More than just a pretty picture
APE-MAN: Adventures in Human Evolution, a new six part BBC series, began this week.
By Paul Mcgarr
Ape-man claims to provide a popular but serious look at human evolution. It is difficult to judge whether it will succeed. The first programme focused on a relatively recent episode in our history-the explosion of art in the period from around 35,000 years ago. The most well known examples of this are the beautiful cave paintings at Lascaux in France.
This artistic explosion coincided with the last Ice Age. After the end of the Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, art disappeared. There has been heated debate about the people who created this art, and the meaning of the art itself. Interpretations of the cave paintings are prone to swings in fashion that are based on flimsy evidence. Nevertheless some genuine understanding has been gained. It is clear, for instance, that the people who created the cave paintings were identical in every respect to modern humans. The programme focused on the latest and most convincing explanation to date of the cave art. It argues that the key to the cave art lies in "shamanistic rituals". These are social rituals, common in hunter-gatherer societies, associated with trance-like states. Anthropologists have studied the art of hunter-gatherer societies that survived until more recent times and found parallels with some of the images in the cave paintings.
This is then combined with modern psychological research. Unfortunately the programme focused solely on the psychological and artistic aspects of the debate. This gives a misleading picture. It does little to place the discussion in the context of the kind of people the cave painters were and their social structures.
The rest of the series promises to tell the full story of human evolution, one that begins with the last common ancestor of humans and apes some five million years ago. It will, it says, trace the tale until the emergence of fully modern humans over 100,000 years ago and look at the way our ancestors then replaced other human species such as the Neanderthals in Europe some 35,000 years ago. If the better parts of the first episode are developed it could provide excellent and informative viewing. To do so, however, it will need to shake off some of the irritating features of the presentation to allow the real, fascinating story to come through.