Neanderthals on TV

programme clip
Neanderthals: Meet Your ancestors, clip from the BBC Two series page.

I have much enjoyed a couple of programmes on television recently: Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors. Presented by a new name (to me at least), Ella Al-Shamahi, the series gets over some serious concepts and is a good example of the way in which it is possible to use modern technology (and expectations) to put forward detailed points without dumbing down.

Of course, there were some things that annoyed me. It appeared to start with the premise, which always drives me mad, that the presenter is a highly-knowledgeable expert who has undertaken the research single-handed. In most cases this is followed by a programme that negates the contributions of the numerous academics who will be interviewed over the next hour or so (and yes, I have been one of those academics, and yes, maybe I have a grudge). It seems to be a popular premise, driven, no doubt, by our worship of the celebrity and distrust of experts. In this case, however, there were two differences that worked to allay my fears. Firstly, Ella Al-Shamahi actually is a palaeoanthropologist, specialising in Neanderthals and the Out-of Africa dispersal, and currently studying for a PhD at University College London. Apparently in her spare time she is a stand-up comic, thus elevating her considerably in my eyes. Secondly, once underway, it was clear that she intends to confine her role to that of presenter: interpreting and entwining the detailed contributions of a plethora of specialists, each keen to make a particular point. At times she is more like a chairperson, mediating and encouraging discussion among the panel of experts.

The programmes incorporate some gimmicky modern technology, notably using the actor Andy Serkis to bring our Neanderthal ancestors to life using adaptive performance capture. But they don’t stray away from the discussion of complex issues such as the size and function of the hyoid bones and the niceties of Neanderthal vocalisation. Overall, they provide a successful background to current theories about Neanderthals and their way of life. I had to wait for much of episode one for the obligatory mammoth (which pretty quickly ended up being eaten), and there is some discussion of the world in which the Neanderthal communities of northern Europe lived, though the focus was on the people themselves.

That leads me to perhaps the most controversial aspect. The Neanderthal contribution to modern populations. There was a fascinating discussion of the many ways in which Neanderthal DNA survives and the roles it plays today. And, it goes further than that. Imagine what it must have been like to live in a world populated by not one, but several, hominin species. How much did they recognise one another? How much did they interact? Was there more empathy than that shown today by our own population to the great apes. I hope so. But, while we are all very keen to send off personal DNA samples and find out the apparent percentage of Neanderthal, Viking, or hunter-gatherer in our past, I wonder if we would be quite so keen to promote it in the present. Not keen at all, if our recent social attitudes to those who look different or come from different places, is anything to go by. Diversity of makeup is, it seems, fine as long as it is confined to history. It is ironic that we boast about our diverse origins then vote for insularity.

Of course, the Neanderthal contribution to our present makeup is safely that of ancient history. But it is an important contribution nonetheless. This series has done much to dispel the image of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging savages. It is, hopefully, only the start of research that will open up the sophisticated, specialised world of the Neanderthal population of Europe in ways that we, ‘old-fashioned Cro-Magnons’, can understand it. Meanwhile, it also gets us thinking about our current position, predilections, and future, and that is no bad thing.