History of the World: BBC Version

Survival: History of the World Episode 1

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This informative eight-episode BBC series is framed as a history of the species Homo sapiens. In reality, it’s a gruesome history of Western imperialism, but I didn’t figure this out until Episode 7. Obviously aimed at a millenial audience, the melodramatic reenactments are too long and a bit nauseating (especially the really gory scenes depicting human sacrifice and torture).

Part 1 begins 70,000 years ago with the 1,000 fully evolved members of the homo sapiens species leaving Africa by crossing the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. At this point in their development, they possess both language and weapons. Following the trails created by migrating herds, they head east towards India and South East Asia and north towards Europe. Some would reach Australia by 50,000 BC, Europe by 45,000 BC and North America (via the Bering Strait) by 15,000 BC (other non-BBC sources suggest they reached North America by 30,000 – 40,000 BC and were well in place by 15,000 BC).

In Europe, homo sapiens encounter Neanderthals, a second species of human apes which migrated there (from Africa presumably?) around 150,000 BC. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis coexisted in Europe (and according to modern DNA analysis interbred) for between 5,000 – 10,000 years. The Neanderthals become extinct, around 30,000 BC, possibly because tools and language help Homo sapiens compete more successfully for limited game.

During the 27,000 – 16,000 BC ice age, most of Europe is covered with vast sheets of ice. As the climate begins to warm, homo sapiens hunter gatherers in the fertile crescent region of the Middle East learn how to domesticate plants and animals. This knowledge spreads north to Europe over the next 1,000 years. A parallel agricultural revolution also occurs in China, India and South America.

This new found ability to produce their own food leads nomadic hunter gatherers to begin settling in permanent towns and villages.

In cataloguing the earliest evidence of “civilized” society, the filmmakers start with 4,000 BC China, which had a population of about 2 million. Next they highlight the Minoan civilization in Crete around 3,700 BC. Estimated to number approximately 100,000, the Minoans produce aqueducts, multistory architecture, and bronze weapons and jewelry. They also engage in human sacrifice to appease gods who inflict earthquakes and volcanoes on them.

In 3,200 BC Egyptian civilization develops the first written language, which enables them to develop a legal system and the first recorded history.

Tracing Ancestry Via Mitochondrial DNA: A Patriarchal View

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry

by Bryan Sykes

W W Norton and Company (2002)

Book Review

This book is an account of geneticist Bryan Sykes’s discovery of the value of mitochondrial DNA in tracing the maternal lineage of all contemporary human beings to a few dozen cave women. Mitochondrial DNA is unique in that it’s only inherited from the egg (sperm discard their mitochondria once they penetrate the egg). It’s also far less genetically complex than nuclear DNA and only rarely undergoes mutation.

Sykes first used his discovery to establish that Polynesian navigators (including New Zealand Maori) originated from Taiwan or coastal China, and not south America, as claimed by Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl came to public attention after piloting the balsa raft Kon-Tiki from the South American cost to the Tuamotu islands near Tahiti.

Sykes also used mitochondrial DNA to settle a longstanding debate over the origin of Europe’s agricultural revolution. The old view was that Europe’s hunter gatherers had been overwhelmed and displaced by an “invasion” of Middle Eastern farmers. Sykes’s genetic studies revealed otherwise – only about 17% of current Europeans carry typical Middle Eastern mitochondrial DNA. This suggests that Europe’s hunter gatherers gradually learned techniques for domesticating plants and animals from a small number of Middle Eastern farmers.

I had real problems with the final section of the book, in which Sykes fantasizes about each of the seven “daughters of Eve” (aka clan mothers) who are direct ancestors of nearly all people of European ancestry. His reconstructions depart significantly from existing anthropological studies of hunter gatherer societies – especially his portrayal of males heading households of nuclear families, his minimization of women’s roles in domesticating plants and most farm animals, and his heavy emphasis on hunting as the primary source of nutrition among hunter gatherers.

His premise that hunter gatherer females nursed 3-4 year old children every four hours (resulting in natural birth control) is just plain wrong. Although hunter gatherer females typically breast fed children for fours years or more, after age 12-18 months breast milk became a secondary source of found as young children shared shared the same solid food their parents ate.

See Patriarchy: An Anthropological Study and Patriarchy: The Crucial Role of Women’s Unpaid Labor Under Capitalism