April 13, 2012
Review: "Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth" by Christopher Stringer
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.