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Review of "Prehistoric Autopsy: Neanderthal", BBC 2

So in lieu of some more research-focused posts I have lined up, here's my reaction to the tv program which aired last night in the UK, "Prehistoric Autopsy", first episode focused on the Neanderthals.

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.
Professor Alice Roberts is pretty de rigeur as a presenter for anything vaguely human evolution-related, and as usual she was very capable indeed. Yes, she is not an archaeologist, but this was actually appropriate here because the focus of the program was primarily on what we can tell about the Neanderthals based on their bodies: bones, teeth, DNA. For the latter there was a lot of screen time with the fantastic Dr John Hawks, who functions as the interwebs' (or at least my) go-to guy for human evolution genetics research at his excellent blog. John was also brilliant, explaining the genetics in a way that was easy to understand but didn't skimp on the details, such as the fact that being 3% Neanderthal doesn't sound like much, but it's the same proportionally as the genetic contribution as you got from your great-great-great grandmother (I think that's right... see John's better explanation here). However, although all the physical anthropology stuff was covered really well by Alice, John and also Colin Shaw's interesting arm bone asymmetry experiment (which I wrote about in my ESHE post), there was a bit of archaeology sneaked in too.

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.

The Spy Neanderthal reconstruction is significantly sexier than the one produced for the Prehistoric Autopsy program.  Image: batolix, from flickr, used under Creative Commons licence.
 There were a few little mistakes, such as implying Neanderthals were all about the ice- in fact they also lived through climates warmer than we have at present. For me their ability to live in desolate tundra AND fully forested environments is the most fascinating thing, because both types of landscapes present tough challenges, and show how flexible they truly were.
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?


JC said…
great write-up! i agree
thickedge said…
Great review given your expertise. As a layman I found it about right and very informative given its intention; which I took to be engaging the public with the issues. Best moment however was covered by the title when all three models covering some 3 millions years were lined up. All we needed was the 'elephant' in the room up front - one of the presenters to bring us bang up to date! Best of all only the most fanatical can stick to Creationism and 6,000 years after this!
Thanks for your comments JC and thickedge. I am really happy that there is more stuff on tv about human origins, not just because I like it but because it's everyone's heritage. So I really do applaud the program makers for such a quality piece of programming!

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