige.
But the Chinese archaeologists think that the explanation is much more simple - cooking.
ROBERTS: Pots meant that a wider range of food could be cooked and stored, vital in hard times.
And by 9,000 years ago, there was another innovation - farming.
One of the things that those early Chinese potters would have been eating was wild rice.
Now, it certainly wouldn't have been the main source of food, because it was hard to collect and actually didn't give much energy in return.
But despite the availability of other vegetables, it was rice that became more and more important and even crucial to the early success of the Chinese.
ROBERTS: This looks good, doesn't it? ROBERTS: But wild rice doesn't produce much grain.
So how was such an unpromising plant changed into the food that would feed a continent? Well, one of those early farmers must have stumbled on a way of tricking nature.
Rice needs plenty of water, so I'm helping the farmers irrigate their paddy field, creating the type of watery, marshy environment that rice naturally grows in.
But when rice is deprived of water, it does something rather interesting.
It starts to produce masses of seeds.
So what the early farmers hit on was a cunning plan to get rice to do just that, by creating an artificial drought.
ROBERTS: Someone came up with the idea of filling paddy fields up with water and then allowing it to evaporate.
It's as though the rice plants expect a drought and panic, producing many more seeds.
Grains of rice.
Probably one of the things which made rice so appealing to hunter-gatherers and made them want to grow it was that you could store the seeds for food during the winter.
ROBERTS: once there was more food and it could be relied on, populations boomed.
Families settled down.
They started to build villages, towns, and eventually cities.
These humble plants represent the end of the journey for Chinese hunter-gatherers, and the beginnings of something new, farming and civilisation.
It's no exaggeration to say that this development was the foundation of the most successful group of humans living today.
And the rest is history.