I don't watch a lot of television as it's transmitted, more often online or even more often I'm just playing the xbox. So after managing to get the digi-box to work, I sat down to watch this Neander-fest and tweet it too, using the #PrehistoricAutopsy hashtag.
Overall, I enjoyed the program. I think there were some issues, but for a prime time piece focusing on a hominin ancestor that many, many people use as shorthand for nasty thick brutes, it presented a LOT of new data which I hope caused some minds to open up.
|Alice Roberts, George McGavin and the real star, Monsieur Neanderthal. Image: BBC, used for non-profit purposes to review program.|
This is where I think the program failed a bit. The other 'anchor' presenter was Dr George McGavin, billed simply as a "Biologist". While he is a fantastic presenter, very charismatic on-screen and certainly great when presenting on entomological topics (his field of expertise) in other tv programs, he didn't bring a lot to this format. I don't really understand why you'd choose a zoologist, and one who isn't even a mammal specialist for this program. If he was there simply to ask intelligent questions on behalf of the audience, that's one thing. But I think it was a missed opportunity not to have a Neanderthal archaeology specialist- by that I mean someone who knows their material culture and artefacts- as part of the core team instead, in the way that John Hawks was for the genetics. Alice handled the visit to Spain to see the shell artefacts and pigment and interviewed Joao Zilhao, but I can't help compare how much more incisive and animated she is when on the firmer ground of her own field of anatomy- and therefore much more entertaining for the audience. With Alice and John you felt like the experts were laying out all these cool new DNA and skeletal discoveries for you, but there was no-one doing that in the same way for the archaeology which was a shame.
Certainly being a stone-tool nerd I am going to see this from a particular perspective, and it didn't spoil the show, which after all was an "autopsy"; maybe there will be another format soon that focuses on all the incredible archaeological evidence coming up all the time for Neanderthals, including more on pigments, not to mention the amazingness of their composite technology using birch pitch, the first synthetic material in the archaeological record (something I'm publishing on soon). I really applaud the program for including so much fresh data and discoveries, and not being afraid to bombard the audience with lots of new cool things that could overturn their view of Neanderthals. There was a predictable but still disappointing trend on Twitter for jokes about Neanderthals being thick/ugly/violent, but it was clear that other people were really surprised and intrigued by some of the things they found out.
I'd also take issue with the summing up statement that Neanderthals "possibly had an emergent culture"... of course they had culture, chimpanzees have culture! The range of technologies and tool forms in the Middle Palaeolithic (the broad term for the Neanderthals' culture) was in fact richer than is often admitted, even in academic papers, with clear regionally and temporally-specific trends such as the brief flourescence of blade technology around 100,000 years ago in northern Europe. An "emergent symbolic culture" would have been a much more accurate, and informative, closing statement, leading the audience to think about what symbols in culture really are.
I did like the reconstruction, it seems like the same one previously featured in another series with Alice Roberts when she's on a train talking about the possibility of fancying a Neanderthal. He wasn't a patch on the Spy Neanderthal though (see image above), the only hominin reconstruction I could imagine wanting to exchange genetic material with, there's something almost Daniel Craig about his grin and twinkly eyes!
As someone who is lucky enough to research these uber-cool hominins for a living, I love engaging people with their Neanderthal heritage, and it's not hard to give people a "wow" experience in even a quick conversation, because there's so much that has changed in what we know and how we think about this species. But most people don't happen to sit next to me on a train and hear it from the front line (or the horse's mouth?!), so it's heartening that this kind of tv program which goes into these new discoveries in some depth is being aired, as it will have reached a really big audience. Bravo BBC2, now can we have some Stone as well as Bones?