Secrets of the Neanderthals (2024)

Secrets of the Neanderthals Review

Secrets of the Neanderthals

Dr. Emma Pomeroy: “It’s a painstaking process, and rightly so. You only get one go. Archaeology is by its very nature destructive, you can’t redo it once you’ve dug it up.”

Episode description: “A unique excavation reveals the complex and creative nature of the Neanderthals, shattering preconceptions en route to a game-changing discovery the best-preserved Neanderthal skeleton found in over 25 years.”

This one-hour-twenty-minute documentary brings us up-to-date with research into Neanderthals. I will therefore be discussing some of their findings; spoilers lie below!

For around 300,000 years, Neanderthals were the dominant human species in Europe and parts of Asia and the Middle East. So we can’t call them a failure even though they’re extinct (though many of us have some of their DNA). Homo sapiens, our own species, evolved 300,000 years ago (the archaic version), but modern Homo sapiens didn’t appear until 160,000 years ago; however, most humans at that time were still in Africa while the Neanderthals were in Eurasia.

But back to the show! Narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart himself (and his voice is just as amazing through your television screen), we start at Shanidar excavated by Dr Ralph Solecki in 1961 after he caused quite a stir by reporting how grains of pollen had been found buried with one of his skeletons. This led to the idea that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, which seemed remarkably like modern-day funerals.

That theory has since been debunked. Because this cave has been used for thousands upon thousands of years not just by Neanderthals and because unfortunately burrowing animals eat flowers and can carry pollen into their burrows when they make their homes under trees on top of graves, where they will then disturb said burial and bring in said pollen.

As previously stated, the most recent excavations at Shanidar were carried out by Ralph Solecki in 1961. The cave is located in a Kurdish area of Iraq, so when conflicts broke out and stayed broken out archaeology became rather difficult for several decades. Now led by Dr Emma Pomeroy, the excavation has revealed a “new” skeleton the first found for around 25 years!

Being pretty much completely ignorant about Neanderthals before watching this documentary (I mean, you have to learn somehow), I picked up quite a lot during these 80 minutes. Here are some highlights.

Cannibalism! That’s one thing I didn’t know about Neanderthals but that was probably just me. And there’s pretty good evidence for it. Many of the bones show signs of being carefully defleshed as the striations prove while others have clearly been broken in ways that would allow people better access to their nutritious bone marrow (which is actually considered a delicacy today; just not human). Although we find cannibalism shocking now, it has been practised throughout history.

Facial reconstruction! You’ve seen this on all those TV shows like Silent Witness or CSI or Bones or something: they take the skull and put clay on it to build up features until you’ve got a head again. In this episode we meet two guys who do that kind of work; they’re identical twins from somewhere in the Netherlands if I remember correctly. This is what their work looks like (above). How accurate is it? We don’t know, but I’ve seen someone today who looks like her! The skull used to make her face was from a skeleton called Shanidar Z (zed, not zee!)

Bruniquel Circles. There is a cave in France; this region was inhabited 176,500 years ago. Neanderthals were the only humans at that time in history. Therefore, the circles’ remains demonstrate that they (neandertals) put up something elegant. The circles might be tied to religious practices, the documentary postulates. I found this slightly irritating: I expect spaces like this would have multiple functions, as they do today.

Gibraltar Caves were their last stand. The documentary speculates climate change killed them off when there were few trees left in the world and their method of hunting was no longer feasible. But again, this is speculation.

Title thoughts: “Secrets of the Neanderthals.” This episode does reveal new findings (at least for me). Let’s look at the word “Neanderthal.” The German word “Thal” – now spelled “Tal” after the 1996 spelling reform means valley. We have a cognate in our word “dale.” Neander is a specific valley where the first neandertal skeleton was found, English has mostly kept the H (sometimes without), but German has not.

Bits and pieces

Dr Ralph Solecki died in 2019 at age 101+. His widow Rose Solecki also an archaeologist, and I don’t know why they don’t mention her, she was with him on all these sites is still alive at age 98+. Maybe she just doesn’t want to be mentioned.

The techniques on display here remind me of Bones and what’s-her-name getting so much information from the skeletons of murder victims. Of course these skeletons are much older.

Narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, whom most people remember as Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Picard. Jean-Luc Picard had a well-developed love of archaeology.

Herodotus, in his Histories, talks about different groups’ beliefs. Some thought you had to eat your family members when they died in order to show respect; others thought the opposite.

Pollen is hardy stuff, so it lasts.

Watching them squeeze through passages to get into the cave at Bruniquel reminded me of spelunking when I was a teenager. I don’t need to do it again.

At one point Patrick Stewart says we all carry some Neanderthal DNA. But that’s not true if all your ancestors are from sub-Saharan Africa.


Note that some names were not listed at IMDB. Patrick Stewart is the narrator, obviously.

Narrator: “Though severely injured, it appears that Shanidar 1 and Shanidar 3 had been cared for by the people around them.” This was a radical new view of neandertal life.

Croatian female archaeologist: “What kind of cannibalism? What did it mean to them?”

French male archaeologist: “Bruniquel est la plus ancienne construction dans le monde qu’on peut voir.” (Translation: Bruniquel is the oldest construction in the world that we can see.)

Overall rating

I found this documentary quite calming and a good break from what’s happening now. I would still take some of their findings with a pinch or two of skepticism, but I did learn a lot. Two and a half out of four dead bodies.

Watch Secrets of the Neanderthals For Free On Gomovies.

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