the contagious thrill of discovery

We have become used to him delivering the most reassuring voiceovers in television but what a joy it was to have David Attenborough back in front of the camera, getting his magnifying glass out, donning a hard hat and hi-vis and marvelling, awestruck, at one of the most astonishing paleontological finds in UK history.

In 2017, two amateur archeologists, Sally and Neville Hollingsworth, made an incredible find in Cerney Wick quarry, just outside Swindon: the enormous leg bone of a mammoth dating from around 215,000 years ago – in other words, something that you might expect to find in Siberia rather than suburbia.

The location conveniently allowed Sir David to be considerably more hands-on than in his more far-reaching recent series, and the utterly charming Hollingsworths welcomed him into their fossil-filled home with mammoth cupcakes and the story of their adorable meet-cute over two halves of a fossilised vertebrae.

Their “discovery of a lifetime” rocked British paleontology and triggered a professional dig attempting to discover how and why at least four mammoths – pristinely preserved – died at the same site, and whether or not nearby man-made early tools dated from the same period. Could humans and mammoths have coexisted in the Cotswolds?

There were some passable re-enactment scenes and, of course, the standard Walking With Dinosaurs-style CGI, but what really brought this documentary to life was the enthusiasm of everyone involved in the extraordinary project.

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By their nature, archeological digs are not the most visually appealing of settings – muddy, beige and often impenetrable to the naked eye. But here, the painstaking work of excavating mammoth bones, uncovering evidence of human life and analysing every component of the site was compellingly presented and thoughtfully explained with maps and graphics.

Sir David and his co-host Professor Ben Garrod conveyed brilliantly just how important these discoveries could be to understanding the existence of Neanderthals during an Ice Age period that we know little about.

The excitement of the experts was contagious as they attempted to unravel “a really big whodunnit”, positing theories of flooding, disease, attacks and accidents and testing out Neanderthal hunting methods with javelin throwers and specially made replica spears. Even the sediment analysis was thrilling. In all, a much-needed celebration of knowledge and expertise.

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