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Echoes of Eden

05 October 2012

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BIBLICAL fundamentalists are unlikely to be either persuaded or bothered by the series Andrew Marr's History of the World (BBC1, Sunday of last week), because they would probably have guessed in advance that he chose starting points other than the first chapters of Genesis. For the rest of us, however, this is a way of rounding off Sunday evening which, on the evidence of its first two episodes, can well be accommodated into our pattern of Lord's Day observance.

There is, in fact, more conver-gence than might initially be suspected: Homo sapiens's aboriginal home on the African savannah may well be echoed in the deep memory of the Land of Eden; and the long millennia of hunter-gatherer existence can be equated with the idea of finding our sustenance from nature, before that most fundamental of all human revolutions, the invention of agriculture.

Discovering a way of ensuring next year's food supply by not eating all this year's seeds but planting the best of them had enormous consequences: for the first time, humans had to settle in one place rather than move around as soon as the food was exhausted.

But hunter-gathering, despite its high mortality rate, might perversely be a healthier lifestyle than settled farming; and farm animals are the source of most human diseases. Genetic research suggests that every non-African human on the planet descends from one single female, from the one tribe that migrated from Africa to Arabia - a kind of Eve, if you like. And there are legends worldwide of a great flood in about 2000 BC.

Much of the series consists of dramatic reconstruction - a Neanderthal is hunted to death by usurping Homo sapiens; an ancient Egyptian village puts its errant youth on trial; a Minoan priestess sacrifices a young man. Although put together with historical expertise, these scenes still teeter on the edge of parody.

But you can let them pass, because the sweep of Marr's narrative is compelling. He offers some surprising theses: as important as the evolution of any stone weapon was the invention of the needle; for the ability to sew clothes enabled us to survive a wider range of climates than any other species. Religion is given appropriate attention: in the second episode, Judaic monotheism, the teaching of the Buddha, and Confucius were all presented as central to the human story.

Another, more recent evolutionary leap forward was chronicled in Room at the Top (BBC4, Wednesday and Thursday of last week). Here we saw the post-war transformation of British society played out in a northern town, the upheaval of the Second World War's ensuring that things were never the same again. The old order of class and hierarchy was dismantled, and the exposure to horror and violence made people aware of their visceral nature; so sex took centre-stage in a new way.

The real breakthrough, though, is the hero's unpleasantness. He is a new predatory species, dissatisfied with his lot and determined to better himself. John Braine's novel was brilliantly realised, the odd solecism in dialogue overtaken by searing performances. This Brave New World seemed a tawdry, tragic development - but inevitable.

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