I discovered this documentary a few years back, but never wrote about it. I like to watch it from time to time because I love the style they made it in. Unlike many documentaries, it is far from the dry stereotypical narrator droning on putting people to sleep. This one is set up more like a nature show, as if cameras were following a band of neanderthals in their “natural habitat”, so to speak. It details how they survive, and even a face to face encounter with a cro magnon! The neanderthals even are shown to possess their own language, as scientists now believe they spoke a simple language similar to our own. Unlike the common image of a more brutish neanderthal, they are shown to have a complex society, almost on par with the primitive humans. However, they lack more traits of behavioral modernity, such as body adornment and abstract thought and symbolism. New evidence suggests neanderthals may have possessed those traits too, but there is no hard evidence confirming it.
The story is mostly straightforward, the neanderthals try to survive the oncoming winter, but are forced to migrate to find better hunting grounds. However, one female stays behind and (amusingly to me) has a “one night stand” with a cro magnon! This isn’t too implausible, as hybrid human-neanderthal children’s remains have been found. I also like the part when they caught a female from another tribe and the dominant female looks her over to assert her dominance in the clan. I guess women have always had a catty side :) I can almost imagine it like a reality TV show about territorial catty cave women! The documentary gets gloomy at the end though, as it is unlikely the rest of the band would survive the harsh winter and the cro magnons in their old territory. Indeed, by the very end, the cro magnons resettled their abandoned campsite. Overall, the documentary is probably a bit slow paced for some people who want more of a story type narrative, but I personally enjoyed the nature show type format it was presented in.
One last thought of mine is a bit unique: If one could actually film real neanderthals, how unobtrusive could one be ethically? What I mean is, when a neanderthal gets hurt or ill, or is a victim of violence, is it ethical to just standby and film it. In most nature documentaries, it is deemed ethical since it is the way of nature with non human animals. If a lion kills a zebra, no one feels the ethical need to “save” the zebra as it is the way of nature that the lion must eat. However, the neanderthals are basically human, and probably have sapience similar to ours. Is it ethical to stand by and document a neanderthal’s suffering when we would have the technology to alleviate it such as an injury or illness? To capture their natural behavior, one must stay undetected, but is it unethical to document their suffering the same way it would be to document a violent crime for a documentary but not come to the victim’s aid or call the police? If one chooses to “save” the neanderthal, it ruins the whole study of them and alters their behavior, but if one lets it suffer, are they morally responsible? I don’t quite know the definitively right answer myself. Would they be under nature’s jurisdiction thus it being acceptable to leave it at the mercy of the natural world as we do other animals, or would a neanderthal, or caveman in general, require the intervention of the human world? One could argue the degree of personhood another species of extinct human has if they have different cognitive capabilities, but that would take up another post!