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Making Us Human

Episode 1 of 20

Duration:
1 hour
First broadcast:
Friday 05 March 2010

Another chance to hear the director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor retell the history of human development using 100 selected objects from the Museum - from the first stone axe to the credit card. His history covers two million years and includes items that were made in every part of the globe.

In this programme, an omnibus of the first five objects of the series, Neil begins by recalling the first object that enthralled him a young boy of eight, an Egyptian mummy, before examining the the earliest examples of human ingenuity from Africa, America and Europe.

Hornedjitef was a priest who died around 2,250 years ago, and he designed a coffin that, he believed, would help him navigate his way to the afterlife. Little did he know that this afterlife would be as a museum exhibit in London. This ornate coffin holds secrets to the understanding of his religion, society and Egypt's connections to the rest of the world. Neil tells the story of Hornedjitef's mummy case, with contributions from egyptologist John Taylor, Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif and Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen.

Neil then goes back goes back two million years to the Rift Valley in Tanzania, where a simple chipped stone marks the emergence of modern humans. One of the characteristics that mark humans out from other animals is their desire for, and dependency on, the things they fashion with their own hands. This obsession has long roots and Neil introduces one of the earliest examples of human ingenuity. Faced with the need to cut meat from carcasses, early humans in Africa discovered how to shape stones into cutting tools. From that one innovation springs a whole history human development. Neil tells the story of the Olduvai stone chopping tool, with contributions from Sir David Attenborough and Nobel Prize winner Dr Wangeri Maathai.

Neil then follows early humans as they slowly begin to move beyond their African homeland, taking with them one essential item: a hand axe. In the presence of the most widely used tool humans have created, Neil sees just how vital to our evolution this sharp, ingenious implement was and how it allowed the spread of humans across the globe. He tells the story of the hand axe with contributions from flint-napper Phil Harding, designer Sir James Dyson and archaeologist Nick Ashton.

Next up is one of the earliest works of art. It is a carving of two swimming reindeer and it's not just the likeness that is striking. The creator of this carving was one of the first humans to express their world through art. Its place in the history of art and religion is considered with contributions from the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and archaelogist Professor Steven Mithen.

Finally, Neil heads west to North America and an object that dates from the earliest settlements there, around 13,000 years ago. It is a deadly hunting weapon, used by the first inhabitants of the Americas. This sharp spearhead lets us understand how humans spread across the globe. By 11000 BC humans had moved from northeast Asia into the uninhabited wilderness of north America; within 2,000 years they had populated the whole continent. How did these hunters live? And how does their Asian origin sit with the creation stories of modern-day Native Americans? Neil tells the story of the Clovis Point, with contributions from Michael Palin and American archaeologist Gary Haynes.

If you'd like to see the objects described in the programme, up-close and from all angles, then go online to www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld.

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