The History Channel’s new documentary project may seem preposterous at first: Mankind: The Story of All of Us promises to pack the entire history of humankind in 12 hours.
Yet, unless you’re looking for the complete works of Will and Ariel Durant adapted for TV, Mankind is not only an enjoyable whirlwind ride through thousands of years, it also manages to be acceptably informative.
The series, which premieres tonight at 9 on the History Channel, was created by Nutopia, the production company behind the earlier documentary series, America: The Story of Us. The two parts of the first episode, “Inventors,” sent to critics as a taste of the full series, cover the human race from its beginnings in East Africa, through the Iron and Bronze Ages, with stops in Egypt during the reign of Pharoah Khufu and construction of the Great Pyramid, and Athens’ defeat of Xerxes’ Persian invaders in 479 BC.
The producers of the series skillfully avoid giving viewers that “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Babylonia” feeling by focusing on specific developments that had a broad impact on human history.
The inventors of the first episode include, first, the East African humans who fashioned spears for hunting and to protect themselves, the anonymous woman who 10,000 years ago first realized that instead of just gathering seeds for food, she could cultivate them to grow more food, and the Ice Age inhabitants of what is now France who made needles out of animal bone to make clothes for themselves.
In multiple examples of necessity as the mother of invention, we see how cultivating crops led to the rise of early cities as places for farmers to sell their produce, and how early trade in tin led to the more useful invention of bronze and the rise the Bronze Age.
As the human race defied all the odds and not only multiplied, but began to settle more and more of the Earth, conflict became inevitable. War is, of course, deadly and destructive, yet, in the greater scheme of history, it has resulted in significant developments. As Popular Mechanics Editor James Meigs puts it in Mankind, “war drives technology.”
The discovery of iron, the fourth most common element in the world, enabled the creation of stronger, more deadly weapons. Athens and its city-state allies were able to thwart the Persian invaders, despite being grossly outnumbered, by the use of the phalanx, a shoulder-to-shoulder “human tank” of advancing Greeks. The invention of cast iron by the Chinese enabled the mass production of crossbows, but obviously, it would also impact construction and industry over time.
Also on the negative side, disease became part of human history when man started living in close proximity to animals. It’s interesting to note that our East African ancestors were about two inches taller than today’s humans, but as man invented things to make his life more comfortable and longer, our height went down, as did the size of our brains, but our stomachs went in the opposite direction.
Mankind makes good use of its interview subjects, who are not only informative, but, in many cases, TV-camera-ready: Military expert Richard “Mack” Machowitz of Deadliest Warrior, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Stanford University’s Ian Morris and Patrick Hunt, foodie Anthony Bourdain, writer Sam Sheridan, NBC’s Brian Williams, and Meigs. Actor Josh Brolin adopts an appropriately breathless style as narrator.
The series’ historic recreations are convincing, for the most part, although at times, the History Channel can’t help itself and falls back into some of it cheesier bad habits: I tend to doubt the mummy in the title sequence opening its eyes like Boris Karloff in a ’30s monster movie is historically accurate, for example.
No matter. The series makes its case for why humans are not among the 99 percent of all species now extinct. For better or worse, we adapted and continue to adapt for survival.