Attenborough and Mammoth Graveyard magazine – a true Christmas miracle | TV & radio

Anearly decades of fossil hunting in their spare time (he wooed her with two halves of the vertebrae of an ancient beast; they cut their wedding cake with a Neanderthal ax they unearthed together), Sally and Neville Hollingworth discovered a life deep in a quarry at Cerney Wick. It was a collection of mammoth bones of a size, condition and number more commonly found in Siberia than in Swindon, left as a result of ancient wanderings of the Thames and dating back to over 200 000 years old. As we eagerly await the 90-minute British romantic comedy to be written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, starring Olivia Colman as Sally and Martin Freeman as Neville, as surely is bound to happen, we have a documentary as well. attaching to the fossil itself.

Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard (BBC One) opens with Sir David visiting the Hollingworths at their pretty suburban home. Each wall is lined with shelves and crates housing impeccably presented fossils they have found. The mammoth bones are on the kitchen table. Attenborough floats in a trance of delight. “It’s a great thrill, isn’t it?” The world’s most revered naturalist mutters reverently, as he lays his hand on a giant Ice Age humerus. “The whole thing.”

It is a stroke of genius to put together such a documentary at Christmas. Prehistory is the greatest story ever told, and the sight of passionate experts gleaning more from snail shell fragments, sediment samples, gashes on preserved shins and shoulder blades, and then putting together new fragments of history, thrills the centuries-old spine. This is what brings us the closest to religious fear, us, the spiritually poor, but I would not trade it.

Evolutionary biology professor Ben Garrod is the on-site missionary and co-presenter here, now that Attenborough at 95 is forced to take matters a little easier. He does most of the interviews with the people who pull miracles out of the mud, and then perform more themselves in the lab. Generations of Siberians believed that the buried remains they occasionally encountered were proof that enormous subterranean burrowing creatures once possessed the tundra. 17th-century Europeans believed theirs to be evidence of giants or unicorns. Then, in 1864, a piece of mammoth ivory was discovered in France with such a detailed engraving of the animal that it was considered evidence that humans lived alongside these elephant-like beasts and that unicorns, alas, did not really enter. (nor giant burrowing creatures, which seems even more of a shame).

Now, of course, we have people who can test the quartz grains for radioactivity, separate layers of rock and sediment like tissue paper, and consult a secure facility full of prehistoric hewn flint to tell you what was going on. when Britain was not yet an island, glaciers were retreating over a small part of Wiltshire and megafauna still roamed the Earth.

As with most BBC documentaries involving natural history (and especially if they involve Attenborough as well), it achieves the graceful feat of sticking to the facts while incorporating the sense of mystery that helps create the fascination. We are brought to the answers of exactly what species of mammoths rest at the bottom of the ancient river (steppe and woolly – didn’t even know there were different kinds, although I know several 10-year-old boys who would howl. to my ignorance), how so many animals came to die in one place, and whether Neanderthals could slaughter large beasts from a distance or only up close. We are led there by moments of wonder before the skill necessary to create weapons and stone tools, and the possibilities represented by a Levallois sparkle. Professor Garrod wonders, given his understanding of the behavior of elephants, descendants of mammoths, if a juvenile got stuck in the mud, if the herd panicked and the nearby Neanderthals took the opportunity to take advantage weeks and weeks of food. May be. Maybe probably. Whatever the truth, it was a salutary reminder to these fiercely argumentative and polarized times that are acceptable to theorize. It’s OK to entertain options. It’s good not to know.

A great thrill, anyway. The whole thing.

Karl M. Bailey