I watched "Human Planet" and now I must know more!
August 10, 2015 8:29 AM   Subscribe

I binge-watch Human Planet this weekend, and it was the most fascinating thing I've seen in a long time. It is an 8 episode show about how humans survive in different habitats: ocean, river, mountains, grassland, arctic, desert, jungle etc. But it covers SO much that there isn't much depth to each thing they talk about. I must know more! I have so many questions. Where can I learn more?

The show covers all sorts of stuff-people-do-to-get-food or ways-people-live that I could never even have imagined. But it just tells you "people do this" and doesn't really go into "well how does that actually play out?" So the kinds of questions I have are:

1. How often do people die in the ways one might expect to die here: Those people who live 35 feet up in trees and let their toddlers walk around with no guard rails...don't they lose a lot of kids? Those people who go under the arctic ice to get mussels while the tide is out, must get caught under there sometimes, right? That guy who walked his kids 100 miles to school along a rapidly thawing river, how did he get back? Those people who never come on land, they must drown sometimes, right? Is this equivalent to how often people in my world die in car accidents or the most common way to go or does it just never happen because somehow they're so used to living this way they're good at it or...?

2. How do the old and disable deal in some of these contexts. There was a family building a treehouse 35 metres up because higher is more prestitious and then they climbed a ladder in and out every time. Surely that's a bit much for the elderly? Or maybe since they do this their whole lives, that's an ability that they keep up from constant use, or?

3. There's a guy who literally walks a high wire to go fishing on the other side of the river from his home. Every day, he crossses over a raging river, fishes, and crossses back with not much fish because you can't carry much fish over a high wire. What's so great about the other side the river? Why doesn't he just fish on his side?

4. In the arctic the inuit use whale meat as bait for catching sharks to feed to their dogs. Why not feed the dogs whale meat or eat shark themselves? Every few weeks they go shark-catching to feed the dogs. Give all the shark to the dogs and presumably at other times go hunting or fishing for themselves. Why don't they and the dogs just eat the same kinds of meat, whale or shark or seal or whatever they have that day?

So, I'd like to read more about this stuff. I realize "this stuff" is kind a diffuse topic, but essentially I would like more depth on a variety of things like this (I don' t think I want to read a whole book JUST on the Inuit, but rather a book that covers lots of these things). Does that exist? If not, what might be the closest I can get?

I see there is a "Human Planet" book, but it appears to be a coffee table book and as much about the making of the series as about the content itself. I want more content.

So what should I be reading?
posted by If only I had a penguin... to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This would be a great question to ask a reference librarian at your public library.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:18 AM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh...and the women who breastfeed baby monkeys and baby deer? I don't know what exactly they or their (human) babies could get from that, but that doesn't seem very sanitary. Isn't that dangerous somehow? (and yes, there are people who would say the same thing about my letting the dog kiss me, but somehow I just can't let go of my own cultural lenses on this one).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:33 AM on August 10, 2015

I would suggest browsing anthropology books, either textbooks or popular science books. This Amazon search should give you a wealth of starting places.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:50 AM on August 10, 2015

Some of these questions have answers specific to the people shown in the programs (like the fishing guy). If I really wanted to know, I might check out the credits and see who is listed as a consultant on each episode and contact them (the cast/crew list at IMDb doesn't show any--although it does indicate who conducted research for specific episodes). For this kind of documentary they're likely to have partnered with local research institutions or scientists, and getting in touch might be easier than you think.

Otherwise, I would follow brianogilvie's advice and talk to a reference librarian. Some of the questions you are interested in will be addressed in ethnographic work by anthropologists (and maybe geographers, human ecologists, and others).
posted by col_pogo at 10:01 AM on August 10, 2015

Best answer: I loved Human Planet. There's a making-of series on Netflix as well -- I think it's called Human Planet: Behind the Lens -- that goes into detail on how they captured some of the segments. I haven't watched the whole series yet, but it did shed some more light on how the featured people live.

I can't help you with a book, but I'll be watching the recommendations here. Good question -- I was curious about some of that stuff too.
posted by sock puppet du jour at 10:43 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Anthropology books are definitely the way to go, though they can get pretty theory-heavy and rely on a lot of field-specific vocabulary. Consulting the reference librarian for ethnographies that aren't just written for other anthropologists would be a good call.

Also, I do remember Human Planet specifically addressing the dangers of mussel hunting. I think it mentioned that the culture has cautionary histories about people getting caught under the ice.
posted by thebots at 11:39 AM on August 10, 2015

A couple of these questions are answered - though not in detail - in the show itself. The fisherman on the Mekong River uses a high wire to cross to an island in the middle of the river, because the currents there funnel the fish toward his nets and he can catch more fish. The mussel hunters have stories about people who have died when the tide came in. The man who walked his children to school on the frozen river walked back on the same frozen river.

somehow I just can't let go of my own cultural lenses on this one

Why not? If anything, a series like Human Planet is good for pointing out that these are cultural lenses. As far as whether it's sanitary ... I suspect that you're reacting more to how weird it seems to you, because even if they don't wash their breasts that's a really small exposure in the grand scheme of things.

Consider that in some cultures, it's completely normal to eat out of a communal bowl with your hands, while people in the US freak out about "double-dipping." This is a far greater exposure than some trace gazelle spit, and yet ... it's still culturally dependent, whether you consider it dirty and risky or not, where you draw the line. Everyone draws it weirdly according to someone else.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:17 PM on August 10, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I took brianogilvie's advice and emailed "Ask a Librarian" and I'll report back with reading recommendations. I also watched Human Planet behind the lens, which did provide a little more detail, though made me question the ethics of the whole thing (they told those people to build a new treehouse. They made that guy cross the wire so many times to get the shot right.). I kind of wonder if they paid people or provided some other recompense. I was thinking they should give high-wire guy a zipline and harness and have someone who knows how set it up and teach him to use it.

I also searched for pop anthropology (though I think I want more pop geography), but it was hard finding "anthropology for popular audiences" instead of "academic anthropology books that are popular." A lot of what is listed as "pop anthropology" when I did find lists, wasn't actually anthropology, it was just somebody who went someplace that would be unusual to most North Americans and Europeans and wrote a book about it.

I did see the mentions of "there are stories" of people getting stuck under the ice while mussel hunting on the show, but a) "There are stories" doesn't really tell you if something is frequent or occasional or super freakish. B) They say things like that about just about everyone "If you fall in the river, you die." "A fall from that height is deadly." etc. etc. without much sense of "is this a freak thing that can happen freakishly" or "does this happen all the time"? It seems like the fishers who breath from the compressor tank die or get the bends pretty often, but for the rest, I didn't get much sense of it. And when they showed people in helicopters they said that they would crash and die if they hit a tree, which made me think that their saying "if you did this you would die" does not necessarily mean "this happens a lot," though sometimes it might.

The frozen river guy was walking over ice that was thawing and cracking when he walked his kids to school. I think it was implied that in places along that river the ice would soon not be there. That's why I thought "he walked back alone" (which I think was all they said), was missing some necessary detail. If the ice is gone he can't walk along it. If the river is swelled from all the melting ice, I would think that wouldn't help. If the ice couldn't support his weight on some shelves on the way down, surely it would support him even less so on the way back.

And yeah, I realize my thing about breastfeeding monkeys is a total cultural hangup. Why can't I give it up? Because it's a cultural hangup that is very strong in me. That was my whole point. I can watch people eat tarantulas and think "Well I'm sure glad I don't have to do that...or ewww....but these people think tarantulas are delicious and like them, and seem to be able to catch them safely so good for them." That lens I can put aside. "Don't breastfeed the wildlife," not so much. I mean I let me dog lick my face but I hate it when she brushes against my boobs. I imagine we all have at least one cultural lens we're not capable of putting aside.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:59 AM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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