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July 4th, 2008
Spark Blog: Our First Shoot
Neanderthal skull, held by Belgian archeologist Michel Toussaint

Belgian archeologist Michel Toussaint, with the Neanderthal skull
photo © Larry Engel, 2008

Hi, I’m Graham Chedd, who with Alan Alda first came up with the idea for The Human Spark a couple of years ago. We’ve just finished our first shoot, so this is a good moment to begin what will be a regular series of blogs as the production makes its way to your PBS station, we hope some time next year.

Alan will chime in soon. But on this first shoot, while I was in Grenoble, France, filming a 50,000 year-old Neanderthal skull getting its teeth X-rayed, Alan was lying in a tube in Los Angeles having his head scanned – so that we can all peer into his brain later.

Here’s Belgian archaeologist Michel Toussaint holding the fragile Neanderthal skull at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble. Normally it resides under lock and key at the national archaeology museum in Paris. The photo was taken by Larry Engel, by the way. Larry is The Human Spark’s director, and will also be the cameraman for most of the filming

The big question we’re trying to answer in the first show of The Human Spark is how, when, where and why we got to be who we are from who we used to be. Humans that looked much like us existed some 200,000 years ago, but the first obvious evidence of people with minds like ours – people we’d recognize as us – dates to about 35,000 years ago, when they started painting the walls of caves in Europe, like the famous Lascaux caves in France. We want to know where these people – and their minds – came from.

More on that in later blogs (hint: much of the story takes place in Africa). But this first shoot was with researchers seeking the answer to a simple question: how long did it take Neanderthals to grow up?

European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

The European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
photo © Larry Engel, 2008

Neanderthals had been living in Europe and getting along just fine for at least 100,000 years before our ancestors showed up. Then the Neanderthals disappeared. Just how and why we replaced them – what gave us the edge – is one of the most fascinating mysteries of archeology, and one we’ll be diving into in this show. But one intriguing idea is that our ancestors had longer childhoods than did Neanderthals, and so more time to absorb all the complicated stuff we need to learn.

So how do you find out how quickly Neanderthals grew up? That’s where this machine comes in – a giant particle accelerator that generates one of the most powerful and concentrated beam of X-rays in the world – and a machine that I managed, in an act of stunning stupidity, to shut down entirely.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that next time.

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