A deft account—part detective story, part adventure tale—of recent breakthroughs in the search for human origins.
Gibbons, Science magazine’s primary reporter on evolution, frames her narrative around four prominent research teams responsible for discovering the oldest known examples of early humans (it is believed that African apes came down from the trees and began to walk some five to eight million years ago). In the last 15 years, she notes, researchers have doubled the number of years we can see into humankind’s collective past. Recounting these advances, the author renders comprehensible the intertwined disciplines of paleontology, anthropology, anatomy, geography, archaeology and zoology. She seasons the substantial scientific content with startling insights into the human stories behind the headlines. Paleoanthropological fieldwork is rife with obstacles. Fossil-hunters in Africa face relentless heat and sandstorms, unstable and sometimes corrupt governments, attacks from and battles between local tribes, gun-toting cattle rustlers and even wild lions. But readers may be surprised to learn about another set of obstacles: the bitter internecine politics of the scientific subculture, replete with fractious disputes over exploration territory and permits; charges of nationalism, racism and sexism; and competition fueled as much by the drive for fame as by passion for scientific discovery. Gibbons provides inspiring portraits of genius laced with the nitty-gritty of mortal foible, all informed by firsthand accounts, interviews and research. While acknowledging a 2004 Gallup poll demonstrating that 45 percent of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago,” Gibbons provides for everyone else an evocative examination of what we know about where, when and why our species arose—indeed, what first made us human.
Expert science reportage larded with an unexpected dose of intrigue.