LET no mean person accuse British TV of failing to mark Ash Wednesday. BBC1, in its prime 9 p.m. slot, depicted religion lived out with the most impressive interplay of life and faith.
At great peril, a huge line of prayer flags was stretched across a dizzying canyon to ensure safe passage for the herd of yak crossing the Himalayas; the safe return home was celebrated with devout turning of prayer wheels. Prayer flags? Prayer wheels? Are these observances for the start of Lent relegated to some arcane appendix of Common Worship: Times and Seasons? Of course not. Earth’s Natural Wonders had nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity.
We had to make do with Tibetan Buddhism, and glean whatever parallels our imaginations might afford us. There was one: this poorly titled documentary series explores the lives of those who live in precisely that place thatwe entered for 40 days and 40 nights that Wednesday — the wilderness.
The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000-year-old man (Channel 4, Sunday) told us all about the recent remarkable reconstruction of Cheddar Man: the oldest complete human skeleton to have been found in the UK. He lived 10,000 years ago, and was one of only 12,000 hunter-gatherers to colonise Britain, settling in the wooded valleys in Somerset in what was then not, of course, an island but rather part of the mainland, crossing over from warmer climes as the last Ice Age retreated and the country became habitable again.
This makes him our ancestor in the sense that, from that time on, human presence has grown continuously, with no break. One of the questions posed by the astonishingly detailed information now recoverable from DNA analysis of his bone was whether he was anyone’s literal ancestor: is anyone now living near Cheddar Gorge his descendant?
The answer is no, but genetic material proves that many modern British people share his origins: long settlement in the Middle East after originating in Africa. In other words, we are cousins; and, to the scientists’ surprise, the evidence shows that he had black skin. Our racial stereotypes are not only mistaken, but very recent.
For once, human villainy was shown to have a benign outcome. David Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities (BBC2, Saturday) explores a selection of intriguing byways in the world of evolution. Global warming means that, in Canada, the habitats of both polar and grizzly bears are overlapping. They can mate and produce fertile offspring (labelled “pizzlies”) that, sharing the characteristics of both species, may have a better chance of survival as the habitat changes.
His other example was less encouraging. The attempt to beef up Brazilian bees by cross-breeding with tougher African strains created havoc throughout the continent: the huge swarms of the new killer bees can see off humans. Fortunately for the United States, the milder climate of North America acts as a barrier — the bees cannot stand the cold and rain.