May 3, 2012

Review: "The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins" by Richard G. Klein

This review is associated with the 3rd Edition of Richard G. Klein's The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (2009)--

Wow!  Nearly one month later I have actually come to the end of this most amazing book.  My hat is off to Dr Klein, as The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins is arguably the most thorough and comprehensive, yet eminently readable, treatise associated with paleoanthropology, archaeology and human evolution that I've yet to encounter.  While the book was primarily written to serve as a textbook in a university environment, its organization and explanation of the material makes it completely approachable and understandable by even the casual layperson.  If you like history with a liberal dose of good science thrown in, you just might find yourself as enchanted as I was.

The nearly 800 pages of actual text is organized into eight solidly fascinating chapters, including--
1. Evolution, Classification, and Nomenclature
2. The Geologic Time frame
3. The Primate Background
4. The Australopiths and Homo habilis
5. Evolution of the Genus Homo
6. The Neanderthals and Their Contemporaries
7. Anatomically Modern Humans
8. Synopsis: Anatomy, Behavior, and Modern Human Origins
The presentation and organization of the material allows the reader to easily grasp the important concepts and salient details.  Whether it is an in-depth discussion of anatomical details, archaeological artifact assemblages, habitat usage or cyclical climate-change records, speculations or observations in behavioral psychology, or even the latest important genetics information, Dr. Klein's explanations and descriptions of the relevant data and information in each of the chapters was always engaging, very well written, and always quite thought-provoking.  I consider myself a fairly well-educated amateur, but very enthusiastic, paleoanthropologist, and I learned something new on virtually every page of this book.

I do need to point out that it is abundantly clear that Dr. Klein is largely (if not firmly) a proponent of the "Out-of-Africa" model associated with modern human origins.  But he is also quite candid and forthcoming in describing the few shortcomings of the hypothesis that cannot currently be reconciled with existing data and/or the fossil evidence.  Additionally, Dr. Klein spends a good bit of the last three chapters building the case not only for the Out-of Africa model of modern human origins and dispersal, but also the cultural explosion--the result of a new type of modern human behavior--that occurred about 50,000 years ago, and quite likely provided the impetus for the mass-migration from eastern Africa and out across Eurasia, into western Europe, to Australia, across Asia and Siberia and finally into the Americas.  While I have been generally pretty familiar with much of this information, it was only through reading this book that I was able to put the whole picture together; starting with the Australopiths, and then into the Genus Homo, concluding with the stark fact that of all the human species we are the last one, Homo sapiens.  The synthesis and synopsis provided in the last chapter was simply astounding, and was so damned interesting I read it twice.  In sum, Dr. Klein tells a story in this book that is both deeply compelling and fascinating.

Finally, I also want to highly recommend the system of references and bibliographic citations that Dr. Klein has provided associated with the material in this book.  At the end of each section within each of the chapters, Dr. Klein provides a brief compendium of the source material for each of the subjects discussed in that section.  One can then refer to the extensive, nearly 200 pages, of references at the end of the book.  Trust me, this system works well, and the extensive references are certainly 'worth the price of admission' on their own.  Dr. Klein also provides a comprehensive Site Index that allows the interested reader to specifically look up an archaeological site.  He has also provided a Reference Index (by author/researcher) as well as the obligatory Subject Index.  As I said at the beginning, this is a comprehensive reference and resource, and I'm very glad to have this on my bookshelf now.


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