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 Tuesday night, 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 B.C.
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 the East African humans who fashioned spears for hunting and protection, the anonymous woman who 10,000 years ago 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 clothing.
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 of 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 outnumbered, by using the phalanx, a shoulder-to-shoulder “human tank.”
The invention of cast iron by the Chinese enabled the mass production of crossbows.
Also on the negative side, disease became part of human history when man started living near animals.
“Mankind” makes good use of its interview subjects: 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 re-creations are convincing, for the most part.
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.