Decoding Neanderthals A Good Companion To What Makes Us Human

Courtesy:  PBS

Courtesy: PBS

Decoding Neanderthals is a welcome companion piece to the recent release of What Makes Us Human? from PBS’ NOVA ScienceNow.  This recent episode of NOVA was released to DVD in late March.  It expands greatly on the concepts raised through the previously mentioned program.  It keeps the concepts discussed simple enough for casual viewers to understand, too.  It does this through interviews with scientists and academics as well as filmed segments used to help illustrate the concepts discussed.  Among the concepts discussed in this program are: what is believed to have actually happened to Neanderthals, how Neanderthals survived the ice age, and the effect of Neanderthals’ fate on modern humans.  Decoding Neanderthals isn’t What Makes Us Human? But considering that it expands so well on the aforementioned program, it is a program that any student of the anthropological sciences will appreciate, as will even the most casual viewer.

Decoding Neanderthals picks up pretty much right where What Makes Us Human? left off.  The latter of the two programs discussed how physical and natural factors set us apart from Neanderthals.  The connecting thread though, is that of genetics.  Where What Makes Us Human? offers a casual glimpse at the genetic connection between modern humans and Neanderthals, Decoding Neanderthals goes into more depth, explaining that genetics has proven that perhaps humans didn’t wipe out Neanderthals, but actually interbred with them, thus leading to the eventual assimilation of Neanderthals into the much larger population of humans that originally came from Africa.  It’s just one concept on which this program expands from the prior program.  Of course, the genetic sciences are just the tip of the iceberg that makes this episode of NOVA so interesting.  Students of the social sciences will appreciate this program in its discussions of Neanderthals’ use of makeup and even social behavior such as burying their dead.

Scientists and academics interviewed for this program reveal in their discussions that Neanderthals actually used makeup and other items of personal decoration.  Even more interesting to note is the theory that just as sports fans use face and body paint at events, so did Neanderthals use face and body paint to determine who was friend and who was foe.  This could perhaps serve as more proof of the genetic interbreeding of Neanderthals and humans as such a behavior would have been passed down through that interbreeding.  The same can be said of the discovery of what is believed to be a burial site for Neanderthals.  That they would take part in such a social behavior as we do serves as even more solid proof that said theory of interbreeding has even more ground on which to stand.  And along with the expanded discussions on the tools used by Neanderthals, viewers get in this episode of NOVA, a program that answers a lot of questions about mankind’s past.  It’s a piece that crosses scientific lines, resulting in a product that makes for a wonderful addition to any college level biology and anthropology course as well as the home library of anyone that has even the most fleeting of interest in this subject.  It’s available now on DVD and can be ordered online at PBS’ online store at http://www.shoppbs.org.

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NOVA ScienceNow Latest Another Enjoyable Episode

Courtesy:  PBS

Courtesy: PBS

NOVA ScienceNOW is one of the best series that PBS has.  Whereas NOVA is more documentary style programming, NOVA ScienceNOW is more accessible to average viewers.  Host David Pogue introduces topics that would have otherwise been presented mainly as a documentary in NOVA, and makes it easier to understand in this series, thus really making science fun.   And the program, What Makes Us Human?  Is proof positive of that fun.

In this latest presentation from NOVA ScienceNOW, Pogue asks the question, what is it that sets humans apart not only from other animals, but from our ancient ancestors.  He examines our differences from the noted categories first by studying the factors that made early humans and Neanderthals different.  This first investigation is a wonderful tart to the presentation.  Audiences will laugh out loud as Pogue is first turned into a Neanderthal by a group of art students.  The makeup and prosthetics used to turn Pogue into a Neanderthal were based largely on a discussion that Pogue had with a scientist who has studied the cranial differences between humans and Neanderthals.  This mix of entertainment and educational content are just the first step in the enjoyment of this feature.  Viewers will also love watching Pogue try his hand at making a primitive hand axe. 

From the ability to make primitive tools and natural adaptations, Pogue notes more factors that set us apart from both Neanderthals. One of those factors is the ability to communicate vocally.  He examines how something as simple as a bone and the ability to laugh set us apart from our Stone Age ancestors.  This is examined through the comparison of the “vocal abilities” of baby primates and baby humans.  As Pogue notes, who doesn’t love the sight and sound of a baby laughing.  Footage of babies laughing in various situations from YouTube are included to help highlight this portion of the discussion on what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.  Again, something as simple as this make this feature much more relatable and accessible to audiences, and thus more enjoyable.

The content of What Makes Us Human? makes it another wonderful addition to PBS’ Nova ScienceNow series.  On a more level, the manner in which each section of the feature is separated is another positive.  Rather than just going from one topic to another, the near hour long feature—it actually runs just over fifty-three minutes not counting credits—is broken up using slates introducing each section.  These momentary breaks make the program that much easier to follow for audiences of all ages.  And it is also another way in which the Nova offshoot separates itself from its “parent” product yet makes itself just as enjoyable, if not more enjoyable.  Along with the viewer friendly content, it shows once again the value of not only Nova ScienceNOW but of programming in general on PBS.  This program is available now online and can be ordered via the PBs online store at http://www.shoppbs.org.

To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it.  Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.