The Human Spark, episode 1

6 minute read

I got to sit down and watch most of the first episode of “The Human Spark” on PBS tonight (my earlier post). Our local station shows these things later than the national release dates, and I missed out on the first ten minutes or so as I was putting the kids to bed. The host is Alan Alda, and here are my live-blogging thoughts after I sat down to watch:

8:16: Svante Pääbo interview. Alda watches Adrian Briggs drilling into ancient bones. Explains the problems with contamination.

“But that small difference between us could be crucial, couldn’t it?”

8:18: Now, on to protein extraction from Neandertal bones to do isotopic analysis. Alda sits down in the cafeteria with Michael Richards, explaining the high proportion of animal protein in the Neandertal diet.

8:19: On to Grenoble. Nice shot from an Alp. The European synchotron. Tanya Smith is here beaming X-rays into them to get micro-CT data from inside the teeth. The skull here is from Roc de Marsal.

Some interesting animations of human versus chimpanzee cranial growth. Human brains develop slowly, etc.

“Neandertal children … seem to have grown up more quickly…”

We’re in the archaeological site of Roc de Marsal, with Harold Dibble and Shannon McPherron. How many Neandertals were there at any one time. They banter about 20,000, decide that’s too many.

8:23: Dan Lieberman is showing Alda the original Skhul 5 skull. We’ve got a graphic of modern humans evolving in Africa, like little campfires from a night view of the Earth. And then they spread out to light little campfires in Europe. It’s like the George Bush version of human evolution – “a thousand points of light!”

Close shots of archaeological levels with Randall White.

8:27: “Even if Grandma kept her teeth in a glass…” Pierced human molars, being worn as ornaments. They go through the little museum near the site. “Microscopic analysis that we’ve been doing shows that they were sewn on, like to articles of clothing.” This is a nice conversation they’re having.

It’s a little unfortunate that the film pushes the “no Neandertal ornaments” angle, particularly since this week’s paper with the pierced shells.

“Here’s what I don’t get: The Neandertals survived, but didn’t change. They came from the same people that we came from, and at some point we started changing; we became able to change…. Having come from the same background, why were we able to change and they weren’t?”

White’s answer – Neandertals have a generalized technological approach; modern humans invent new technologies to address every problem that comes along. You can’t separate society from technology (as a response to a followup about social organization). Population numbers may have limited lines of communication among Neandertals. With moderns, “once somebody invents something, everybody knows about it.”

8:35: John Shea is teaching undergraduates how to knap. Explaining the value of projectile technology. Ooooh – time to hit a deer decoy with an atlatl dart. “A hunter who’s using this kind of thing would have to work with a group…it takes planning, cooperation…I can’t imagine this functioning without the prior existence of language.”

I find myself thinking wondering why this wouldn’t have been true of Neandertals hunting the same animals? And didn’t we hear a little while ago that it was the small animals and fish that set modern humans apart? There is a problem with the presentation here – these seem contradictory.

8:40: Now, we’re in Nairobi with Veronica Waweru. Looking at arrows with reusable shafts. Alda is narrating – did modern humans start using poison?

8:43: Olorgesailie. Alison Brooks and (an unnamed) Rick Potts are there. Brooks has points that are 150,000 years old that may be arrow points (although the one they handle on camera is bigger than Shea’s atlatl point…). Three different excavations, each representing a different age. Another small point “has just been unearthed”. This one looks a likelier arrow point than the other. Then, 320,000 years old, they have left a bunch of small stone flakes on pedestals for the film crew. The stone raw material is taken from at least 45 to 50 km distance. Alda: “These people were choosy about their materials…quite unlike the Neandertals.”

This is unfortunate, too – there are some clear instances of Neandertals transporting raw materials over 250 km.

Now they’re looking at a possible anthropogenic accumulation of pigment minerals. Brooks stresses human “inventiveness” as a cause of the success of modern humans.

8:50: Back to Ian Tattersall. I didn’t see his earlier appearance. “When did people who would fit into human society now first appear?” Tattersall puts it down to 50,000 years ago or so. He suggests that the biological ability to behave in modern society might date back to 150,000 years ago, but lay latent until culture developed much later to bring out the modernity.

Whoa – the points of light again. People are swarming like tiny sparking ants, and all the yellowish Neandertal fires are going out.

Not a bad program. Alda was a great host for this. You can tell he’s genuinely interested in this stuff, and he really put the scientists at ease in the interviews. It’s great that they got usable material again and again just having him talking with the archaeologists. And having one host actually travel to these field sites was great – much better than the usual disembodied narration.

I was really liking it until around halfway through, but as the film went on, it started to raise contradictions that bothered me. Very one-sided about Neandertal behavior, too simplistic.

I don’t think the interviewees were the problem here, I think in particular Shea and White were making fairly nuanced statements about Neandertals. I can guess that if either had given any black-and-white quotes, the editors would have included them. My impression was that the choice of topics dictated the result – ornaments, pigment, and projectiles were chosen to emphasize the “behavioral modernity”.

Where I think that approach fails in in the specifics. Projectiles may have been technically more difficult than large-point weapons, but they should have been socially easier. Does it take less cooperation to bring down large animals with close-contact weapons? I think it’s the opposite – I think Neandertals must have been under more pressure to cooperate in their hunts. The transport across long distances is important in MSA contexts, but it’s also present in Mousterian France. Neandertals didn’t spend hours and hours making beads, but they did wear ornaments and use pigments. If there’s a distinction, it’s the frequency of these behaviors – which is a lot harder to measure or estimate.

It’s too bad in a way – it really wasn’t necessary to talk about the “human spark” as a human versus Neandertal comparison. This didn’t have to be a “modern human origins” program. The DNA segment was interesting, but it didn’t really contribute anything to the show’s theme – the narration concluded the segment by saying that the genes don’t tell us about the “spark” yet.

I’d have emphasized some older stuff, which is new science that actually does tell us about the emergence of humanness. The Brooks segment would fit into that theme, with the much earlier material from Olorgesailie (and this week we have 500,000-year-old blades from the Kapthurin Formation…). I’d have emphasized the new stuff from Atapuerca, especially the evidence about language. An earlier focus would bring a little more credible use of genetics, either FOXP2 (which I really don’t need to see again…) or some human-accelerated genes.

It’s curious to compare this program with the NOVA series last fall. The themes were very different (NOVA emphasized climate, this one technology). There was very little overlap of scientist lists – although it never hurts to be based in New York. I think the programs go well with each other, but it sort of forces the casual viewer to notice that the same evidence can be read almost at cross-purposes, depending on what the scientist assumes is fundamental.