Nearly half a million years ago, the most advanced human yet roams Europe. Strong and powerful, Homo heidelbergensis are fierce hunters, use sophisticated tools and live in close-knit family groups.
They look and behave in a very human way - yet something is missing. In 'The Survivors', the final programme in the series, we follow three brothers on a hunt. When one brother is injured his distraught family spend most of the night trying to keep him alive.
Yet in the morning, the hunter is dead and his family have gone, leaving him where he died. There is no ceremony and no looking back. Heidelbergensis can only see the world as it is. They cannot, for example, think of a life after death, for they lack the one thing that makes us human - a modern imagination.
Heidelbergensis are the departure point for the last leg of the journey towards modern humans. Over 200,000 years they become split into two populations by extremes of weather and environment and evolve separately into two very different species.
In the North are the Neanderthals, whose physical power and resilience is the key to surviving in ice age Northern Europe. In one of the most inhospitable environments ever, a small group of Neanderthal are finding things tough.
The leader's partner is expecting her first child, and the men must travel far to find food. If they're unsuccessful, the group will have to move on - a perilous journey for the near full-term mum. In their world, being strong and tough is the key to survival. If the going gets tough, they just fight back harder.
In the South the other descendants of heidelbergensis, are finding the going even harder. About 140,000 years ago, Africa is in the grip of a devastating drought, and something remarkable has happened to the descendants of heidelbergensis who live there. The combination of environment and chance has bred in them a unique ability that will change the course of human history.
They have developed a mind capable of imagination. For the first time on E arth there is a creature capable of understanding and anticipating possibilities, with the gift of abstract thought. It very possibly saves them from the brink of extinction.
Although the Neanderthals were unbeatable for a quarter of a million years, it will be this small band of southern survivors, perhaps numbering just a few tens of thousands, who will come to dominate the world and be known as Homo sapiens.
Homo heidelbergensis is a transitional species. It possesses a range of anatomical features typical of different species of Homo and is thought to be the predecessor of both Neanderthals and modern humans. This hominid had a much bigger brain than Homo erectus, allowing it to plan complicated hunts.
Evidence for the Megaloceros hunting scene we show in the film came from throwing-spears found in Schöningen, Germany. Although lacking in imagination, it is highly likely that, like Neanderthals, heidelbergensis would have had a highly developed social brain and been able to communicate easily. They would also probably have displayed much the same sort of emotions as us.
Between 700,000 and 800,000 years ago, cycles of climate change became more extreme. The amplitude of climate swings doubled between cold and warm periods every 100,000 years. Paleoclimatologists call this the mid-Pleistocene revolutions, which created dramatic variations in temperature.
Ice core evidence shows that at this time Africa was extremely dry. During the glacial maximum there would have been only tiny patches of forest left in Africa. Huge dust storms would come and go and, at times, would have been so severe they would have thrown dust high into the Earth’s atmosphere. Africa would have been a very inhospitable place to live.
One of the most famous Neanderthal fossils was found at La Chapelle-Aux-Saints in France. It is the nearly complete skeleton of a largely toothless old man. Unfortunately, it was misinterpreted and came to symbolise the old-fashioned view of Neanderthals as shuffling, brutish cavemen – a complete misrepresentation of their anatomy, gait and intelligence. The growing consensus is that they were a highly successful species adapted to life in the cold.
Fossil evidence allows us to reconstruct the tough physical approach to life that the Neanderthals had. Their skeletons show many examples of traumatic lesions, breaks and post-traumatic degenerative changes, particularly head and neck damage. They show exactly the kind of trauma found in the bodies of rodeo riders, and this suggests many close encounters with large animals.
No agreement exists between palaeoanthropologists on exactly how to recognise ancient examples of 'modern' humans, morphologically or behaviourally. However, the majority of the fossil and genetic evidence favours an African origin for modern humans prior to 130,000 years ago. The earliest Homo sapiens skulls, for instance, have been found in Africa.
Although there are anatomical differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, the key difference is in their minds, their cognitive thinking - such as making art and jewellery. Neanderthals saw and interacted with the world in a very different way to us.
Symbolism gave modern humans many advantages. For example the giving and receiving of gifts would have led to a highly complex social network – a web of alliances and friendships to fall back on. Through items of jewellery given as gifts, people were able to maintain friendships in their absence.
The accelerated drying of the Africa environment would have a catastrophic effect on the anatomically modern humans who lived there. This is born out by the genetic evidence, which suggests that there was a dramatic population reduction at around this time – a bottleneck. This bottleneck is hard to pin down precisely, but some scientists argue that the changes which occur in the minds of anatomically-modern humans around this time had their origins in the squeeze in the population that occurred around 150,000 to 120,000 years ago.
As anatomically modern human populations in Africa shrank, (perhaps to as low as 10,000 individuals) the resilience and resourcefulness of those individuals would have been tested. Those anatomically modern humans best able to adapt and think their way out of their predicament would have survived. This concentration of ingenuity could have resulted in fundamental changes in the minds of the human population.
Professor Robert Winston meets Lucy, the first upright ape, and follows her ancestors on the three-million-year journey to civilisation. Broadcast in 2003, Walking with Cavemen combined special effects with the latest scientific theories, to show us what it really means to be human.
In the previous Walking with... documentaries, extinct animals were recreated with CGI and animatronics. For Walking with Cavemen, a slightly different approach was taken. While most of the animals depicted were still computer generated or animatronic, the human ancestors were portrayed by actors wearing makeup and prosthetics, giving them a more realistic look and permitting the actors to give the creatures a human quality.
Like its predecessors, Walking with Cavemen is made in the style of a wildlife documentary, featuring a voice-over narrator (Robert Winston in the British release, Alec Baldwin in the North American release) who describes the recreations of the prehistoric past as if they were real. As with the predecessors, this approach necessitated the presentation of speculation as if it were fact, and some of the statements made about the behaviour of the creatures are more open to question than the documentary may indicate.
Each species segment takes the form of a short drama featuring a group of the particular hominid in question going about their daily lives (the search for food, protecting territory, and caring for the sick and injured). The intent is to get the human viewer to feel for the creatures being examined, almost to imagine being one of them (a trait that the documentary links to the modern human brain).
Episode One: "First Ancestors"
In the first episode, we see Australopithecus afarensis, and focus on their evolved bipedality (walking on just rear feet - our legs). More specifically, the story follows the famous Lucy and her relatives, as they first develop a leadership conflict following the death of the alpha male due to a crocodile attack, and then are attacked by a rival troupe. The attack ends with death of Lucy herself, and her eldest daughter caring for Lucy's now-orphaned baby (her sibling), as a sign of the developing humanity in these "apemen".
Time: 3.2 Million Years Ago
* Australopithecus afarensis
Episode Two: "Blood Brothers"
The second episode leaps forward to a time when Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis co-exist. H. habilis is depicted as an intelligent omnivore that is more adaptable than the herbivorous P. boisei. The two species are contrasted, with H. habilis being "a jack of all trades", while P. boisei are "a master of one" - i.e. they are specialized herbivores while H. habilis are generalized omnivores. Consequently, though P. boisei are able to eat termites, tall grasses and hard acacia pods in difficult times, they will not be able to survive in the future, when at the beginning of the next Ice Age the climate will change, and these plants will be gone for good. H. habilis, on the contrary, have become smart by eating carrion and bone marrow among other things, and evolving a basic social behavior, which is more firm than that of P. boisei, will continue to survive, until it evolves into Homo ergaster, seen in the next episode, who has developed these traits to a greater extent.
The episode also briefly shows the H. rudolfensis, remarking that albeit they are taller, they are very similar to the H. habilis.
Time: 2 Million Years Ago
Place: East Africa
* Paranthropus boisei
* Homo habilis
* Homo rudolfensis
Episode Three: "Savage Family"
In the third episode, Homo ergaster is depicted as the first creature to master the art of tracking. This was made possible because their diet has grown increasingly more carnivorous, and the nutrients in meat made them even smarter than H. habilis of the previous episode. They also begin to form into tribal societies, with genuine bonds between their men and women, though violence is still occurring.
The episode later shows H. ergaster spreading into Asia, becoming Homo erectus and encountering the enormous herbivorous ape Gigantopithecus, "the original King Kong".
However, for the next million years, H. ergaster is still very much an animal, following its instinct, but then, they are shown harnessing fire and beginning to break-away from their direct dependence on their environment. (This ties neatly into the next and final episode, which is centered on human mind and imagination.)
Time: 1.5 Million Years Ago - 500 000 Years Ago
Place: Southern Africa - China
* Homo ergaster
* Homo erectus
Episode Four: "The Survivors"
The fourth episode talks about the mental evolution of the humanity, as opposed to the physical in previous ones. First we leap forward to a time when Homo heidelbergensis is living in Great Britain. H. Heidelbergensis is depicted as intelligent and sensitive but lacking in the ability to comprehend an afterlife, or anything that isn't in the "here and now".
Next, the episode shows a life of a clan Homo neanderthalensis, how they lived and hunted, including the mighty mammoth during the latest Ice age. They are intelligent but still lack the imagination of modern humans.
Finally, we see modern Homo sapiens (represented by Bushmen) in Africa, who had to become imaginative and inventive to survive the long drought, and finally glimpse the cave painters of Europe, who had "evolved" the idea of the afterlife and the supernatural, and who are now ready to start the human history as it is now known (and drive-out the Neanderthals to extinction).
Time: 200 000 Years Ago - 150 000 Years Ago
Place: Europe - Africa
* Homo heidelbergensis
* Homo sapiens