1. Once We Were Warriors (1995)
This film, produced and set in modern New Zealand, follows the story of an urban Maori (native New Zealander) family struggling to overcome addictions and poverty, problems common to native people worldwide who have been moved from their ancestral lands to city environments. In the film, as in real life, one solution to these problems is a reconnection with traditional values and culture. The film’s scenes of grinding poverty and violence can be hard to watch, but they’re a reality. Directed by Lee Tamahori.
This Hollywood film depicts part of the career of Dian Fossey, one of the three main women in living-ape studies. Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver, diligently (or obsessively, depending on your perspective) studies gorillas in central Africa, eventually spending as much time trying to protect them from poachers as study them. Fossey was murdered in 1985, and the scene depicting this event in the film leaves the mystery open; to date, nobody has been charged with her death. Directed by Michael Apted.
This BBC production for the television series Horizon presents some of the most interesting recent work on just what the Neanderthals were and how they may have become extinct. Of course, the documentary contains lots of theories, and each one will have some palaeoanthropologist or another shaking her head; however, this movie demonstrates how ingenious anthropologists are with the bits of archaeology used to reconstruct the past and both how much and how little they really know. Some of the most prominent Neanderthal researchers appear in the video, which includes many realistic reconstructions of Neanderthal life. Directed by Cameron Balbirnie.
This French-produced film follows the lives of a band of hunter–gatherers attempting to find a new source of fire after their own is catastrophically snuffed out. The film is pretty dramatic, and many archaeologists would cringe at some of the technical details. Nevertheless, the film is thoughtprovoking and I think in many ways a good depiction of what foraging life was like for our ancestors many thousands of years ago. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
This film, with no narration or script, is an audio-visual meditation on humanity and its relationship to the natural world. By simply showing scenes of that natural world, with and without humanity, and then scenes of humanity alone without apparent connections to the natural world, the film forces you to think deeply about what our species is, for better and worse. Powaqqatsi, a later film in the same trilogy, focuses more on humanity than Koyaanisqatsi. Both films directed by Godfrey Reggio.
This book traces Scotsman Rory Stewart’s adventurous walk across Afghanistan in 2002. Yes, that Afghanistan, in 2002, with the Taliban holding sway in many regions. But most of the people Stewart meets aren’t Taliban members; they’re Afghan peasants who want to live the way they have lived for centuries, and he finds their attitudes of hospitality and generosity nearly everywhere he goes. He also comes across the remains of an ancient city being looted by pot hunters, the description of which is tremendous. The Places in Between won several awards and was on the New York Times Top Book Review list for 2006. Stewart has also published The Prince of the Marshes about his time in Iraq.
In this grand tour of the human species, the late, great astronomer Carl Sagan and his still-living wife, Ann Druyan, bring the reader from the origins of life up to the present day, beautifully and accurately describing the fascinating details of every aspect of being human, from DNA to cell division to primate behavior and human evolution. Although some elements of the book are out of date today, none of these are critical errors that lead the reader astray; most of what the authors present here is profound and timeless. Anyone enjoying this book will probably also like Cosmos, Sagan’s 1980 TV series (cowritten with Stephen Soter and Ann Druyan). It’s the most humanistic perspective on the cosmos, and humanity’s place in it, that I’ve ever seen. It’s recently been digitally remastered from the original, 25-part TV series. Directed by Adrian Malone.
8. Maps and Dreams (1981; 2nd edition 2002)
Writer-anthropologist Hugh Brody recounts his travels and investigations of the vast sub-Arctic regions of Canada in this beautifully-written book that puts the reader right on the tundra. This book made me realize just how important it is as an archaeologist to be careful about how much I believed in models (mine or anyone else’s) about human behavior in the ancient world. The decisions that Brody’s native hunting informants make — about hunting or anything else — are affected by subtle but powerful cultural factors that can be difficult to imagine.
David Lewis-Williams was a sailor and amateur anthropologist fascinated by traditional Polynesian navigation methods, including steering craft by the stars and detecting far-off islands by cloud formations and swells in the ocean. He spent years learning these methods among the traditional navigators of the Pacific. His book details these astounding methods and is sure to thrill and educate anyone interested in Polynesia, ancient sailing, or details of how human cultures have adapted to life on the Pacific. Some of the methods Lewis-Williams describes are probably more than 3,000 years old, originating when the first Lapita people began to colonize the Western Pacific from Southeast Asia.
In this novel by William Golding, a group of young boys stranded on an island try to build a society without any parental guidance. Golding uses this scenario to speculate on how human society would naturally shape up if boys old enough to have ideas about how culture “should” be arranged were isolated in a cultureless area. Whether or not Golding accurately depicts human nature, this book is thought-provoking and forces readers to ask themselves what human nature really is. Is it a product of our surroundings, or is it more deeply rooted in the fact that we’re basically large social primates? The book was adapted into films in 1963 (directed by Peter Brook) and 1990 (directed by Harry Hook.)
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