In promoting this 8-part BBC epic, presenter Andrew Marr described the prospect of condensing the history of the world into 8 hours as: “completely bonkers… and therefore irresistible.” Having watched the first episode, I can confirm that he was half right. It is hideously bonkers. In particular, the ‘dramatic reconstructions’, which were unintentionally funny at first. Then I remembered my TV licence fee was paying for this drivel and I began to feel a bit annoyed. Which BBC ‘creative mind’ dreamed up the idea that the first modern humans to begin colonising the planet 70,000 years ago left Africa via a 1 foot-wide bridge spanning a 1000 feet-deep gorge? And why were all the women wearing bra tops? I think the bridge was clumsily supposed to make us think about how our eventual success as a species started on a knife edge – “Just think, if that bloke had slipped off that bridge, we wouldn’t be here today,” etc.
Marr is a self-confessed “raving leftie”, and this being a BBC production it couldn’t resist presenting world history through the PC prism. When the noble ‘African’ modern humans eventually become ‘European’, they are suddenly violent and dangerous, with an “ingrained hostility to outsiders” – “anyone who looked a little different, spoke differently, dressed differently, or perhaps even smelt differently,” boomed Marr ponderously. This set the scene for our encounter with the Neanderthals. This site has blogged previously about how our perception of Neanderthal imagery has evolved over the past century, but Marr’s Neanderthal took us straight back to the 1980s - to Tonga, the Andaman Islander in the Sherlock Holmes episode, ‘The Sign of Four’. Except the prosthetic makeup here was worse – the Neanderthal’s chin had apparently become detached from his bottom lip.
Marr laid the demise of the Neanderthals pretty much at our door, saying that during our relatively brief co-existence with them they went into rapid decline – we probably pushed them out of their hunting grounds and, he intoned, “it’s also possible, I regret to report, that we liked to eat them.” He could have mentioned that we also liked to have sex with them, as the Neanderthal element of our genomes now testifies, but he didn’t. Perhaps he confined his research, which he claimed was his own, to developments pre-2010. Marr is a journalist, not an anthropologist, consequently he is always “looking out for the story” as he put it. His story here is that ‘Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands and in some cases we ate them.’ So the genocidal explanation bypasses possible Neanderthal extinction by pathogens, changes in climate and habitat, anatomical differences and any other nonviolent forms of competition, and is rammed home by a ‘dramatic’ chase scene, complete with atmospheric drumming and chanting, as a bunch of modern humans hunt the sole Neanderthal over a cliff, leave him hanging there for a bit, then, when he falls off, spear him to death at the bottom. With these ‘oppressed minorities’ out of the way, moden humans are then ready to “rule the planet.”
After the Ice Age, Marr switches to the Fertile Crescent and the start of agriculture. Farming came about, he tells us in the manner of a primary school teacher, because people were “lazy enough not to want to keep walking further to find more tasty seeds to eat.” We are then presented with the old woman who ‘invented farming’. As she picks up a handful of dust then lets it go through her fingers in slo-mo, she has a revelation – “hang on a minute, if I build the first rockery, put a seed in it, then keep looking at it in all weathers, I can grow a plant of my very own.” Her faithful nursing results in a single green shoot. She sees that it is good. “It’s not an obvious thing to do,” says Marr on the idea of keeping some grain back rather than eating it all. “You take it and plant it back into the earth,” his clawed hand thrusting downwards, helpfully illustrating how to plant a seed.
It wasn’t all dreadful. As he moved onto early civilisations, he focused on Çatalhöyük, a large Neolithic settlement and centre of advanced culture, which existed between c. 7500 BC and 5700 BC in southern Anatolia. I was struck by his observation about, “a well ordered and stable community, where men and women were equally well fed and enjoyed the same social status. This seems to have been a peaceful place with no defensive walls, and no signs of social division or conflict. There are no temples. There’s no palace. There are no warriors’ areas or women’s quarters. Just families living alongside one another and cooperating almost like the modern anarchist’s fantasy of a world without rulers, a society without bosses. The problem, of course, with that is that these kind of arrangements always fall apart very quickly. The people of Çatalhöy could only manage it for 1,400 years.”
I also liked the focus on the wall of a house there which archaeologists discovered had been whitewashed over 400 times. This simple factoid neatly conveyed both the diligence and the longevity of this earliest human society. It worked because it stuck to basic archaeology, and left the rest to our own imaginations – which we are quite capable of using. However, as the show moved on to ancient China and Egypt, the increasingly silly dramatisations ruined it, as I found myself distracted from the narrative by wondering, for example, how a Neolithic man could have such a modern close-cropped hairstyle and well-groomed facial hair.
I enjoyed Marr’s documentary and book on A History of Modern Britain, but the opener to this series was lightweight, shallow and lacked any credibility. He will hopefully be on safer ground as he moves towards more recent history, so I might keep on watching to see if it gets any better. Oh wait, no. I’ve just seen a trailer and someone is pretending to be Hitler…