Neandertal night on PBS

2 minute read

This Wednesday (May 15) is Neandertal night on PBS stations in the U.S., with two documentary programs covering the last few years of science about these ancient people.

First, the NOVA episode this week is the “Decoding Neandertals” program. This was broadcast earlier this year, and it is a really good summary of some current research into Neandertal genetics and behavior:

Over 60,000 years ago, the first modern humanspeople physically identical to us todayleft their African homeland and entered Europe, then a bleak and inhospitable continent in the grip of the Ice Age. But when they arrived, they were not alone: the stocky, powerfully built Neanderthals had already been living there for hundred of thousands of years. So what happened when the first modern humans encountered the Neanderthals? Did we make love or war? That question has tantalized generations of scholars and seized the popular imagination. Then, in 2010, a team led by geneticist Svante Paabo announced stunning news. Not only had they reconstructed much of the Neanderthal genomean extraordinary technical feat that would have seemed impossible only a decade agobut their analysis showed that "we" modern humans had interbred with Neanderthals, leaving a small but consistent signature of Neanderthal genes behind in everyone outside Africa today. In "Decoding Neanderthals," NOVA explores the implications of this exciting discovery. In the traditional view, Neanderthals differed from "us" in behavior and capabilities as well as anatomy. But were they really mentally inferior, as inexpressive and clumsy as the cartoon caveman they inspired? NOVA explores a range of intriguing new evidence for Neanderthal self-expression and language, all pointing to the fact that we may have seriously underestimated our mysterious, long-vanished human cousins.

Second, a new episode of Secrets of the Dead is being broadcast, titled “Caveman Cold Case”, about El Sidron Cave:

A tomb of 49,000 year-old Neanderthal bones discovered in El Sidron, a remote, mountainous region of Northern Spain, leads to a compelling investigation to solve a double mystery: How did this group of Neanderthals die? And, could the fate of this group help explain Neanderthal extinction? Scientists examine the bonesburied over 65 feet below groundand discover signs that tell a shocking story of how this group of six adults, three teenagers, two children and a baby may have met their death. Some bones have deep cuts, long bones are cracked and skulls crusheddistinct signs of cannibalism. Was it a result of ritual or hunger? Neanderthal experts are adamant that they were not bloodthirsty brutes. Will this investigation challenge their views? What happened here 49000 years ago will take us on a much bigger journeyfrom El Sidron to the other end of the Iberian Peninsula where scientists are excavating beneath the seas off Gibraltar in search of Neanderthal sites. Scientists working here had theoriesbut no prooffor why Neanderthals went extinct. El Sidron may change this.

I’m really excited that this one is being broadcast in the U.S. – it covers the science from a forensic point of view, including new insights about diet and breadth of behavior. It is a great program that goes into the research by Antonio Rosas and Carles Lalueza-Fox on the Spanish Neandertals, and gives us a viewpoint on the Gibraltar Neandertals with Clive Finlayson.

I play a small part in both programs, and I’m happy to see the Neandertals getting such high-profile attention!