Brookes human evolution expert part of a major new Neanderthals documentary

Monday, 05 June 2017

Neanderthal

Dr Simon Underdown was filmed last week (2 June) for a new documentary on Neanderthals made by the production company behind the 2005 Oscar-winning documentary March of the Penguins.

The 90-minute scientific documentary for French TV channel France 5 will be called Who killed Neanderthal? It is being adapted from the French book of the same name Qui a tué Néandertal? (2014) by Eric Pincas, writer and editor-in-chief of Historia magazine.

The film will explore the Neanderthals, a human species that dominated the word more than 350,000 years ago. They struggled to survive in their hostile prehistoric world, but managed to adapt and hold their own against the rest of the animal world.

Over thousands of years, these hunter-gatherers built up a huge volume of knowledge and beliefs, creating their own culture. However, all those Neanderthal women, men and children disappeared from the planet forever 30,000 years ago.

From 1856 and the discovery of a Neanderthal skeleton until the present day and analysis of the DNA of that vanished human species, people have been fascinated by Neanderthals. Myself and many other scientists have spent years researching them, coming up with different theories.

Dr Simon Underdown, Senior Lecturer in Biological Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University

Production company Bonne Pioche are behind the documentary, which is an international co-production being made by screenwriter and director Thomas Cirotteau and co-written by Eric Pincas and Jaques Malaterre, director of Odyssée del’espèce (A Species Odyssey) and the 2010 pre-historic film Ao: le dernier Neandertal (Ao: The Last Hunter).

Screenwriter and director Thomas Cirotteau said: “The film will seek to answer questions, including who was the Neanderthal? How did he live? Why did he disappear? What can the Neanderthal tell us about our own existence?

“These and many other queries will be addressed in the film shot in the form of a police investigation during which the scientists from around the global will share the knowledge they have gained in the light of the latest discoveries.

“Dr Underdown’s most recent studies seem to prove that one of the possible causes of the Neanderthal’s extinction can be linked to a pathogen carried out of Africa by Homo sapiens and that would have been lethal to the Neanderthals when they the two came into contact. We wanted to interview him so he can explain to us how his research led to this conclusion.”

Dr Simon Underdown, Senior Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University said: “It’s great to have been approached to be part of this major new documentary and it was a lot of fun to have the team here at Oxford Brookes filming with me in my lab.

“From 1856 and the discovery of a Neanderthal skeleton until the present day and analysis of the DNA of that vanished human species, people have been fascinated by Neanderthals. Myself and many other scientists have spent years researching them, coming up with different theories. This documentary will showcase the vast amount of work done in this area and provide viewers with a fascinating story.”

Simon is part of the Human Origins and Palaeo-Environments Research Group in the Department of Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes.

You can read more about his research in an article ‘Being Human’, written for Research Forum the University’s research magazine.