May 3, 2012

Reviews: "Masters of the Planet" and "The Fossil Trail" by Ian Tattersall

Within this posting I am including my reviews of two superb books by Ian Tattersall, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History.  The book reviews include:  Masters of the Planet:The Search for Our Human Origins (2012), and The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution (2nd Edition, 2009).

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins

Ian Tattersall's new book, Masters of the Planet, is an eloquently and well-written story of our human origins.  While much of the material included in this book was familiar to me, I have to say that Dr. Tattersall's organization and presentation makes this book the perfect gift for someone looking for a thorough but easily understandable first exposure to human evolution.  Tattersall's love of systematics, anatomy and taxonomy shines through brightly as he uses the narrative to carefully document, explain and interpret the important fossils and archaeological evidence associated with many of our hominin ancestors. 

This anthropological and archaeological detective story begins some 5-6 million years ago and culminates with the origin of anatomically modern humans (i.e., Homo sapiens) in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago, and subsequent dispersal through much of the rest of world starting about 60,000 years ago.  This is the elegantly told story of--to borrow a phrase--"bones, stones, and molecules" that provides Tattersall's synthesis and interpretations of the current state-of-knowledge associated with the fossil evidence, the stone-tool traditions, and the latest genetic data.  Finally, for those who are interested, Tattersall has provided twenty pages of detailed notes and bibliographic source citations for each chapter at the end of the book.  I really enjoyed reading Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, and unhesitatingly recommend it for those interested in the natural and biological sciences.


The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution

This is a superb history of the discovery of most of the important hominin fossils and interpretations and integration of these fossils into the overarching story of the origins of humans.  Ian Tattersall has spent most, if not all, of his illustrious career carefully exploring and considering the fossil evidence and developing a logical hypothesis for the evolution of human species, which he has thoughtfully laid out in the second edition of this important book.  Tattersall has also done a very good job of incorporating and explaining the latest scientific data and information related to genetics, geochronology, paleoclimatology and paleoecology that tend to bolster his thesis and specific interpretations. 

While much of this material was also thoroughly covered in Richard Klein's huge third edition of his relatively recent book The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (2009) which I just finished reading recently, I have to say that I very much enjoyed the approach taken by Tattersall--ever the anatomist and taxonomist--in presenting and discussing the fossils in the order that they were discovered, and how they have been viewed and interpreted over time.  As the book moves along, Tattersall comes back and revisits certain fossils and presents the new way of interpreting it and its proper placement in the on-going telling of the story of our human origins. 

Interestingly, I am actually beginning to recognize and remember many of these fossils by the catalog and/or 'nicknames' that have been given to each of them (e.g., KNM-WT 15000, also known as "Turkana Boy" a very nearly complete skeleton of a young Homo ergaster boy), and this makes reading this book, as well as other technical journal articles and books even more meaningful to me now.  Additionally, this book is liberally illustrated, with superbly detailed line drawings of just about each of the fossils that are described in the book.  In conclusion, this book is well worth the read, especially if you're at all interested in the history of these amazing fossil discoveries and the evolution, over time, of the interpretation of the of these extinct species and their ultimate role in the search for the complete story associated with the origin of anatomically modern humans--Homo sapiens.


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