Prehistoric Autopsy: Alice Roberts on skeletons, childcare and women in science

The anatomy ace, lecturer, paleopathologist and artist talks about her new BBC2 series

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Insight number one into being the small daughter of a female TV Science Geek: at 18 months, you correctly identify a fragment of mammoth tusk. Insight Number to: Dad looks after you full time.

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Alice Roberts didn’t set out to be the breadwinner. But at the age of 39, with several TV series under her belt, plus a part-time job as Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, the anatomy ace, lecturer, paleopathologist and artist concedes that her husband Dave, a field archaeologist, had better be the one to stay at home and look after two-year-old Phoebe.

“He’s taking a career break,” says the Prof, who, in a very on-trend sweater dress, swingy hair and jewellery, is hardly the speccy wonk of science clichés. “I’m very lucky because it means our daughter is being looked after by her parents. Although usually if one parent decides to give up work, invariably that tends to be the woman.”

She didn’t set out to be a media star; having trained as a doctor, Roberts fell in love with the marvel of anatomy. She took a six-month break to teach anatomy to medical students, and stayed for 11 years. It was only when the Channel 4 show Time Team involved her in dating and examining medieval bones in a cemetery that it was discovered that her knowledge, communicating skills-  and, let’s face it, beauty – worked a treat on screen. Since then, she’s carved up her time between lab and studio with astonishing prowess; from Coast to The Origins of Us via The Incredible Journey.

Her latest adventure is Prehistoric Autopsy, a three-part BBC2 series shown on consecutive nights in which Roberts and insect expert Dr George McGavin (Lost Land of the Jaguar) dive into the bones of our early ancestors. Is this our old friend, the “foxy babe plus older man” presenting duo? “That did cross my mind,” admits Roberts. “I don’t know if that is why the programme was set up that way, or because we’re right for the programme. I hope it’s the latter.” So do I; Roberts knows her bones and her dates. But in a sense, she is never going to win this argument. She is a gift to science broadcasting because she, like physicist Professor Brian Cox, is enthusiastic, easy on the eye and can explain complicated ideas with simplicity.

Yet when a woman is doing the explaining, there is always a lurking suspicion that she is on screen for the “wrong” reasons; beauty over brains, if you like. Roberts is of course well aware of this prejudice, and peppers her conversation with references to a significant academic background whose variety and depth seems almost impossible for someone still in her thirties.

“Well, another way of looking at it is that I have just flitted around,” she says disingenuously. “I don’t feel all that young. Although I was rather offended when Brian Cox once described me as middle-aged. I thought, ‘How dare he!’ and then I thought, well, if I had a skeleton in my lab aged between 35-50, I would categorise it as ‘middle adult’.”

She acknowledges that TV has not tended to be very kind to many “middle adults” of the female gender. “I think it is very sad. I do hope things are changing. Within the BBC maybe there should be quotas; but the trouble with that is it then becomes quite difficult to find the right people.”

Particularly in science. “As you progress, the numbers of women drop off drastically. By the time you get to Professor level, there is a huge drop-off. And for the BBC and other broadcasters, that is the pool you have to choose from. If anything, they are skewing [towards women] slightly better than in real life.”

Is juggling family and career difficult for her? “It is a juggling feat, which you have to master. Perhaps the wrong word there,” she says, laughing. “Manage. But when you see the very small numbers of women in the higher echelons of so many careers, you realise you can’t blame women for a lack of ambition, or for choosing to stay at home with the children. It means there is something structurally wrong with the way careers are set up, and that women are being forced to choose between family and career.”

The answer? “She has quite a few, ranging from equal maternity/paternity leave to free childcare. Far from being a disengaged nerd (sorry, science cliché again) in a white coat, Roberts seems passionately focused on the politics and structures of modern society. Unsurprisingly, this is her fascination with old bones, too.

From evidence going back three million years, Roberts has dived into all sorts of prehistoric sociological speculation, from childbirth (early humans probably didn’t do it alone), to childhood (our ancestors took a long time reaching maturity, as we do) and even geriatric care.

“There is this site at Dmanisi in Georgia where they came across fossilised bones dated around 1.8 million years ago. A wonderful insight into the earliest humans found outside Africa. One skull had lost virtually all of its teeth a long time before death. This is earlier than the first definite example of controlled fire, so how would they have been able to eat? They must have been looked after.”

Which sounds a lot like guesswork masquerading as scientific extrapolation. While not admitting she makes things up as she goes along, Roberts will admit to a bit of creative thinking as far as our ancestors are concerned. “It’s all part of the thrill. There is a huge amount of speculation. And a lot of gaps in our knowledge. So every time there is a new fossil, there is the chance to fill in missing pieces in the jigsaw and improve our knowledge, or test existing theories. You have to maintain an open mind.”

Prehistoric Autopsy deals with our ancestors, starting with our famous “cousin” Neanderthal Man. How come we survived, and poor old Neanderthal died out?

“Luck. Which is not taught about enough,” she says. “There is a tendency for academics and TV producers to come up with an answer for why humans are so wonderful. Not so. There is an enormous amount of serendipity about it. It could have been quite easy for things to have happened the other way round, ending up with Neanderthal Man being here, not us.”

How about both of us at the same time? She shakes her head.

“We were both trying to occupy the same niche. There wouldn’t have been enough room. I had always thought there was no evidence of hybrids, but recent studies show evidence of a genetic connection. Actually, in the show we reveal how many Neanderthal genes George has in him and how many I have.” What, between bearded, hulking Dr George McGavin and the nimble Professor Alice Roberts? Sorry, George, but it’s a no-brainer. “Aha,” giggles Roberts. “It’s a surprise!”

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Prehistoric Autopsy is on tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday at 9:00pm on BBC2