A well-rendered tale of scientific detective work and scholarly controversy.
First identified by the Dutch paleontologist Eugene Dubois in the late-19th century, the fossil remains of the hominid known as Java man have always fit uncomfortably into standard chronologies of human evolution. There is good reason for this, writes science journalist Lewin (the point man for geologists Curtis and Swisher): those chronologies are wrong. Homo erectus, by the old reckoning, did not leave the African continent until somewhat less than a million years ago, eventually developing into modern humankind. Presenting new fossil evidence that links Java man more closely to the erectus family tree, Swisher and Garniss upset the apple cart: they demonstrate convincingly that protohominids left the so-called Cradle of Mankind more than 1.8 million years ago, migrating to Java and beyond during a time of intense glaciation that lowered the world’s oceanic levels and exposed land bridges to migratory animals. This new chronology, according to Lewin, explains what were hitherto mysteries in the fossil record—such as the fact that Java man did not use the Acheulean handaxes found elsewhere in the species’ widespread range. More controversially, the authors hold that Homo erectus, a large-brained hunting species that first mastered the use of fire, was not an evolutionary precursor of Homo sapiens, but that instead populations of the two species lived side-by-side, with the more technologically capable newcomer eventually exterminating its older neighbor—an event, the authors rightly note, that has profound biological and philosophical implications. Their theory, widely dismissed on its publication in 1994 but more widely accepted today, conforms readily to recent archaeological evidence of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon populations existing alongside Homo sapiens in Europe.
An accessible and interesting new view of the distant past.