Describing human evolution through accounts of fossils that became media events might seem a publicity ploy, but science journalist Pyne (Institute for Historical Studies/Univ. of Texas; Bookshelf, 2016, etc.) pulls it off.
Neanderthal bones have always created a media sensation, but the iconic “Old Man of La Chapelle” of 1908 made the biggest up until that point. A nearly 300-page expert analysis of the skeleton, an old man with an arthritic spine, “described the Old Man as kind of caveman—not a charismatic Fred Flintstone, but a savage, shuffling troglodyte bumbling his way across glaciated Europe.” This kind of description continues to influence the popular picture of Neanderthals, although scientists now conclude that they looked rather like us. Tiny “Lucy” walked upright 3 million years ago, far earlier than experts theorized. Her discoverer’s account was a bestseller, and huge crowds gather whenever her tiny skeleton tours museums around the world. Nothing stirs the popular imagination more than a vanished treasure such as the priceless ancient bones of Peking Man, lost in 1941. An exception might be a dramatic hoax such as Piltdown man, a modern human skull and ape jaw that made headlines and convinced most experts for 40 years that they had found the missing link. In 2004, there came the announcement of the discovery of a 3-foot-tall primitive human who lived on a small Indonesian island until 18,000 years ago. The film Lord of the Rings won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, so journalists, no less enraptured than scientists, named it the Hobbit.
Ian Tattersall’s The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack (2015) remains the best popular modern history of human evolution, but Pyne casts her net more widely, adding captivating accounts of how each discovery fascinated the mass media and entered literature and popular culture.