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A New Story of Human Origins

by David R. Begun

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-691-14924-0
Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Paleoanthropologist Begun (Anthropology/Univ. of Toronto; editor: A Companion to Paleoanthropology, 2013, etc.) claims that the great ape ancestors of humans evolved in Europe and moved to Africa, not the other way around.

The author makes clear that our species has a complex history that can only be properly studied by understanding ape evolution. His examination of fossil apes in Europe, especially the genus Dryopithecus, led him to conclude that they were hominids, the same group to which humans belong. Primitive apes flourished in Africa 20 million years ago, and when some species dispersed to Eurasia, ecological conditions there selected for new adaptations: larger brains and new means of locomotion. When a cooler, drier climate caught up with them there, the ancestors of orangutans ended up in Southeast Asia, whereas the common ancestor of humans and great apes—gorillas and chimpanzees, for example—migrated back to Africa. Begun describes the zone from Germany and Turkey to Kenya as “the Grand Central Station of the middle Miocene,” with the ancestors of many mammals, including apes and humans, dispersing through it. The fossil evidence, he notes, suggests that hominids were thriving in Europe in the late-middle and early-late Miocene but were at that time extremely rare in Africa, a situation that later changed in response to global climate changes. Begun employs diagrams, maps, and photographs of fossils to aid general readers, but the plethora of unfamiliar scientific names and lengthy discussions of skeletal features, facial orientation, and dentition demand close attention, even repeat readings. More accessible are his accounts of his fieldwork, and his comments about the impact of ecological factors on migration, extinction, and diversification are highly relevant today.

The questions of where, when, and how our species evolved are fascinating, but this well-developed, technically challenging account will be tough going for those without a background in the subject matter.