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Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors [Paperback]

Nicholas Wade
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

8 Mar 2007
In the last three years, a flood of new scientific findings - driven by revelations discovered in the human genome - has provided compelling new answers to many long-standing mysteries about our ancient ancestors. When did language emerge? How did our ancestors break out of Africa and defeat the more physically powerful Neanderthals who stood in their way? Why did we come to speak so many different languages? When did we learn to live with animals and where and when did we domesticate man's first animal companions, dogs? How did human nature change in the 35,000 years between the emergence of fully modern humans and the first settlements? In "Before the Dawn", Wade takes readers to the forefront of research in a sweeping and engrossing narrative unlike any other, the first to reveal how genetic discoveries are helping to weave together the perspectives of archaeology, palaeontology, anthropology, linguistics, and many other fields. This is popular science in the mould of Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point" - a compelling synthesis of current research that will surprise and enlighten the general reader.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (8 Mar 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0715636588
  • ISBN-13: 978-0715636589
  • Product Dimensions: 15.4 x 2.6 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 495,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


'Superb science writing' -- New Scientist

'This is science with a down-to-earth face, and very refreshing it is, too' -- Good Book Guide

`Nicholas Wade is an eloquent guide to this disturbing and
fascinating new world of ideas' -- Matt Ridley, author of Genome

About the Author

Nicholas Wade is a reporter at the New York Times. He previously worked for the leading science journals Nature and Science, and has written five previous books.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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First Sentence
TRAVEL BACK INTO THE HUMAN PAST, and the historical evidence is plentiful enough for the first couple of hundred years, then rapidly diminishes. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
64 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Book 1 May 2006
"Before the Dawn" is a very well written survey of what genetics can teach us about the origin and evolution of the human species. Starting with the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees 5 million years ago, Wade explores the latest theories about the development of the "hominid" line and explains why homo sapiens evolved differently from our cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos.

Most of the books about human origins tend to focus on paleoanthropology and related disciplines. "Before the Dawn" does a great job of synthesizing the discoveries of paleoanthropolgists with the findings of geneticists--in some cases, examination of human DNA has confirmed what paleoanthropolgists have long believed, in others it has raised new and sometimes disturbing questions.

Without becoming overly technical, Wade explains how scientists use the study of DNA to determine when signficant events occurred in human evolution--for example, when humans began to use fully modern language (about 50,000 years ago), the size of the ancestral population of modern humans (as small as 150 people), or when the ancestral population left the African continent (also around 50,000 years ago).

Some of Wade's observations may surprise and trouble many people. Creationists will not be pleased with the book's basic view that Darwin's theory of natural selection is absolutely correct and that it applies to people as well as animals.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Redrawing the human image 14 Aug 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Drawing on a wealth of resource material, Wade builds a comprehensive picture of who we are and where we come from. The "origins" question has been pretty well solved. Darwin's insight that Africa was humanity's home base has been verified in several ways. It is the issue of human traits, their origins and expression, that's in need of clarification. Wade has scoured the research to derive some interesting, and to some, highly disturbing, conclusions.

Writing to his defined audience, Wade's use of Biblical metaphor touches a nerve. It's a useful technique as he opens with 'Genetics & Genesis'. There's no doubt in the reader's mind that 'genetics' will be the guiding theme as this book progresses. Genetics and DNA analysis have 'enriched our view of the past', he notes. He assures us, as well, that the processes they depict are still working to guide us into the future. He lists some of the insights these tools have given us. The clear continuity between 'the ape world of 5 million years ago and the human world that emerged from it' opens the inventory, which includes cultural input and various social factors, why our global dispersal was so rapid, and how language impinged on our development as a species.

Among the more captivating aspects of our evolutionary track is the number alternative paths we might have followed. Wade explains how ape diversity has made discernment of our lineage an onerous task. An indication of what's to follow emerges in a section on why we became 'naked'. The loss of fur meant that exposed skin required protection from the African sun. All humanity's skin cells contain melanin, with variations determined by geographic location. The human diaspora out of Africa led to many variations in our make-up.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great book - poor Audio version 15 July 2009
Format:Audio CD
This is an excellent book and I agree with all of the positive comments offered by other reviewers. My review here is confined to the Audio versions (AudioBook rendition on CD and MP3) which are for me problematic.

The narrator chosen is Alan Sklar who has that kind of warm brown voice commonly heard as a voice-over on American TV and cinema ads. Looking at his other recordings I see he does a lot of Business Motivational and self-help stuff for which I think this kind of voice might work. But for essentially a scientific work like this it certainly sounds wrong.

For a start, the author, Nicholas Wade is English, educated at Eton College and Cambridge with crisp academic tones similar to Richard Dawkins - so why was an American voice actor used? In those parts where he is supposed to be objectively explaining a theory he sounds like he's trying to sell you Life insurance or promoting next weeks feature at the multiplex. He clearly has difficulty with some of the more technical passages and has the annoying habit of reading decimal fractions such as "1.66" as "One point sixty-six" which is quite simply wrong!

However if you can listen through this annoying distortion then the underlying book is excellent.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How DNA analysis is illuminating the prehistory 17 Oct 2009
By Dennis Littrell TOP 500 REVIEWER
I thought the first part of the book which was actually about the prehistory as newly discovered through DNA analysis was very interesting. I was less thrilled with the chapters on Race, Language and History. The wrap up chapter on Evolution was good, if a bit repetitious.

Wade writes extremely well and does a good job of summarizing the latest (circa 2005) research, much of which has come from analyses of the descent of the Y chromosome (from men) and mitochondrial DNA handed down through the female line. The question of our relationship with the Neanderthal--long a thorny question--is more or less resolved with DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossil bones that has been compared to the sequences of human DNA. The conclusion is that H. neanderthalensis came from H. ergaster through H. heidelbergensis as H. sapiens did, and then broke off on its own. Furthermore there is no genetic evidence that human and Neanderthal produced viable offspring. The earlier idea than the Neanderthal was a modification of the very successful H. erectus has been discredited.

As to the question of our origins, northeast sub-Saharan Africa is further confirmed as the site. Wade has humans becoming behavioral human around 50,000 years ago after becoming anatomically human as early as perhaps 200,000 years ago. The great leap forward occurring 50,000 years ago is attributed to the acquisition of symbolic, syntactic language. This was also the time when humans made the exodus out of Africa and began to colonize the world. They went east across the Red Sea at the Gate of Grief during a glacial period when the sea level was two hundred feet lower than it is today. They followed the coast line of the present Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea to India and eventually to Australia.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
An extremely helpful overview
Published 2 months ago by Burridge
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent exploration of our origins.
As someone who finds the origins and deep history of our species fascinating, and has read a number of books on the subject I have to say that I found this one the most enjoyable. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Ross
3.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction
Good introduction and overview to current trends and findings about Early hominids. This book makes new and prominent archaeology easy for everyone, even the non specialist, to... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Kim Briscoe
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting topic well covered
I find human origins fascinating, and this book covers a very broad and complex subject in understandable language. Recommended for any reader not just the specialist.
Published 18 months ago by drone
5.0 out of 5 stars what genetic science can add to archaeology and linguistics
I was wary when I started this book, suspecting that it would elevate genetics to an extreme in an attempt to explain everything with superficial reductionism. Read more
Published on 19 Sep 2011 by rob crawford
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing story of early human history
History can be a very fascinating subject, and one can easily spend a whole lifetime exploring different historical periods and events. Read more
Published on 2 July 2011 by Dr. Bojan Tunguz
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
As someone with little knowledge of genetics, archeology, anthropology or human origins - only a deep fascination in all of the above - I found this book a brilliant, interesting... Read more
Published on 19 Jan 2011 by ruth87
5.0 out of 5 stars Before the dawn
Finally at 82 yrs old I have an more than an inkling about where we humans come from, Amazing how man and his culture, language and habits evolved . Read more
Published on 11 Mar 2010 by Walter H. Ziegler
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book deals with latest scientific finds about the origins of...
A very nifty book about how the latest genetic discoveries are uncovering many secrets about the origins of humankind by New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade. Read more
Published on 10 Aug 2008 by Andres C. Salama
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent guidance for understanding human evolution, but....
The overall content of this book is the typical example of high quality in general science book, which is aiming to enlighten general readers without declining the quality of... Read more
Published on 3 May 2008 by The Spectator2
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