Review: Decoding Neanderthals on PBS (Nova)

Available on Netflix, maybe elsewhere.

Overall: Recommended if you like Neanderthals or human ancestry. Probably not useful if you are already an expert in the field.

Pros: interesting discussion of flint-knapping, gluey pitch production, and Neanderthal burials.

Flint knapping is one of my occasional interests. It is surprisingly difficult to just pick up a rock and produce a useful tool. Without a good teacher, you quickly degenerate to banging the rock on the ground as hard as you can like a retarded monkey. If Kanzi the bonobo saw me trying to make stone tools, he’d probably bring me some fruit out of pity. “Poor hairless idiot ape,” Kanzi would think. “Can’t even make tools. If I don’t feed it, it’ll starve.”

Amusing digression time: Once I was walking through the city, in a semi-developed/semi-overgrown lot, and saw a bit of shiny rocks lying around on the ground. Unusual for the area, because the local geographic history hasn’t led to a lot of rocks on the surface, and most of those are of the duller sedimentary sorts (or, obviously, landscaping materials.) So I picked up this bit of flint, then another bit of flint, and then a larger one with obvious convex areas from being struck with another piece. And a few feet away, here was a piece that fit comfortably into my hand, perfect for knocking chips off the other chunk. Some of the pieces I even managed to fit back together, reassembling the rock that once was.

I came back with a small box and picked up all the bits of flint before development began on the lot. One piece does look like an arrowhead, but given that I found it alongside a bunch of chips that are more or less flint-knapping trash, the arrowhead’s creator probably thought there was something wrong with it.

Sure, the whole little box may be filled with little more than ancient trash, there is something I love about picking up these rocks and being able to see in their shapes the actions of some other humans, the angle they held that rock at, the way they smacked it with another rock to produce these flakes. To feel this connection between myself and some other human who walked here before me, and the traces of their life that no one else walking through that place had noticed.

Anyway, turns out the Neanderthals had a pretty interesting/unique way of making flint tools, that involved first shaping a large block of flint into a specific shape by flaking bits off the sides, and then, with one good hit, knocking off one large slice. This is a more complicated process than merely picking up a rock and whacking bits off of it it until you get an edge.

The gluey pitch seems to have been derived (distilled?) from birch bark. Some scientists demonstrated the process by burning a roll of birch bark in a pit, but they obviously did not use enough bark, and only got a smudge of goo. It’s a bit frustrating watching someone do something obviously wrong–since you’re filming this for TV, why not use a great big bunch of birch bark so you can get enough pitch to actually show us?

Anyway, looks like Neanderthals distilled this gluey stuff and then used it to help secure the flint tips to their spears, before thrusting them into the sides of enormous shaggy elephants, which are quite formidable animals. So the pitch (and bindings) had to be pretty darn good.

Neanderthals also seem to have buried their dead, though the show notes that their potential grave-goods pale in comparison to similar human burials.

The parts about Neanderthal DNA will be of interest to you if you don’t know about the Neanderthal/human DNA admixture business already, or you’ve heard about it but are still a little unclear on the details. The scientists interviewed claimed that it looks like there were a lot of interbreeding incidents rather than just a few, but “a lot” in this case does not necessarily mean “thousands”.


Cons: For a program that goes into depth on how inaccurate depictions of Neanderthals happened (ages ago, someone found a skeleton with arthritis and concluded that all Neanderthals were stooped,) their depiction of the homo Sapiens who first encountered the Neanderthals was also inaccurate.

The first encounters between humans and Neanderthals probably happened in the Middle East, shortly after h Sapiens left Africa, but before they had split into Asian and European branches. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, whites did not yet exist. We’re not sure exactly when white skin evolved, but it probably wasn’t before h Sapiens got to Europe.

(Of course, it could be the other way around, and it’s the Bushmen who’ve changed since they split off.)

Either way, it’s pretty easy to assume things that are probably wrong, and the h Sapiens who first encountered h Neanderthals were probably more similar in appearance to modern Africans or Middle Easterners than Europeans.

A second issue occurred during a dramatization of the Neanderthal and h Sapiens DNA. Neanderthal DNA was depicted as red, and h Sapiens as blue. (Erm, I think. Unless I’ve got it backwards.) They then showed a “combined” DNA strand with blue and red pieces.

While this is a fine way to visualize what’s going on, I would just like to clarify that DNA isn’t actually blue or red, nor are there folks running around with mosaic red/blue variants.

You may be laughing (I burst out laughing at the sight of it,) but I know people who would very sincerely and devoutly insist that “Humans have different colored DNA from Neanderthals. I saw this program on PBS all about it, and I know PBS is accurate. You should watch the program!”

You can imagine how talking to these people makes me feel.

Finally, my last complaint is that there was no discussion of Neanderthal DNA in Native Americans!

Worldwide distribution of B006, (from Yotova et al. “An X-Linked Haplotype of Neandertal Origin Is Present Among All Non-African Populations,” Mol. Biol. Evol. 28 (7), 2011).
Worldwide distribution of B006, (from Yotova et al. “An X-Linked Haplotype of Neandertal Origin Is Present Among All Non-African Populations,” Mol. Biol. Evol. 28 (7), 2011).
SNP PCA from Skoglund & Jakobsson’s “Archaic Human Ancestry in East Asia” (2011)
SNP PCA from Skoglund & Jakobsson’s “Archaic Human Ancestry in East Asia” (2011)

Right, so what’s up with Native Americans? You may have noticed that during the discussion with the map, no jellybeans were placed on the Americas at all. What a pity, when there’s still so much about the peopling of the Americas that we don’t know.

In the future, I’m hoping for similar documentaries about the Denisovans and their DNA admixture in modern humans.


5 thoughts on “Review: Decoding Neanderthals on PBS (Nova)

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I know the show’s a few years old, but I still feel the urge to comment. I agree with you on your pros and cons. What I can barely abide is the silly sensationalism that these shows think they have to do in order to interest listeners. Some of the … breathlessness of the scientists is disingenuous and outright misleading, IMO. What? Do we really think that one of the “modern humans” out of Africa looked like an advertising man from Madison Avenue and that he hooked up with some hairy Neanderthal chick in a woolly suit? Puh-lease. Thanks again for the post (and secondarily for listening to my rant).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s