News, Culture & Society

BBC admits a tribe in Human Planet built treehouses for the benefit of the cameras

The BBC has been dragged into a fakery row after it admitted a tribe in one of its documentaries had built treehouses for the benefit of the cameras – but did not actually live in them.

The Corporation said that series Human Planet had breached its ‘editorial standards’ by inaccurately portraying the lives of members of a community in Papa New Guinea.

In the documentary, the Korowai tribe can be seen building the houses and relocating their pets and children up to the treetops.

The Korowai tribe told a BBC crew they created houses exclusively for Human Planet

Narrator John Hurt tells of how 42 workers ‘countless felled trees’ and three miles of twine lead to the completion of the ‘new homes’.

But the BBC has now issued an apology after it discovered, while filming a series which will air this month, that the tribesmen did not live in the houses and had created them purely for commercial broadcasters.

In upcoming BBC Two series My Year With The Tribe, adventurer Will Millard visits the same group who tell him the treehouses ‘are not our home’ and that they were ‘commissioned for filming’.

He tells the camera: ‘That’s why they’re worried (about) how many people come up here and we might fall through the floor. This is not where they live, this is total artifice’.

The eight-part Human Planet documentary at the centre of the row was aired in 2011 on BBC One.

In a statement released yesterday, the broadcaster said: ‘The BBC has been alerted to a breach of editorial standards in an episode of Human Planet from 2011 which concerns the Korowai people of West Papua.

‘During the making of BBC Two’s upcoming documentary series, My Year With The Tribe, a member of the tribe discusses how they have built very high tree houses for the benefit of overseas programme makers.

The BBC said it has strengthened its guidelines since Human Planet was first broadcast in 2011 

The BBC said it has strengthened its guidelines since Human Planet was first broadcast in 2011 

‘The BBC has reviewed a sequence in Human Planet depicting this and found that the portrayal of the tribe moving into the treehouse as a real home is not accurate.’ 

References to the particular episode had also yesterday been deleted from the BBC website.

Previously, a section on BBC Bitesize, which serves as a learning tool for young people, had read: ‘The Korowai tribe live in a remote region of the hot and humid West Papuan rainforest.

But, they have adapted perfectly to this hostile environment by building their houses high in the jungle canopy, away from the dangers of flooding and unfriendly animals on the forest floor.’ 

In the initial documentary, narrator Mr Hurt had described at length how the group lived amongst the trees. 

He said: ‘This clan is building a new house but it will be no ordinary one. All materials must be sourced on site….The plan is to build their new home, in a tree, 35 metres (115ft) up.

‘It is a display of their jungle prowess. For the Korowai, the higher the house, the greater the prestige.’ Speaking after the documentary first aired, BBC Earth researcher Rachael Kinley described her visit. Her comments, to website Mother Jones, show that at the time the BBC believed that the tribe lived in the houses.

She said: ‘So, our first day in Papua with the Korowai is spent in their home, a tree house.

‘Making friends in the treehouse Korowai houses are communal and split into male and female sides, to avoid furtive touching in the evenings. So, as the rest of the crew, including the translator are men, I sit down with the women, while the crew all head outside to take in the view from the male balcony.

‘Friendship-forming begins inside the house. In the UK, we’d receive cups of tea and cake; here, it’s fire-charred lumps of sago palm, fresh from the flames.’

A spokesman for the BBC added: ‘Since this programme was broadcast in 2011, we have strengthened our mandatory training for all staff in editorial guidelines, standards and values.’ 

My Year With The Tribe will air on BBC Two on April 15.