London, United Kingdom
The programme that explains the present by exploring the past.
The bittersweet tale of cocoa
Do you like cocoa? You are in good company: in South and Central America people have been enjoying the fruit of the cacao tree - the source of cocoa, chocolate and much else - for thousands of years. Ancient empires fought battles for the control of the best trees, cacao beans were used as currency, and being able to make a tasty cacao drink could even save your life. To trace the history of cacao in Latin America, Bridget Kendall is joined by archaeologist Cameron McNeil, chef and food...
The dam builders
The Hoover Dam in the US, the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the recently opened, and sumptuously named, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam. Since modern times, huge mega dams like these to tame rivers, create water storage and hydropower, have become a symbol of nationhood used to create national pride and bolster political power, from the Cold War to today. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, called dams the temples of modern India. But dams have also been highly controversial, displacing rural...
Alexander the Great or not so great?
From Persia to India to Greece – they called him The Great – that is Alexander the Great. Also known as Alexander III of Macedon, he was one of the most successful military leaders of all time. Undefeated by the time of his death in 323 BCE, he is still a go-to figure when people want to define an empire builder. But how should we view this often cruel and destructive militarist today in the light of current world events? And, despite his brutality, like his ransacking of the beautiful...
Rituals: Our anchors in a changing world
From coronations to cup finals, many of us love a big event, a ceremony with age-old observances. Indeed rituals, whether public spectaculars or more personal ones, such as a particular daily routine, have been part of human experience since time began. But why do rituals persist even though so many of them seem to serve no obvious practical purpose? Rajan Datar looks for clues in our past with the help of Egyptologist Dr. Elizabeth Frood and historian of Venice Prof. Edward Muir. It turns...
Tropicália: the movement that defied Brazil’s dictatorship
Drawing on traditional music, pop culture, kitsch, rock and modernist poetry to mention just a few of their sources of inspiration, the short-lived Tropicália movement in late 1960s Brazil was provocative and anti-authoritarian. Perhaps most importantly it represented a uniquely Brazilian aesthetic that could only have emerged from that country’s specific culture and history. The movement’s leading lights were eventually arrested by the military regime that governed Brazil at the time, and...
How the shipping container changed the world
Nearly everything we consume is transported by ship. The biggest container ships in the world are among the largest moving structures made by man and can carry over 24,000 20-foot container units. The standardisation of these simple metal containers in the 1950s and 60s marked a turning point in world trade, driving down costs and ultimately fuelling globalisation. Now that supply chains have become ever more complex and been put under increasing strain, we take a look at the history of the...
Neanderthals: Meet the relatives
Developments in new technology such as DNA sequencing have transformed our understanding of the Neanderthals, one of a group of archaic humans who occupied Europe, the Middle East and Western Asia more than 300,000 years ago. First identified by fossil remains in 1856 in a German quarry, the Neanderthals led an extremely physical existence as hunter-gatherers. They were stronger than us, adaptable as a species to huge variations in climate, with brains as large as ours and sophisticated ways...
Cavalry and code-breaking: The Polish-Soviet war
A Russian army stands at the gates of the capital of another country, a country that Russia has previously occupied and one that, according to Russian politicians, has no right to independent existence. Sounds familiar? That capital city was Warsaw and the year was 1920. But what happened in Poland just after the end of World War One bears strong similarities to what went on near Kyiv in 2022. After the First World War, Russian Bolsheviks, and Lenin in particular, wanted to reoccupy Poland,...
How we work: Redesigning the office
The pandemic has made us all rethink how we work. Where once millions of people used to travel into work in tall glass buildings in big cities every day, now our idea of the office has come to include the kitchen table or maybe even a coffee shop. Yet despite the temptation to shift permanently to remote working, many organisations say the events of the past few years have actually underlined the importance of offices as spaces that connect people. So what are offices for? We are delving...
When money died: The world's worst inflation
In the summer of 1946 inflation in Hungary reached 41.9 quadrillion per cent. That’s 41.9 followed by 14 zeros – the highest rate of inflation ever recorded anywhere in the world. It meant prices of everyday goods and services doubled, on average, every 15 hours. As the shattered country struggled to get to its feet after World War Two, weighed down by a Soviet occupation and punishing reparations, its government had little choice but to print more and more money, further fuelling the price...
The writer Rachel Carson who fought insecticide wars
Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring has probably done more than any other to raise concerns about the damage that uncontrolled use of chemicals can cause to the natural world. Carson imagined a ‘silent spring’ in a world where birds no longer sang, killed off by indiscriminate spraying of pesticides. Her plea for caution when using insecticides led to major changes in government regulation of agrochemicals both in the United States and elsewhere. So who was Rachel Carson? How did this...
Why do we have a seven-day week?
Why do we divide our lives into 7-day chunks? Unlike the day, month or year, there’s no natural reason for this cycle, but nevertheless the week is now deeply ingrained in us and has proven very resistant to change. We explore the pagan, religious and early scientific roots of this man-made rhythm, the ideological battles fought over it, and the reason why the number seven came out on top. Our expert guests explain where the names of our days come from, why the weekend was born, and how the...
Forugh Farrokhzad: A trailblazing voice for women in Iran
Forugh Farrokhzad burst into the public consciousness with a series of poems that sent shockwaves through Persian society in the mid-1950s. Her early poetry focused on the female experience and female desire, overturning – in the words of one biographer – 1,000 years of Persian literature. Her critics sought to dismiss her skills as a writer by seeing her poetry purely as a confessional outburst of a divorced woman. That attitude has tended to overshadow her achievements, although her...
The Cynics: Counter-culture from Ancient Greece
Today’s counter-culture and alternative movements question mainstream norms, such as putting too much value on material possessions. The Cynics, practical philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, also rejected conventional desires to seek wealth, power and fame. They were not your usual kind of philosophers: rather than lecturing or writing about their ideas, they acted out their beliefs by denying themselves worldly possessions and tried to live as simply as possible. Their leader, Diogenes...
Calories: How to fuel a human
Calories are fundamental to the way many of us view food and our own bodies - you’ll find them on supermarket shelves, restaurant menus, and in cookbooks. But they didn’t start out that way. Originally coined during the study of steam engines and industrial energy, the term ‘calorie’ was transformed into a measurement of food as ‘fuel’ for humans, influencing industrial, public health and even foreign policies for more than 100 years. It’s also spawned a multi-billion dollar diet industry –...
Belarus: The crossroads of Eastern Europe
Belarusian lands have seen dramatic upheavals throughout the twentieth century and today, like its neighbour Ukraine to the south, Belarus finds itself on the cusp, in between the countries of the European Union on one side and Putin’s Russia on the other. While Belarus often features in the news, its history is less well known. So how far back does the story of Belarus go? How was its sense of national identity forged? And how did it survive the traumas and repressions that it has been...
Margaret Sanger: Mother of birth control
Activist Margaret Sanger is responsible for one of the most significant medical and social changes of the 20th Century – giving women the means to control the size of their families. The former nurse, who’d witnessed the aftermath of backstreet abortions and her own mother’s premature death after 18 pregnancies, founded the birth control movement in the United States and helped to spread it internationally. She was also instrumental in developing the pill, now one of the world’s most popular...
Alice Guy: The first female movie mogul
In the late 19th Century, when the motion picture camera was invented and cinema was born, a young French woman called Alice Guy ended up becoming the first ever woman film-maker; rising from being a lowly young secretary to a prolific and pioneering director, producer and entrepreneur. Yet at her death in 1968, she was barely known, most of her thousand or so films had been lost and her crucial role in the history of the film industry was forgotten. In the past few decades, Alice Guy’s...
The Epic of Gilgamesh: A quest for immortality
Unearthed from the ruins of ancient cities in modern-day Iraq, the reconstruction of the epic from fragments of clay tablets has been a labour of love for scholars of ancient Mesopotamia. This painstaking work has brought to life a sophisticated story of adventure, heroism and friendship, as well as a reflection on the human condition. Today, experts are uncovering additional fragments of cuneiform script and using artificial intelligence to decipher the text and fill in the gaps of this and...
Uruguay 1930: The first football World Cup
As the spotlight falls on Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, we tell the story of how the world's biggest sporting spectacle began, in Uruguay in 1930. How did a small South American nation of just two million people, thousands of miles from football's centre of power in Europe, come to launch this major global competition? We discuss the fractious international relations, the political cunning, and the sporting excellence behind the successful bid. We learn how football helped shape a...