ADVENTURES AND DISCOVERIES: The Autobiography of Carleton S. Coon by Carleton S. Coon

ADVENTURES AND DISCOVERIES: The Autobiography of Carleton S. Coon

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Anthropologists are lone wolves,"" the late Carleton Coon says in this spirited, journal-like autobiography. ""They cannot work in teams because if they could they probably would not be anthropologists."" Those lines, met on a polyglot expedition well into the book, at first seem surprising, for this copiously detailed life is nothing but people, people, people: the upper-class Wakefield, Mass., Coons; Andover classmates and profs; the endless world treks on which Coon is almost always accompanied by his first or second wife and assorted colleagues. People--or peoples--are of course what fascinated Coon and led him to write his still-controversial books, which asserted that Homo sapiens evolved not once, but as five separate subspecies from Homo erectus. His assumption that the Caucasoid race crossed the threshold 200,000 years or so before the ancestors of some Africans brought charges of racism and attacks by Dobzhansky, Montagu, Washburn, and others. Coon, describing the aftermath with bitterness and hurt, calls his critics brainwashed and accuses them of misreading. The truth is that Coon was an intuitive thinker. His Grand Theory--that time, space, and energy are the three interwoven variables that govern human evolution--came to him, he writes, ""like a bolt of lightning."" To construct his world/people map, all he had to do then was to fit the data from his own abundant anthropometric head-and-body measurements (of Rifs, Iranians, Afghans, and other groups) with the fossil and geological data. The theory remains a theory, but Coon's legacy is indisputable: the physical data, drawings, photographs, and ethnography of some of the world's most obscure, remote, and romantic tribes. Encounters with them make up most of the autobiography--with an aside for some WW II OSS derring-do in Morocco. Some of the details of meals taken and hospitality exchanged might beneficially have been cut, for they diminish the impact of the more dramatic moments: breathless climbs, near-death episodes. And Coon himself, loner that he was, imparts little of his feelings or the characters of the extraordinary women he married. But, theories aside, this may be one of the last memoirs of an intrepid explorer in the 19th-century tradition, the story of a gifted and bold risk-taker--both intellectually and physically.

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 1981
Publisher: Prentice-Hall