April 13, 2012

Review: "The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans" by G.J. Sawyer, et al.

This is an amazing book!  First, I have to say that as the "Chief-Resident" nerd in our family, that I am an inveterate collector of field guides--field guides to birds, trees, flowers, rocks--well, you get the picture.  This beautiful book--The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans--is perhaps best characterized as a naturalist's 'Field Guide' to the history of the evolution of human species (i.e., the hominins).  The authors present a relatively detailed synopsis of the current state-of-knowledge associated with each of the 22 hominin species portrayed in the book, starting with Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Ororrin tugenensis at about 6 million years ago, and then finish up with anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens.

For most of the species represented in the book, the authors briefly describe and discuss the following: (1) Fossil sites and locations; (2) Age of the species; (3) Tool Use; (4) Appearance; (5) Growth and Development; (6) Differences between males and females; (7) Animals and habitats; (8) Climate; (9) Classification; and (10) Historical notes.  It really is wonderfully organized, and serves as an excellent reference source as one reads about these species in the available literature.

The real value of this book-at least to me--is that the authors have supplied beautifully reconstructed images of what these individuals may have looked like in the habitats they are thought to have occupied.  They have taken casts of the fossils and added tendons, muscles, flesh, skin, and hair.  The results are simply astounding.  As just one superb example, the cover of the book is their rendition of the famous Australopith, "Lucy", the fossil of the little female Australopithecus afarensis discovered by Donald Johanson in 1974.  It takes your breath away just to look into her face and realize that she and her kind represent something like 800,000-900,000 years in the several million year old history of the human species.  This is a book that one can spend hours with every time you take it from the shelf, and learn something new each time too.  Absolutely a must have for your library!


Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived" by Clive Finlayson

This is a terrific book, and one that I highly recommend.  Let me see if I can do the book any justice with my efforts at producing a meaningful review.  I work with endangered species and degraded riparian ecosystems along a large river system in the American Southwest, and I very much appreciated Clive Finlayson's incorporation of the environmental and ecological aspects associated with his portrayal and description of human origins.  In Finlayson's The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived he takes great care to deftly weave together the latest information about paleoclimate conditions, the paleoecologies, and the paleoenvironments of the regions that were occupied by our hominin ancestors.  Broadly speaking, Finlayson's tale is an "Out-of-Africa" story, and that is as it should be in my humble opinion.  The Out-of-Africa model associated with modern human origins really does seem to make the most sense when held up to the existing fossil, archaeological, environmental, biological, and genetic evidence and data that is so aptly described by Finlayson in this fascinating account. 

The important take-away for me upon finishing this excellent book was two-fold.  First, we--modern humans--are incredibly lucky to even be here today.  Little differences here or there over the past 75,000 years and it is very likely that Homo sapiens would be just as extinct as other human species, like the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).  Second, climate-change was the big game-changer over the six or seven million years of human evolution, and it was the ability to rapidly react and adapt to these swings in climate and ecological conditions that made it possible for some human populations to ultimately succeed while many others did not.  This is a lesson that we need to pay careful attention to now.  Just because humans occupy the planet now really is no guarantee that we will still be here twenty millenia from now.

There's a lot of information in this book, and much of it is quite thought-provoking.  I can honestly say that I am just a little bit sad too, that our incredibly long-lived close cousins--the Neanderthal peoples--are extinct.  Somehow I think the planet is just a little bit lonelier without those people who lived here for hundreds of thousands of years in great harmony with their environment.  It seems simply amazing to imagine that there was a fairly long period of time where Neanderthal peoples and modern humans actually occupied the same regions and probably even competed for the same resources in the day-to-day struggle to survive.  This is a great and grand story, and in my continuing quest to more fully understand my own human origins I am so glad to have encountered and read Finlayson's superb book, and to now have it on my shelf to go back to periodically.


Review: "The Dawn of Human Culture: A bold new theory on what sparked the "big bang" of human culture" by Richard G. Klein and Blake Edgar

The Dawn of Human Culture can probably be fairly characterized as Professor Klein's 2002 synthesis and condensed version of his monumental textbook, The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins .  This book was clearly written for both the interested amateur as well as for anthropological professionals.  In my opinion, this book is really well-written, incredibly fascinating, and lavishly illustrated with numerous superb drawings by Kathryn Cruz-Uribe.

For me, the story of the genus Homo and of the individual species that ultimately leads to us--Homo sapiens--is nothing short of amazing, and Klein's book exhibits that same enthusiasm and wonder that I still feel.  Even though this survey of the paleoanthropological state-of-knowledge was published in 2002, it is really mostly still quite up-to-date and relevant.  I also very much appreciated Professor Klein's in-depth and even-handed portrayal and treatment of the various positions and opposing or even controversial hypotheses associated with our human origins.  When you're done with this book, and you want to find out more about your human origins, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of the Third Edition of Professor Klein's The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (University of Chicago Press, 3rd Ed., 2009).


Review: "Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth" by Christopher Stringer

Chris Stringer's Lone Survivors: How We Came to be the Only Humans on Earth comes along some sixteen or seventeen years after his ground-breaking book African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity (Henry Holt, 1996).  Stringer is one of the principal architects and proponents of the "Out-of-Africa" (OOA) hypothesis associated with the origin and dispersal of anatomically modern humans, i.e., Homo sapiens.  According to Stringer and the OOA hypothesis, anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago, and then 'something' happened about 50,000 years ago that resulted in essentially the relatively rapid spread of our species into much of Eurasia, eastern Asia, Indonesia and Australia, and into western Europe over a period of about 10,000 years!  What is even more remarkable is that it now appears that there were other populations of archaic Homo species that we coexisted and/or competed with for a time, likely including Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and the newly discovered little people of the Indonesian island of Flores, Homo floresiensis

In just under 280 pages, Chris Stringer takes the reader through the history of our human origins with the fossil evidence.  He synthesizes the latest advances in knowledge associated with paleoclimatology, geochronological dating methods, and geology and plate tectonics.  Most importantly, Stringer spends much of the book talking about the evolution of human behavior (e.g., developing and utilizing technology, use of symbolism, developing survival and coping strategies, burial of dead, etc.).  The evolutionary steps leading to Homo sapiens wasn't a given.  It was really a very near run thing, and without the ability to rapidly adapt and respond to changing climate conditions and subsequent changed ecological conditions modern humans could quite likely have become extinct just as our close cousins, the Neanderthals, did about 30,000 years ago.  For example, the massive supervolcanic eruption of Toba on the island of Java was very nearly a game-changer for all human species about 73,000 years ago.  Finally, over the past decade or so, much of the OOA hypothesis has been validated and bolstered with the results of numerous studies and analyses of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA.  In other words, we really and truly are all African. 

While all of this discussion of fossils, paleoconditions, and genetics may sound a bit daunting, complicated, or even off-putting, Dr. Stringer does a sterling job of leading the reader--whether layperson or specialist--through the data and evidence with his well-written and entertaining prose.  I've kind of come to realize that Stringer and his peers--paleoanthropologists--are really much akin to detectives hot on the trail to better understand when we became who we are, and how we became who we are, and perhaps even be able to answer why.  This book will definitely help you get your arms (and brain) around the critical issues and questions associated with what makes us human

In closing, it is my opinion that Chris Stringer's incredibly thought-provoking Chapter 8 of the book, "Making A Modern Human" ought to be required reading by all of us.  I don't know that I have underlined more passages or made more marginalia notes in a book since I left college in the mid-1980s.  Reading this book, and Chapter 8 in particular, has stimulated a desire in me to chase down a lot of the technical references and journal articles that Dr. Stringer has provided in the book's extensive bibliography.  This is a subject that profoundly fascinates me, and I am committed to educate myself and better understand my human origins, and have nothing but admiration and gratitude to Chris Stringer for inspiring me toward this end.  All I can say is read Lone Survivors, it really is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the current state-of-knowledge associated with our human origins that I've read.

Review: "African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity" by Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie

Christopher Stringer's book, African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity  (Henry Holt, 1996) is a thoughtful, very well-written and detailed presentation of the prevailing model associated with modern human origins known as "The Out-of-Africa" hypothesis.  Stringer is not only an incredibly articulate advocate for the model, but he is generally thought of as one of the principal architects of the hypothesis.  Stringer's book, while written in the mid-1990s, provides the reader with an excellent synopsis and overview of the fossil, biological, cultural, and genetic evidence and information associated with the hominin species that occupied portions of our planet over the past five-million years.

If you're new to human origins and anthropology, or if you're looking for a good 'refresher' to the topic and the areas of controversy, then this is the book for you.  While the "Out-of-Africa" hypothesis has morphed and has really become more complex over the past decade or so, the basic tenets of the model still hold.  Finally, if you read this book you'll certainly want to follow it up with Chris Stringer's new book, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth (Henry Holt and Co., Inc.), that was published in mid-March 2012.  This book, written some 16 years later, provides an in-depth overview of the current state-of-the-knowledge associated with modern human origins.  I recently read it and highly recommend it too, and I've posted my review of the book above.

Busy Little Bee!

(c) Christopher Furlong, 2011
It is Friday!  It is raining!  I am home today, in preparation for an appointment with my physical therapist for my partially-torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder [Which, by the way, you do not ever, ever want to experience--bloody painful and debilitating!].

I realize that it has been a goodly amount of time since I last posted to this blog, i.e., something like a skosh more than three months.  Yikes!  Well, I sorta do have an excuse, I guess.  I have been super-insanely busy at work, and we are desperately short-handed to boot.  As the acting director of my agency, I have had to assume a significant amount of additional responsibilities, and much of it involves traveling to and fro to meetings across much of the southwestern United States.  The downside?  Lots of traveling.  The upside?  Lots of time to read!

So far, in 2012, I have cranked out something like 30 books, with another 10-15 in the immediate to-be-read queue.  I'm actually having a ball and reading some really interesting stuff too.  I am getting ready to start a group-read of Charles Dickens' fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) with my chums in "The Readers Review" on Goodreads in late-April.  Also, for the past couple of months I have been re-immersing myself in the latest state-of-knowledge associated with paleoanthropology and human origins.

As some of you may know, I am a geologist by education, and I guess you could say that I have always been a seriously interested amateur archaeologist and anthropologist.  Ever since I was a child, and able to read, I've always been fascinated with the accounts of the archaeologists discovering fossils and physical evidence of early humans that have been found across Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas.  With today's access to on-line resources, I am now able to not only read the books that are published, but I can also delve into some of the more technical journal articles that are available on-line.  I actually feel like I am actually enrolled in a graduate seminar, and I'm loving every moment of it!

Like most sciences, anthropology and archaeology and the state-of-knowledge associated with human origins changes rapidly, almost daily it seems.  The integration and synthesis of data and research associated with geology, paleoclimatology, new methods of dating fossils, and particularly the advances in genetics has led to a significant increase in what we now know about our human ancestors and our biological and cultural origins.  Combined with the relatively recent discovery of some important new fossils, we now have a pretty good picture of human history that reaches back some 6-7 million years!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Amazon and I are 'hooking up' on just about a daily basis.  My incredibly tolerant wife indulges my book-buying addiction with nary a reproachful word, bless her dear heart.  Anyway, my 'Mount TBR' continues to grow, as nearly each day the USPS is dropping off another new tome via my Amazon orders.  So, I've lots to read, lots to review, and lots of postings to add here.  I'd best get busy!

I hope Spring has sprung in your area, and that the trees are leafing out and flowers blooming.  Cheers!