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The dangers of sexing-up history

So I'm watching a bit of Clash of the Cavemen on The History Channel.  It's billed as a "cinema-quality documentary".  It's that style of show where available information is presented, then extrapolations are made, and then those extrapolations are brought to life for the cinema-quality part of things.  Basically, actors dress up in presumably-native clothing and act out events that may or may not have ever occurred, with voice-overs explaining why things might have gone down that way. 



This puts it on a level with well-researched historical fiction.  And I adore well-researched historical fiction:  done right, it rewards curiosity, and that is always to be applauded.  Clan of the Cave Bear was a formative book for me; I spent my childhood looking for plants to eat and trying to identify flint so I could knap blades.  Jean Auel raised the bar, even though she was still learning a lot about how to string words together.  The book is detail-rich in a way that forces realism upon the reader while simultaneously casting them into another world.  The author did her research, literally, actually trying many (most?) of the survival skills mentioned in the novel. 

And the story itself is built upon actual artifacts.  These made the most wonderful Easter eggs for me as a reader.  When I first found the Venus of Willendorf in an anthropology textbook, I became officially hooked on the act of digging in all its forms.

(With all that research, Jean Auel's initial literary earnings must have been pennies on the hour.  But the books developed a following, and they endured.  She's a nice reminder that sometimes an act of love can also pay off in more practical ways.)

So anyway, Clash of the Cavemen is also a story built upon artifacts.  If they did better character development, and packaged it as historical fiction, then I'd probably be all over it.  But they don't.  The History Channel is unsettlingly vague about which parts of the show are fact and which are fiction. 

Yeah, so there's plenty of that in the media world these days.  And The History Channel is not the worst offender (I'm looking at you, "news" channels...).  Even PBS has been guilty of it lately; when I first noticed that...ugh, talk about a blow to one's world-view.

It is the bad kind of Easter egg:  the one where you dig and find out the thing that started you digging is a myth, now clouding some contradictory fact.  The act of digging and repeatedly finding disappointment in the things that brought you there does not reward curiosity.  It reinforces a desire to not look behind the curtain.   

Anthropology's a tough one.  The body of evidence changes almost daily.  Researchers need be on constant alert, full of scientific skepticism.  You may love the implications behind the story of, for example, Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal sharing music, or genetic material, but when the evidence points elsewhere then you need to look for new stories. 



If we only ever look at the shiny bits, it becomes incredibly easy to fall prey to historical sleight-of-hand. To start seeing shiny where it isn't.  Archaeologists, and scientists, know that the search for truth requires perseverance, even through boredom and disappointment.  Such perseverance brings its own rewards, less frequent than myth and speculation, but more beautiful.   

It's unfortunate, because the documentary parts of Clash of the Cavemen are not half bad.  They even touch on evidence that refutes part of the basis for Clan of the Cave Bear.  For all my love of the book, I love this more:  honesty is a sign of respect, and what deserves that more than one's most precious personal artifacts?  So, why cheapen that with cinema-quality illusion?
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