Post image for DVD Review: NEANDERTHAL (PBS)

by Dale Reynolds on December 27, 2018



How fascinating to learn that just about anyone not directly descended from sub-Saharan Africa has anywhere from 1-4% Neanderthal in their DNA. (As luck would have it, I have three percent – who knew?!)

And just who were these cousins to Homo Sapiens (us, doncha know) who died out 40,000 years ago? Well, according to this utterly engrossing documentary in two hour-long parts by director Vikram Jayanti, for around 20,000 years throughout Europe, Asia, North and South America, and the Pacific Islands, the “N’s” and we were living and mating together before a variety of ills (including climate change) did them in.

Using found fossils and bones, anthropologists and ethnologists describe facts and conjectures surrounding these mysterious peoples, apparently not at all like the stereotypes of brutish knuckle-draggers and club-wielding low-IQers left over from the 19th century. Instead, using found objects and remains yielded from caves, burial sites and the Rock of Gibraltar (possibly the last place of refuge they inhabited), we’ve been learning a ton of information on who they were and speculation over how they died out.

Using newfangled inventions such as motion-capture cameras — aided and abetted by the great British voice-over actor Andy Serkis — we get a clearer idea of their looks, bodies and movements both in the hunt and at rest. (And check out an earlier PBS doc, Decoding Neanderthals, from 2013, which describes the effort to map out the N. genome, proving they were minor ancestors of humans.)

One strength of the current documentary is watching how they build the appearance of said Neanderthals: shorter but stockier, with an overhanging brow and powerful teeth. Not pretty, God knows, but according to one female scientist, sexier.

Working with Sarkis, a team of experts from, well, everywhere show how sifting through the massive evidence, from northern Iraq to Gibraltar, we learn how these sturdy cousins to humans had religion, an ability to speak (and therefore to develop language), abstract thinking, and social smarts, along with keeping warm in Ice Age Europe and hunting and gathering proper foods, allowing them 400,000 years of survival before being overtaken by us.

Jaynati has pulled together eye-opening suppositions and facts that easily teaches us the what-and-wherefore of these ancestors of ours. Truly fascinating.

documentary | 1 disc | 120 minutes
DVD release on December 18, 2018
available at PBS and Amazon

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