Nine o’clock in the evening, we’ve just finished eating. It’s a starry night in the Awash valley, turning chilly. We are in one of the warmest places on Earth, daytime scorchingly hot, the sudden coolness at nightfall is a surprise, even though we have been warned.
It’s Lucia night, 13 December, 2008. We are getting ready for one of the most absurd events I have taken part in. In the middle of the Ethiopian desert, on Africa’s horn, we are preparing a Lucia pageant for the world famous paleontologists Behane Asfaw and Tim White along with their researchers, who are dining a couple of hundred metres from our camp. Writer Lasse Berg and cameraman Simon Stanford in the typical pointed hats with stars. Looking utterly strange. Glühwein, ginger bisquits and an attempt at singing the Lucia song in harmony for jaw-dropping scientists from around the world.
This was how our journey started, among paleontologists looking for our earliest forefathers. One year later our film is finished – Kalahari Dawn (Jordens snällaste apa) – airing on SVT 2, 21 December at 20.00 hrs.
In the film, we follow writer Lasse Berg in search of the latest scientific discoveries about man’s inner nature. Lasse has devoted a large part of his life to trying to understand what makes man – man. Living for many years in Rwanda, seeing the result of the horrific events that left almost a million people dead in the space of a few months, he has seen how deep man can stoop, but also amazingly how hope can return. In the middle of all evil, he saw cooperation, empathy and helpfulness come to the fore.
Is man as a species mainly a cooperative or a competitive being? Is empathy part of our nature? Is human development driven by egotism and aggressive behaviour? These are the questions that have inspired the journey. For most people, the answer is self-evident. Our history seems to confirm the picture of man as an aggressive character. We have interpreted Darwin’s teachings about natural selection as favouring the strongest; the alpha male being evolution’s constant winner. But more and more scientists are taking an interest in man’s unique ability to engage in unselfish cooperation.
We start in the Awash valley, trying to understand how we came to be different from the chimpanze. The ability to walk upright, growing small instead of large canines, these are indications that we very early on made ourselves dependent on cooperation for survival. From there on it’s a journey through evolution. The brain expands, all the time increasing our ability to work with other humans. Our brain encourages this behaviour. Which evolutionary forces stimulated this development?
Kalahari Dawn is a documentary in the footsepts of Lasse Berg over the African continent, where mankind evolved. It is a journey to paleontologists, archaeologists, geneticists, brain resarchers. We pay a visit to the San people of Namibia and a dig in South Africa where the first traces of modern man have been found. South African rock art tells us how important symbolism has been for the ascent of man.
Lasse Berg’s conclusion is that it is our ability to hold a group together and help each other in tough times that holds the key to mankind’s successful evolution. But also sadly, that man too often has shown an ability to turn this strength into weakness.
Martin Widman – director
60 min, SVT, 2009