Slow progress from spears to the plough

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

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.

Stephen Match­ett

Tak­ing things slowly:

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