All successful human cultures were successful


PBS has a new show on human evolution, First Peoples, coming out on 24 June. It actually looks good.

My preliminary opinion may be colored by the fact that I watched Quest for Fire the other night — I was disgusted. It portrayed ancient people as bumbling dopes who hadn’t figured out fire or the missionary position, when in reality I expect that every step in the evolution of humans was extremely competent at what they did. I expect a little respect for the past. Of course, part of the problem with that movie was that their science consultant was Desmond Morris, who has always been terrible.

While you’re waiting for the documentary to air, PBS has some evolution games you can play. It looks like a lot of them aren’t available yet, but the tree building exercise looked really useful — it brought home basic cladistic principles very clearly. Give it a try!


  1. chigau (違う) says

    In Quest fo Fire the Neanderthals were bumbling dopes.
    The Cro-Magnon were arseholes, like Desmond.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    It’s been many years since I saw bits and pieces of Quest…. All I remember of it was this single, woman, from some other variation of homo x (I seem to recall her as being almost albino blond) solving every problem the main tribe encountered. Fire was just one of those problems. But somehow, she would just be presented the problem, as what the guys are working on, and instantly devise a solution for it. That’s why I abandoned that movie and heard disparaging remarks about the books, so that’s why my synopsis could be totally mistaken. If I’m wrong, okay, tell me I’m wrong, and drop it, no need to recap the movie to correct me. No interest in revisiting that piece of disguised porn (that’s my other impression: that it was just a way to disguise a plethora of sex scenes).
    otoh, I might be misassigning the book comments, as those from Clan of the Cave Bear | oops

  3. chigau (違う) says

    Quest forr Fire also had elephants in mangy fur-suits playing wooly mammoths.
    How could you not love that?

  4. congenital cynic says

    Looks like it’s the same kind of show as the BBC’s “The Incredible Human Journey”. I watched the BBC’s offering a couple of years ago – watched it twice – and it was excellent. And the host is superb. Finally was able to see was was going on with the changes in skulls of hominids.

    This PBS offering looks as though it’s going to be pretty similar to the BBC series.

  5. says

    Nah, the important thing about Quest for Fire was that Anthony Burgess did the constructed language, and actually put a fair bit of work into making plausible proto-Indo-European. His language might have been 5,000 years ago rather than 80,000, but he totally gets points for effort. Never mind the story, not every linguist can just whip up Lord of the Rings as background for his conlang :-)

  6. birgerjohansson says

    (OT) 1. Today, 70 years ago a not very successful culture gave up, 988 years short of the target. The surrender was signed in Reims, France. The day after, it was signed in Berlin. In the British Commonwealth, today is celebrated as VE-day.
    (OT) 2. XKCD -Sword in the Stone
    (OT) 3. Today is the British election, which is somewhat related to (2) and maybe even to this topic. Depends of how long a culture has to be around to be labelled “successful”.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    We don’t see the nets women and children used to catch small prey like rabbits, since they decompose fast. So the archaeological record only shows us arrowheads and spearheads for the paleo- and mesolithic.
    If ivory was a round as a good material for art/cult figurines, something like “Venus from Willendorf” might turn up, but that is pretty much it. It is like assuming 51 Pegasi b is a typical planet…

  8. mudpuddles says

    The very last sentence of the trailer, “we have inside of us the genes of these ancient people, influencing us today” sounds horribly similar to a lot of evo-psych crap. I hope the documentary doesn’t go down that route.

    @ chigau, #1:
    In Morris’s defence, he was hugely important in promoting and generating science and nature-based programming and education in the UK in the 60s and 70s, arguably as important as David Attenborough at that time, with his books “The Mammals”, “The Naked Ape” and “The Human Zoo” and related programmes inspiring many people to take an interest in geography and biological sciences. So, whatever about the problems with his written work, I’d say he’s not not a complete arsehole, though admittedly I am not aware of any recent controversies there may be about his work or opinions.

  9. Saad says

    Ibis3, #8

    Men. Men. Men. Men. Men. Huh.

    Women will be featured in the sequel: Second Peoples.

    I hope it’s just the trailer that’s like that.

  10. says

    Ibis3 @ 8:

    Men. Men. Men. Men. Men. Huh.

    Yeah. Once again, we know who is interesting and important, and it ain’t us.

  11. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    Well. I will be watching this.

    I too am hoping that the trailer has shown the hunters on the assumption that people will find that more interesting. I am hoping that the show will portray a more complete culture, including the women, who will presumably be portrayed as the gatherers, because that’s the default assumption.

    @Congenital Cynic #4

    Looks like it’s the same kind of show as the BBC’s “The Incredible Human Journey”.

    I’ll be looking that up, then.

  12. Matrim says

    Quest for Fire was awful, all self-respecting prehistorians get their info from Caveman!

  13. anteprepro says


    Men. Men. Men. Men. Men. Huh.

    I, for one, cannot wait to see if they have included “It’s Raining Men” in the soundtrack.

  14. says


    I too am hoping that the trailer has shown the hunters on the assumption that people will find that more interesting.

    Um, that would be the problem, you see. The default [men] is always considered more interesting. There’s very little thought involved, just automatic assumption.

  15. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    @ Caine

    I actually meant that they assumed people would find the activity, hunting, more interesting, and the default assumption has always been that men do the hunting, despite some fairly credible evidence that this may not have been the case, IIRC.

    You may very well be right that patriarchal society has conditioned people to find the stereotypically male activity more exciting; I hadn’t considered that. I’d always assumed it was because hunting was more “action packed” (read: violent).

  16. Trebuchet says


    It’s been many years since I saw bits and pieces of Quest…. All I remember of it was this single, woman, from some other variation of homo x (I seem to recall her as being almost albino blond) solving every problem the main tribe encountered.

    Actually that was the mixed-race Rae Dawn Chong, pretty much nude except for a coat of what was supposed to be mud.

  17. JustaTech says

    Re: men men men:
    At 0:32, I’m pretty sure that the second person (yes yes) is a woman, carrying a fish trap (much more efficient food acquisition). But yes, lots of men.

  18. says

    I must admit Quest for Fire has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. Then again I see it mostly as comedy, not as something to be taken too seriously. Still it does get a few things more or less right considering the scientific state of the art in the early eighties, and a few other things do seem plausible enough.

    For instance I don’t think it is impossible that some very early prehistoric group of people would guard a fire like that, because they didn’t know how to start a new one. Not sure the situation would have lasted long before they would invent methods to make fire. People in that situation, who had come to appreciate the utility of controlled fire, would probably be quite motivated to try many different things.

    I will look out for the PBS series. Seems interesting.

  19. azhael says

    It’d be better with Alice roberts in it, but looking forward to it anyway.

  20. okstop says

    If someone could point me to a good critique of Desmond Morris’ work, I’d appreciate it. I’ve always wondered what biologists I trust (such as PZ) thought of his stuff, but I lack the expertise to evaluate it properly myself.

  21. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @19:
    Thanks for the correction. I kinda remember her now. My first comment about “almost albino blond”, may refer to that Clan of the Cave Bear movie. corrections welcome.

  22. rq says

    Well, I actually spotted what looked like two women, plus one of them was talking like she was a scientist, so I guess… that balances things out? A bunch of hunting, weapons, religious-seeming rituals (starring… men!), but no tools, no weaving, textiles… also interesting and exciting things, but… not men? To be honest, evo-psych came to lurk at the edge of my mind about a quarter through that trailer. :/
    I don’t know. It certainly looks interesting, but Pharyngula has ruined all my movie- and documentary-going experiences by making me notice all the missing and invisible women.
    It’s kind of annoying (but in a good way, I think?).

  23. congenital cynic says

    @23 azhael
    I agree. Alice Roberts is such a great host. She’s a lot of awesome on several fronts. Totally engaging personality, extremely well educated, really smart, articulate (and I love her accent), enthusiastic about the subject, and willing to get her hands dirty. She raises the capital of any BBC documentary she hosts.

    @13 Thumper
    The whole series in on Youtube in one hour segments, I think. That’s where I watched it and a quick look earlier in the day seemed to indicate that they were still there. I’ll have to watch the PBS offering to see how it compares.

  24. says

    @rq #26

    Not just hunting (and of course it’s assumed that women didn’t hunt alongside the men), but meeting, walking, or just standing around. I’ve watched a bunch of these types of anthropological-type documentaries and it’s always* the men *doing the things*. Women, if represented at all, are in the background or trailing behind like pack animals. Few even appear as modern scientific experts.

    *Okay, almost always. The Brian Cox doc Human Universe is a refreshing exception.

  25. congenital cynic says

    If the playlist I posted above does not work in your location, you can still find the individual episodes on YouTube and they will play. I should have checked that before posting. Sorry.

  26. says

    slithey tove 25
    Probably. A quick google indicates that Daryl Hannah, who played the protagonist of Clan of The Cave Bear does indeed have very pale blond hair, and the movie poster indicates that it may be bleached all the way to whiteat some point therein.

  27. jefferylanam says

    I went to the PBS website, It indicates that there will be five episodes, for Africa, Asia, Europe, America, and Australia. Each will focus on an individual character, a reconstruction based on archaeological remains. Two of the characters are female.

  28. F.O. says

    PBS stuff is usually good.
    Pity for the lack of women, docco seems good.

    I’ve spent more time on the phylogenetic tree game, it’s very nice, but *shock!* *horror!* I notice that wikipedia has no article about “cophyly”.
    Either the games are using uncommon jargon, either Wikipedia needs a new article, or at least a stub.

  29. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    @ Congenital Cynic #27 and 28

    Ah, thanks! I looked for it last night on topdocumentaryfilms dot com, and Netflix, and BBC iPlayer, and couldn’t find the bloody thing.

  30. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    Oh no, hang on a minute. topdocumentaryfilms did have it; it linked to youtube but the BBC has blocked it. That’s why I couldn’t watch it.

    Sorry. I stayed up watching the election coverage, and I am fucking knackered. Brain no worky so good this morning.

  31. deathbrewer says

    Saw this was coming, but didn’t see the trailer until now. It’s been months since I’ve been on Pharyngula and it’s been a lovely evening of catching up. And then I have even more to watch after someone mentioned The Incredible Human Journey! I’ll never neglect you again, FreeThoughtBlogs.