When did dogs become pets? How did tomatoes become part of the European diet? Professor Alice Roberts explains all in her exciting new show ‘Tamed’ at the Norwich Science Festival
Professor takes us on a scientific journey
FOR ALL those who consider science to be a dry, unfathomable, inaccessible subject, a few minutes in the company of Professor Alice Roberts will most definitely change your mind.
Although her career started in medicine, and then moved into academia and the study of human anatomy, her expertise and interest expands way beyond.
Her scientific work crosses many fields, from paleontology, archaeology, history and anthropology to advanced genetics and advances in DNA – but all with one common theme, to understand more about human origins and how the past can teach us about the future.
Her enthusiasm is extraordinarily infectious and that, combined with her ability to make science so relatable and accessible, has led her to occasionally step away from the lecture theatre and into a hugely successful television and writing career.
“Science is all about great stories and we forget that,” she says. “We talk a lot about science as something worthy and very academic and serious, but actually it is often about these fascinating stories from our past. That is something I absolutely love about it and want to share.”
Her new book is no different – bringing to life the stories of some of our most familiar species and revealing some surprises along the way.
‘Tamed’ looks back over hundreds of thousands of years, from a time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors depended on wild plants and animals for survival to the domestication of those same wild species, when the human population boomed and they were effectively tamed, and became crucial to the survival and success of humans.
The book will form the focus of her show at this month’s Norwich Science Festival as part of her nationwide ‘Tamed’ tour. It focuses on 10 species with wild pasts, that in Alice’s words, changed our world – from dogs, apples and wheat to cattle, potatoes and chickens.
“Rather than being just a series on humans, I wanted to look at the perspective of domesticated species, about how we tame wildness. By looking at the domestication of these species we were able to discover so much about our ancestors and hopefully these stories will really make people think.
“We made so many fascinating discoveries. For example dogs were domesticated long before any of our ancestors thought about farming, which could have been the assumption. It was actually when our ancestors were still very much hunter gatherers when it occurred, around 30 to 40,000 years ago, back in the Ice Age.
“The research was like a great detective story, gradually piecing together the story from a discovery of unusual wolf like skulls, using archaeology, genetics and DNA to determine they were in fact very early dogs.”
Alice started her career in medicine and after qualifying was focused on becoming a surgeon, before a chance placement teaching anatomy to medical students led to a change in focus.
“I always planned to go back to my surgical training but I loved teaching anatomy and I realised it was my passion,” Although I missed the interaction with patients, I loved the interaction with the students and realised how much I loved the academic side of this area of science. So I swapped living patients for anatomy cadavers. Now I am very good at taking people apart, not so good about putting them back together,” she laughs.
Through a colleague of Alice’s husband, himself a field archaeologist, Alice was asked by Channel 4 programme Time Team whether she could provide some behind the scenes help to write reports on some of the skeletons unearthed during the show’s digs.
“I presented a show from Happisburgh which was a real highlight”
“They had a massive backlog of skeletons so I took them back to my lab and worked through them gradually. Then they got in touch as they were doing a massive dig and wanted someone to look at the bones on site as they came out of the ground. So I spent my time off helping out and somehow I found myself appearing on screen as a human bone expert.
“After a few seasons on Time Team they asked me if I would consider being a presenter on a new series called Coast. I had no experience as a presenter so it was a steep learning curve – but I did have a lot of experience as an academic and a lecturer and I don’t think teaching is that different to presenting.
“I loved working on Coast, and it was a huge privilege. I learned so much and was lucky enough to visit some fascinating beautiful places. I presented a show from Happisburgh which was a real highlight as it is an incredible place. When we visited, it was to learn more about the discovery of these ancient hand axes which was exciting enough – and of course since then, the site has just got better and better with the incredible discovery of the ancient human footprints, the oldest found outside of Africa. It is extraordinary.”
Such was Alice’s popularity on Coast, it led to a host of other television series including The Incredible Human Journey, Origins of Us,
Ice Age Giants and five seasons of Digging for Britain, with a sixth due to air this winter. This month she is focusing on her ‘Tamed’ tour which comes to Norwich on October 24 and she says she loves doing live shows. “A key part of my show is a Q&A with the audience which I think is incredibly important. I am always interested to hear what people are interested in, to hear their thoughts on it and that’s one of the reasons I love these gigs so much.
“There are some challenges which will face us all in the future and some big issues to be tackled. Some of the motivations for writing about science and exploring the past is that you hope it can make a difference in shaping ideas and policy for the future, and although sometimes those subjects can be difficult it is important to have a dialogue with people.
“Science festivals are a fantastic way to get people excited and engaged. Science is not one subject, it covers so much which affects us all and what these festivals do is recognise that science is not just hugely culturally relevant, but also an awful lot of fun. We have literary and music festivals so why not treat science festivals in the same way?”
Above: Professor Alice Roberts