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The Human Spark: Becoming Us

Airs Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Alda cozies up to an ancient cousin, a Neanderthal, at the American Museum of Natural History.

Uniquely human abilities — to think in symbols; recombine those symbols into infinite meanings; invent a technology to disseminate the message; ponder the past; speculate about the future; imagine the unknown; build cities; compose music — constitute the “human spark.” In this three-part series, host Alan Alda searches for the origin and nature of this spark.

Alan Alda visits an archaeological excavation of a Neanderthal cave in southwestern France. The cave is more than 40,000 years old.
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Above: Alan Alda visits an archaeological excavation of a Neanderthal cave in southwestern France. The cave is more than 40,000 years old.

"Becoming Us" Part I: In the caves and rock shelters of the Dordogne region of France, Alan Alda witnesses the spectacular paintings and carvings that date back some 30,000 years, artwork that archeologists once thought to be the first record of people with minds like our own. When this art was created, Europe had already been peopled for hundreds of thousands of years - and thousands of lifetimes - by humans we call Neanderthals.

Alan discovers, from visits to sites where Neanderthals once lived, that Neanderthals were tenacious and resourceful. But they appear to have lived in and of the moment; certainly they produced no art, and employed a stone tool technology that changed little over millennia. The people who painted the caves, our ancestors, were strikingly different, possessed of what we are calling the "human spark," capable not only of art but of innovative technology and symbolic communication.

The questions Alan explores: Where and when did the human spark first ignite? In these caves, as archeologists have long believed? Or at a much earlier time - and on another continent? Finding the answer involves scanning Neanderthal teeth in a giant particle accelerator to learn about their childhood; reading Neanderthal's genetic code in DNA extracted from 50,000 year-old bones; and discovering and reconstructing the weaponry that made possible - and relatively safe - the hunting of large animals in East Africa.

We will also unearth the beads that are the first evidence of our species' fascination with social status - and a powerful new means of long-distance communication; recover from the teeth and bones of both Neanderthals and our ancestors evidence of what they ate; and explore the Great Rift Valley in East Africa with archeologists who believe that it was there that the human spark first began to glimmer, tens of thousands of years before it burst into flame in Europe. Watch the full program online.

Episode II: "So Human, So Chimp"


Video Excerpt: Stone-Age Throwing Spears

Alan Alda joins John Shea at Stony Brook University for a lesson on Primitive Technology. Alan makes hand axes like a Neanderthal, but throws a pretty mean spear at an unsuspecting doe.