Slow progress from spears to the plough
Artist’s impression of human evolution SOME 80 years ago French scholars created the annales approach to history, which assumed that individuals and their actions mattered much less than the long-term interaction of geography and climate, culture and belief, in shaping human history.
It was an influential approach, which has permeated popular culture, as this documentary demonstrates in the way it covers everything from the domestication of the dog to how people learned to grow crops.
The premise in this first of a two part series is that it took many centuries for humanity to slowly switch from being hunter-gatherers to farmers, that no one generation invented agriculture.
This may sound straightforward, but it runs counter to the experience of the past 100 years when the world has been transformed every generation by technological breakthroughs that are the work of small groups of scientists, even individuals.
And unlikely as it sounds, the idea of a world that stayed the same for thousands of years at a time is much more the historical norm than our era. So the very big picture approach of this documentary emphasises imperceptible change, as people moved from a migratory life governed by the seasons, to staying in one place, the precondition for the organising and regulating state. It was, the narrator argues, agriculture that led to politics and everything that accompanies it.
Inevitably there are issues the documentary does not address. The script suggests that people across the world got the hang of agriculture at approximately the same time, give or take a millennium, but does not explain whether and how farming spread from the Middle East across oceans. Or whether people across the planet had the same bright idea.
And it makes a big deal out of arguing that hunter-gatherers started to stay in the same place before anybody understood agriculture, without addressing how people did not eat everything on their patch faster than plants could grow, and game breed.
But the issues it does address, from the connection between matriarchy and ancestor worship through to urban design in the Neolithic world, are interesting indeed. And the obviously enormous budget supports the overall argument. There are a great many sumptuous scenery shots, interviews with academics from across the world and a cast that acts out the transformation of social organisation, from cave dwelling hunters to cottage living farmers, in scenic spots.
But why the producers insisted on having the actors deliver lines in what is presumably supposed to be a stone-age language, in which singlesyllable grunts and demonstrative gestures serve for all components of speech, escapes me. Perhaps anybody fluent in stone-age languages will understand.
Taking things slowly: