Neanderthal – The Rebirth

4 minute read

Just liveblogging this show on the Science Channel -- we'll see if it's any good.

0:01: Flipping just after the start, Chris Stringer is explaining who Neandertals were.

(Voiceover: "It was the beginning of a legend. What was this ancient creature? When had it lived?")

The map plotting Neandertal sites looks like it was cribbed from The Bourne Identity or something.

0:05: Gary Sawyer enters, reconstructing skulls. He's explaining how he made up the "complete Neandertal skeleton" composite.

(Gretchen: "Sure, the complete Neandertal Frankenstein!")

0:13: Trent Holliday walks to AMNH to see the skeleton.

I'm beginning to realize: this is a whole show about that composite skeleton!

(Voiceover: "...bringing the reconstruction to life, with startling anatomical accuracy!"

Me: "What, no Ken bump?")

0:16: Holliday explains flared ribcage. Ice expands over animated Europe, like Day After Tomorrow. Dramatic noise (definitely not music), sort of like locusts flying through a hollow pipe.

0:18: Leslie Aiello appears in a Bowflex commercial. No, you really have to see this to appreciate: the music, the exercise equipment scenes -- it's really a Bowflex commercial!

Two "volunteers" have been selected with different physiques -- a guy who is Neandertal-proportioned, and another tall, skinny guy who is "modern human" proportioned. They put them in an ice bath to see how they conserve heat. The Neandertal-proportioned guy retains heat better.

Man, I hope these guys got paid!

0:21: (Voiceover: "Calories...Mean...Meat!") Steve Churchill walking through the woods talking about energy expenditure.

Some Neandertal-dressed guy with a totally unchanging facial expression is stalking an elk.

John Shea flaking stone, and walking with spears through a full parking lot. I like this scene -- clever juxtaposition, and no locust-pipe noise. Although it seems to me that the argument about not throwing the spears probably should have showed just how badly the reconstructed spears behaved when thrown -- and I assume they did film it since Shea is doing all this stuff at some sort of sports field.

0:29: Holliday describes skeletal evidence for spear thrusting. This is very good.

And now Churchill is actually thrusting sensor-equipped spears into a pad, explains how forces affect the arms asymmetrically.

Back to the elk-stalking. We see the Neandertal approaching within spear-thrusting range of the standing elk.

(Voiceover: "A carnivorous predator with an insatiable hunger for meat! ... blah blah ... So does this mean he really was inferior to modern humans?"

Me: "What about the startling anatomical accuracy?")

0:33: Ralph Holloway is playing the blues on a trumpet, in a blue-lighted room! This has got to drive Milford crazy -- why did he never talk any producers into something this cool? Now Ralph's pumping green goo onto the inner table of some cranial cast. And he has a big, white endocast.

(Gretchen: "That looks suspiciously like a giant mozzarella.")

0:37: Now we're in some kind of British cell phone commercial. Oh, I get it, they're all talking, time for the language issue -- Ooh! Flash back to the elkstalker. Voiceover: "The question is: could he talk?"

Commercial break -- and the commercial is an actual Bowflex commercial! They have to have underwritten this!

0:41: Focusing on the hyoid bone. Bob Franciscus is putting people through a scanner to reconstruct vocal tracts. And he's got prismatic models of the human and Neandertal vocal tracts, with the Neandertal one basically shaped like a modern human female.

Patsy Rodenburg is a voice coach, getting some English man to count in a high-pitched voice.

(Gretchen: "So apparently Neandertals sounded like Dame Edna?"

Voiceover: "It seems he wasn't actually the ape-man of legend at all."

Me: "He was actually an ape-woman!"

Voiceover: "In the ice age of Europe, he should have been king!"

Gretchen: "Make that 'queen.'")

0:47: Clive Finlayson tells us about the deteriorating climate in Europe.

Now we're looking at Neandertals walking from space, like in Patriot Games. They're apparently out of food.

A-ha! Shea is throwing the spear, explaining why it wouldn't work in the open. I don't know, I don't really see one sneaking to thrusting distance in the forest, either.

Now we see Braveheart's dad using an atlatl.

0:54: (Voiceover: "Once again, the skeleton holds a clue. A relic of one of the tiniest and most sensitive parts of the body: his inner ear.")

Fred Spoor is explaining about the inner ear and balance. Smaller semicircular canals in Neandertals. "The only logical conclusion is that Neanderthals were less agile, and maybe didn't include as much running and jumping in their general behavior."

I have to say, this seems incredible to me: we've just heard how Neandertals have to use asymmetrically balanced force to thrust their spears, and they're sneaking on tiptoe up to the back of elk in the forest, and they don't need to balance?

Shea explains that modern humans were able to exploit open habitat.

(Voiceover: "The traditional saga of superior modern humans ... wiping out the Neanderthals seems implausible. Instead the reason ... may be something much more random: changing climates and the twists of evolutionary fate.")

And the end credits are rolling over that same expressionless elk-stalking face. Just standing there in the snow.

Well, that was pretty good, all things considered. The actors were pretty mannequin-like, but they weren't comical and they didn't interrupt the flow of the program. I like the spear-thrusting stuff, and the science was pretty clear. And the composite skeleton made a template for the presentation, but they didn't overblow it's importance. Generally pretty well done.

But it definitely needed a different voiceover script; it was clunky and gave rise to several gaffes. I think my students would be rolling!

And what is with the camera angles and lighting? My advice if you're ever in one of these shows is to insist on an open field like Shea -- they couldn't Bowflex-ize it. No filming the inside of his nose, either!