In this programme, the plucky sapiens encounter Neanderthals in southern France, 32,000 years ago. Bigger, stronger, and with a larger brain capacity than sapiens, they had already been there for 500,000 years when sapiens first encountered them. Long enough to have evolved a paler skin colour in response to the cooler northern climate. I love it that we all came out of Africa and were once dark-skinned. The perfect fact to irritate white supremacists.
They had language, but hadn’t evolved to efficiently produce sounds, so that spoken communication would not have been as complex as it was among sapiens. And they formed family units in which the sick were cared for, and the dead were buried with wreaths of flowers. This last point wasn’t made in the programme and perhaps should have been. Their weapons technology was different from sapiens – thick thrusting spears as opposed to thin, light throwing spears – which was reflected in the style of hunting. Sapiens would kill animals from a distance, while Neanderthals would charge up and knock them over, finishing them off with a thrusting spear. Clearly a much more dangerous strategy. And the essential difference between British and American football.
As in the first programme, the experts talked about the relative strengths of the two species, and the drama demonstrated what they talked about. One expert in both the programmes hurled spears at, or stabbed, a dead pig to demonstrate the effects of different weapons. I think the pig should have got a mention in the credits.
My problem with this docudrama is that we get short changed in two ways. The documentary isn’t as interesting or complex as it could be, tied down as it is to being a gloss for the drama. And the drama is naff. Simplistic, politically correct, and so airbrushed that you can imagine it as an advertisement for an exotic holiday. Just as the village at the end of Homo erectus was Club Med, the encampment in Neanderthal is an idealised version of a Native American campsite, complete with teepees.
And that’s just the props. The actors are all thoroughly photogenic, except the ones playing Neanderthals. Even so, the surviving Neanderthal could probably get the starring role in a Tarzan movie.
But it’s the political correctness that sticks out like a vegetarian at a Cattle Ranchers’ Association dinner. Essentially, sapiens unwittingly move into Neanderthal terrritory, and the Neanderthals kill the heroine’s brother, thus setting off an inter-species feud that ends badly for the Neanderthals. We’re told in the postscript that within a few thousand years their population declined disastrously and they only managed to hang on in Gibraltar, becoming extinct 24,000 years ago.
The heroine, Byana, is an stone age protofeminist, railing against the fact that only men get to hunt and not wanting to marry the man from another group that her father has chosen for her. Byana really wants to be a hunter, to the point where she blows their chance of killing a horse by chucking her own spear at it and missing. So she gets her brother, the one later killed by Neanderthals, to teach her. From their practice session, it’s clear that Byana couldn’t hit the side of a woolly mammoth. Yet when she gets her hands on a spear-thrower, suddenly she becomes a dead shot. After the scene of Byana rejecting her traditional role as wife and mother, we get another expert waxing lyrical about the advantages of gender specialization and division of labour. So you know this rebellion is a flash in the pan.
Byana is also the conscience of the sapiens. While she understandably calls them “monsters” after her brother’s murder, she lets a wounded Neanderthal live. Coincidentally, this is the Hollywood type I mentioned earlier. When the victorious sapiens find him in the Neanderthal encampment, she pretends to kill him, and moments later you see him limping off toward extinction. You’d think the other sapiens would have noticed the absence of a body.
But political correctness doesn’t end with Byana. Her prospective mate is told by Byana’s father that they will be united the next day. He is prepared to withdraw from the arrangement, saying that Byana doesn’t want to be a wife, she wants to be a hunter. The perfect 21st century man. Byana, however, has changed her mind. “Together stronger,” she says, kissing the fertility symbol she carries. “Together stronger” also echoes her father’s wish for the two sapiens groups to join forces for mutual benefit. Presumably with Byana as familial glue.
I said at the beginning that this programme is slightly less risible than the last. But only because the events are more plausible, without of course the 21st century attitudes embodied in the narrative. The word “ethnocentric” doesn’t just spring to mind, it leaps into physical existence and rips chunks out of your leg.
As for the documentary aspect, its function is to pimp out a ludicrous drama. This is a fascinating subject. I’m deeply interested in human origins and how we might have interacted with other hominid species. But it needs a proper, scientifically rigorous documentary to do it justice. This one tries to be half entertainment and fails miserably.