Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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DVD/VHS: Cavemen on Camera Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Paul Bahn

[image]A Neandertal hunter treks across an icy wasteland in Walking with Cavemen. (BBC Video) [LARGER IMAGE]

The BBC achieved such enormous worldwide success with its computer-generated Walking with Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts that it was inevitable that there should be a third installment. This time the focus is on our own ancestors--the result is Walking with Cavemen, airing on the Discovery Channel on June 15, 8 PM EST and also available from BBC Video on DVD ($19.98) and VHS ($14.95).

The previous series demonstrate that conjuring up extinct animals through computer graphics has already reached a high level of sophistication, but it remains extremely difficult to produce realistic hominids by this method--not just in terms of appearance and expression but also movement. As a result, the producers decided to use heavily trained and made-up actors for these new "cavemen." The specialized plant-eating Paranthropus boisei, for instance, required mechanical jaws and mouths that took almost five hours to fit each day. One of the most entertaining extra features on the DVD shows two actresses in full "boisei" costume and make-up eating their lunch with the greatest difficulty.

The first of the two 50-minute shows covers Australopithecus afarensis--the troop of the famous Lucy, 3.5 million years ago in Africa--as well as Paranthropus boisei and the more adaptable and imaginative Homo habilis. The second show begins with Homo ergaster in Africa and moves through all the more recent species, including our own.

Most of the footage was shot on location in Africa, and the landscapes are often spectacular. Actual footage of animals and birds is used where possible, while other creatures, such as mammoth, are computer-generated. But while it is all visually splendid, much of what is onscreen is sheer speculation. Lucy's troop largely mirrors chimpanzee behavior (we get to see Lucy herself die, bopped on the head in a territorial dispute). The "boisei" group resemble red-haired skinheads, while the Homo habilis crowd look more like early rockers, sporting muttonchop sideburns. The Homo ergaster leader, for some obscure reason, has a crocodile tooth clenched in his jaws like a cigar butt. There is also a wince-inducing scene involving a Neandertal man jerking his badly broken finger back into place.

Despite its idiocyncracies, Walking with Cavemen is well worth a look, and should help to make these ancestors--with those long and forbidding names we have given them--more real and alive.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America