March 4, 2013

Review: "Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins" By John Reader

This book is largely a complete rewrite of a similarly titled book that Reader first published in 1981.  This lavishly illustrated book is an excellent and comprehensive survey of the history behind the search for our human origins.  Mr. Reader guides the reader through the first early discoveries and interpretations of the fossils and artifacts that led the great thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries to begin pondering our origins.  From the mid-19th century on, as many of you are aware, things really take off, and significant fossil hominin discoveries are made in Europe, Asia, and then in Africa.  And as we know now, it is in Africa where the cradle of humanity and all of its closest relatives are to be found. 

What Mr. Reader has created in Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins (2011) is a profoundly interesting story.  First, for its detailed description of the expeditions and the 'thrill of the hunt' associated with all of the fascinating fossil discoveries and interpretations of the biological evidence.  Second, Reader uses the book to tell the story of the fascinating personalities (and, in some cases, huge egos) of all of the men and women involved in these searches for hominin fossils and their role in better understanding our own biological history.  This is as much a story of Charles Darwin, Arthur Keith, Eugene Dubois, Raymond Dart, Robert Bloom, the Leakey family, Phillip Tobias, Don Johanson, Tim White, and Michel Brunet, and a host of others, as it is about the fossils themselves.  Another important element that Reader brings to the story is the importance of the integration of many different scientific disciplines when investigating and endeavoring to piece together and tell the complicated story and timeline of our human existence over the past six to seven million years.

In some respects, this book reminded me of the second edition of Ian Tattersall's brilliant book, The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution (2008).  While Tattersall's book is perhaps more technically oriented to the actual fossil evidence and biological data, Mr. Reader's is more focused on the historical elements associated with the finds and the anthropologists and anatomists doing the work.  All in all, they are actually quite complementary works, and well worth having in your collection.  So, whether you're a professional anthropologist or you are simply interested in better understanding your own biological and evolutionary history and origins, I highly recommend John Reader's Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins.

Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins
By John Reader
Hardcover, 538 pp.
Oxford University Press, 2011
ISBN 0199276854

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