First Peoples

A genetic detective story

200,000 years ago we took our first steps on the African savanna. Today there are 8 billion of us living across planet Earth.

The First Peoples documentary series from PBS sets out to investigate how our ancestors beat the odds and spread from continent to continent and what the secret to their success was.

Featuring new fossil finds and the latest genetic research, the main story for survival might revolve around one interesting revelation.

In prehistoric times, we met and mated with other types of human – like Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo erectus. This mixing of genes helped humanity survive – and ultimately thrive.

Episode 1: First Peoples – Americas

Episode 1: First Peoples - Americas

As early humans spread out across the world, perhaps one of the more demanding challenges was colonizing the Americas — because a huge ice sheet blocked the route.

It has long been thought that the pioneers, known as Clovis people, arrived about 13,000 years ago, but a recent underwater discovery in Mexico suggests people arrived earlier than previously thought — and by boat, not on foot.

How closely related were these First Americans to today’s Native Americans? It’s a controversial matter, focused on Kennewick Man. Few other skeletons engender such strong feelings.

Episode 2: First Peoples – Africa

Episode 2: First Peoples - Africa

Around 200,000 years ago, a new species, Homo sapiens, appeared on the African landscape. While scientists have imagined eastern Africa as a real-life Garden of Eden, the latest research suggests humans evolved in many places across the continent at the same time.

DNA from a 19th-century African-American slave is forcing geneticists to re-think the origins of our species.

The theory is that our ancestors met, mated and hybridized with other human types in Africa — creating ever greater diversity within our species.

Episode 3: First Peoples – Asia

Episode 3: First Peoples - Asia

What happened when early humans ventured out of Africa and into Asia? Where did they go and whom did they meet along the way?

The latest evidence suggests they left far earlier than previously thought and interbred with other types of ancient human – Homo erectus, Neanderthals and also the Denisovans, whose existence was established only five years ago when geneticists extracted DNA from a tiny fragment of finger bone.

Because these ancient humans mated with our ancestors, their genes have found a home in our DNA. More than that, they’ve helped us survive and thrive.

Episode 4: First Peoples – Australia

Episode 4: First Peoples - Australia

When Homo sapiens arrived in Australia, they were, for the first time, truly alone, surrounded by wildly different flora and fauna. How did they survive and populate a continent?

There is a close cultural and genetic link between the First Australians and modern-day Aborigines. The ancient and modern story intersect here as nowhere else in the world.

The secret to this continuity is diversity. Intuitively, they found the right balance between being separate and connected.

Episode 5: First Peoples – Europe

Episode 5: First Peoples - Europe

When Homo sapiens turned up in prehistoric Europe, they ran into the Neanderthals. The two types of human were similar enough to interbreed — and both created artifacts of similar complexity.

But as more and more Homo sapiens moved into Europe, the balance of power shifted. Neanderthals were overwhelmed. Ever since, Homo sapiens have dominated Europe and the rest of the world.

First Peoples
  • Info
  • Release date2015
  • Full runtime
  • Director(s)Nicolas Brown, Nigel Walk
  • Production companyWall to Wall Television