In the Nova natural history documentary Decoding Neanderthals the filmmakers took the role of reporter in telling the story of what happened to the Neanderthals and how that relates to us as modern humans. I enjoyed the presentation, though I thought it could have used some polish, as the structure of the program served not to lead the viewer naturally through an exploration of the subject, but instead to undermine the clarity of the main questions it was seeking to answer.
Through interviews, close-ups of bones and artifacts, B-roll footage of typical human cultures today, computer graphic images of DNA strands, more B-roll footage of scientists engaged in work, and a few historical recreations of Neanderthals and ancient humans, the documentary set up a strong theme of searching for our roots as humans by examining misconceptions and new evidence about our closest extinct relatives. Edited with a narration voice-over, and typical cutaways to help tell the story or illustrate points, the program did a good job of introducing the stereotypical way most people think of Neanderthals and why this is mistaken.
Building from that well-written introduction, the documentary went on to show new research that Neanderthals had much more sophisticated technology and language than was previously thought. The practical demonstrations of creating the Neanderthal flint stones and the likely method used to extract pitch were particularly effective in showing that though Neanderthals had limited means available to them, they had highly refined methods of creating the tools they needed for survival.
At this point the documentary naturally segued into a discussion of DNA, and how mapping both the human and Neanderthal genomes has allowed scientists to determine that we share DNA with Neanderthals in key areas relating to speech and language. Computer models of DNA were shown to great effect. Even a viewer who only knew of DNA by name could understand the basic function and form of the little strands, as well as understand fairly clearly how it was that scientists came to the conclusion that the DNA of Homo sapiens clearly had some segments of Neanderthal DNA included. I was particularly impressed with how brief the filmmakers managed to make this explanation, but how thorough.
After this remarkable revelation I expected the program to then look at why modern humans would continue to keep ancient Neanderthal DNA, but instead the film went on to examine further similarities between humans and Neanderthals, including personal ornamentation with paint and beads, possible hunting trophy collection, and forms of ritualistic burial. While the visuals and interviews served to wonderfully illustrate and explain the evidence and artifacts, I was puzzled by the tangent back into material the filmmakers had already covered.
Honestly, looping back on itself didn’t reinforce anything, but rather served to undermine the flow and structure of the film. If this information had simply been included in the similar discussion before the examination of DNA sequencing, I think the documentary would have been stronger and more engaging, as it would have built a sense of wonder and suspense about our previous assumptions of Neanderthals.
Once this tangent was over, the program resumed what I felt like should have been the natural line of questioning in asking what benefits Neanderthal DNA had for modern humans. Though there are many gene sequences left to explore, scientists have been able to determine that important functions in our immune systems are dictated by the sequences of Neanderthal DNA. This shows that our continued survival as a species is aided immensely by keeping these genes, and adds further evidence to back the film’s conclusion that it is likely Neanderthals intermingled with ancient humans and were eventually bred out.
Though I was frustrated by the convoluted story structure, I very much appreciated how the film dealt with loose ends in the research, such as in the production of pitch. Science creates many new questions with each one that it answers, yet the Nova program gave me a sense of closure when it came to the particular question of why Neanderthals matter to us at all. I left wanting to know more, but not feeling unsatisfied.