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'Civilizations' Reveals the History of Humanity
April 17, 2018  | By David Hinckley

It’s hard to imagine biting off a bigger, denser chunk of human history than PBS does with its ultra-ambitious new nine-part series Civilizations.

Premiering Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings), Civilizations attempts to round up everything we have learned about evolving human behavior by what has been preserved over tens of thousands of years from people, tribes, and cultures.

It takes us inside ancient caves to a wall where more than 40,000 years ago an ancestor traced his or her hand (top). Its shadow remains there today, a ghostly voice reminding us what separates humans from the millions of other life forms on our planet.

All species develop sophisticated survival systems, Civilizations notes, many of which involve intra- and interdependent communities. Only humans, however, have developed what could broadly be called culture – ways of recording and thus trying to better understand our experience.

From cave paintings of buffalo to the highly sophisticated stone carvings of the Mayans, Civilizations traces our instinctive need to represent what matters in our physical, metaphoric, and spiritual worlds.

It’s a big concept. It could incorporate 900 episodes, or 9,000. Distilling it to nine hours inevitably means some passages have an academic tone, which makes it a smart move that Liev Schreiber’s narration starts both with a broad mission statement and a specific reference point.

We watch film footage of ISIS soldiers destroying the antiquities of Iraq, on the premise that they are the false idolatry condemned by Allah.

When an 81-year-old curator refused to reveal the location of other ancient artifacts, he was beheaded. Civilizations bestows on him another sort of martyrdom, declaring that he was not an infidel, but a guardian of humanity’s most priceless treasure, the collective sense of where every one of us came from.
That opening gives an urgency to Civilizations, though sadly the destruction of cultural artifacts has gone on for millennia. There’s a reason so many ancient Greek statues have no arms or heads.

If Civilizations is, in part, a cry of defiance against the barbarians, a rebuke to the modern-day Goths and Vandals, it is more a primer course in what humanity has accomplished and what those accomplishments suggest could be possible if we ever find a way to work past the other stuff.

The Mayans created magnificent art and architecture. Their world endured for centuries. But the 40-some Mayan tribes were also at constant war with each other, and in the end, the priests and rulers became so consumed with glorification that they ruined the land and crippled the people.  

Today we excavate what remains of Mayan structures and marvel at what they accomplished with primitive tools and hand labor.

But then, ingenuity has been one of the constant surprise factors throughout human history. As a species, one of our strengths is figuring it out. The Aztecs were building sewage and waste disposal systems into their homes hundreds of years before it occurred to Europeans.  
Civilizations makes lengthy note of technology. It also ties together philosophical threads common to the most diverse cultures. We may not all agree on what happens after we die, but consideration of the afterlife has linked philosophers and ordinary people in every part of the world for millennia.

Along the way, enough of those philosophers and ordinary people have jotted down their musings so we can appreciate the similarity of the questions even when the answers were polar opposites.
That sort of high thought is an exhilarating exercise, to be honest, and it underscores perhaps the central message from Civilizations. Those who want to narrow the human mind by commanding it to stay within proscribed boundaries and not contemplate anything outside those boundaries will never win.

No matter how crazy and dangerous the human mind can become, the last 40,000 years of civilizations are irrefutable testimonials to its endurance and its potential.
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