________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number XIII . . . . September 8, 1995

Apeman Episode Three: It's All in the Mind

Arts & Entertainment Network. 52 minutes
Distributed as part of the Cable in the Classroom project: 7 - 8 a.m. Eastern time, Friday September 15. (Episode Four will be broadcast at the same time the following week.)

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Duncan Thornton


And to think that someone in what we now call Europe fashioned (this figurine) from ivory tens of thousands of years ago. It's just hard to grasp that when someone did this, no one had ever done it before. I'm looking at something made by a person, made by someone perhaps I could talk to. Someone basically like me.

Cable in the Classroom is currently presenting A&E's series on the development of the human species, Apeman. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, Apeman is quality work, covering the basics of the story without introducing unnecessary complexities or debates.

Episode Three, "It's All in the Mind," looks at hominid evolution, concentrating on the development of the brain, and especially our capacity for speech as the key to the emergence of modern human beings. The style is a familiar one: Cronkite provides linking narration, themes, and questions; experts from around the world provide information and opinion; extras recreate scenes from pre-historic life; and paintings illustrating parts of our past that would require too much in the way of expensive special effects. The mix is handled well -- we are spared watching people in fur suits stumping around and grunting; but we do see unapologetically modern-looking actors recreating say, Neanderthal burial practices.

Someone once said that pre-history was the playground of the intellectual; it's easy to cast conjectures back in time that justify our view of ourselves or of how we ought to be, but "It's All in the Mind" avoids using the subject to beat any particular drum, taking a mainstream approach to evolutionary history, and largely ignoring both the complexities and controversies in the hominid record.

Too often the video uses Cronkite observing African tribal rituals as stand-ins for pre-historic society, but the Neanderthal section (the longest and most interesting part of the video) cleverly uses footage of North American rodeo cowboys to illustrate some basic points: Neanderthals had to be big and strong because they hunted large animals by hand (they didn't have arrows or spears), and when they were injured (in pretty much the same ways as rodeo cowboys are) they required care by other members of the community. That compassion for others was a necessary part of their society is reflected in the care that extending after death: Neanderthals were the first humans to develop burial practices.

And what happened to these creatures so much like us, who lived side-by-side with modern humans for tens of thousands of years? Here we get the first real scientific debate, appropriately since this is a matter of crucial concern: a human species that disappeared in the recent past (only 35,000 years ago, a blink in the evolutionary scale!), and the last of our hominid relatives to share the Earth with us. Did we kill them off? Out-talk, out-breed, or out-think them? Or did we simply absorb them into into our gene pool?

In any case, with the disappearance of the Neanderthals, the way is clear for a quick look at the global explosion of modern humanity, something made possible, of course, by our brains, our capacity for complex communication and symbolic representation. Issues about the nature of language and thought that Wittgenstein used to knot up many of the finest minds of our century are, thankfully, glossed over, but some of it is still a little pat. (For example, does learning how to make a good arrow-head really require linguistic skill? It seems to me we learn much by observation and imation that Apeman suggests comes from instruction and communication.)

But in all, the video covers a vast topic skillfully and intelligently; it's consistently absorbing and never confusing. An excellent introduction for younger viewers, and a useful resource or discussion-starter for senior students. As a sample of the sort of viewing Cable in the Classroom will be providing, Apeman is very promising, and it bodes well for the next series in their regular Friday Archaeology slot, The Face of Tutankhamon.

(And the problems that expansion in numbers, societal complexity, and technology has brought? That's Episode Four, reviewed next week.)

Highly Recommended.

Duncan Thornton is the Editor of Canadian Materials.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364