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Dr George McGavin and Professor Alice Roberts study ancient skeletons, and create life-like models of extinct human species in a three-part series. They also reveal that we humans (Homo Sapiens) once shared the planet with other human species, like Neanderthals. George tells TV Choice more…
What do you think viewers will like about Prehistoric Autopsy?
I think they’ll be blown away from what scientists can infer from a tiny handful of bones. I think people will get a sense of the excitement and drama of it. There’s a bit where I interviewed the guy who found the remains of Lucy [the name given to a skeleton belonging to the species Australopithecus Afarensis]. What an amazing discovery. And he was so passionate about it. But also everyone wants to know about our ancestors. Where we came from. This is a completely new approach and it’s fresh and exciting.
Neanderthals survived for 350,000 years, and died out about 30,000 years ago. Why do you think they became extinct?
It was almost certainly — as with a lot of these things — a combination of various factors. There was climate change, and the fact that they were out-classed by us, eventually. But in the programme we don’t shy away from areas where there are arguments. So it depends on which scientists you speak to. We’re trying to decide what happened so long ago based on a relatively small number of bones.
Is there much discussion about how Neanderthals hunted?
Yes. Were they throwing things, overhand, or were they thrusting spears? I’m a little undecided on that. Some scientists say they wouldn’t have been able to throw a spear very well, but I’m not sure about that. But certainly to make a kill they would have hunted in packs. And for large items of prey, like mammoths, they would have had to corner them, or drive them over a cliff. It was a hazardous thing. But there’s good evidence for them spearing animals close up.
Were they also cannibals, as they came close to extinction?
Almost certainly, they were. But cannibals have been around for all time. I mean, there are probably humans today — or in the last 100 years — who have eaten each other.
There’s a theory that Neanderthals had red hair. Do we know that for certain?
No, we don’t know that for sure. But it certainly wasn’t the dark, shaggy hair that we see in some dreadful reconstructions. What’s exciting is that somewhere out there, under the ice, there might actually be a frozen Neanderthal. That would be the discovery of the century.
How long have we humans [Homo Sapiens] been around in comparison to Neanderthals?
Homo Sapiens — and what you would call modern humans — have been around for about 200,000 years. Then fully behavioural development happened only about 50,000 years ago. What I think is amazing is that if you went back 50,000 years ago and took an infant Homo Sapien from a caveman’s hearth and brought him into the UK now, and educated him, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference to a present-day human. They’d be playing with their Game Boys, or getting degrees in astrophysics, and all the rest of it.
BBC2, Monday to Wednesday