BONES OF CONTENTION: CONTROVERSIES IN THE SEARCH FOR HUMAN ORIGINS
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN BOOKS, HARMONDSWORTH, UK.
DATE: 1987 (1989 IN PAPERBACK)
REVIEWED BY: BILL PALMER.
This review refers to an earlier edition of the book. I have seen this book reviewed favorably elsewhere (THES/2/3/90, p. 20)(ASTJ, 1991), but in case colleagues have not noticed these or other reviews I would like to bring this book to the attention of Northern Territory teachers. Briefly my view of the book is equally positive, and it should certainly have a place in secondary school libraries, but more than that it, should be read by those science teachers who want to develop for themselves a broad overview of science, its philosophy and its method.
The book is about palaeo-anthropology over the last 100 years or so, looking at the main controversies, and showing how new discoveries strengthened or weakened particular theories about human origins. We are introduced early on to the idea of Landau's that much of science theory is "story-telling" and this remains one of the themes throughout the book. The author points out that there always seems to be great passion about our own beginnings, mainly because it is about us, homo sapiens, and it is just not possible to be completely detached. Thus what might have been in other branches of science calm intellectual debate is transformed in palaeo-anthropology to fierce and bloody contests within the public arena, where the protagonists for the various viewpoints make strong "ad hominem" attacks on each other.
This is precisely where the book starts:-it begins right in the middle of an American TV debate hosted in an adversarial manner between two of the most successful public figures in palaeo-anthropology, Don Johanson, the discoverer of the Lucy skeleton in Ethiopia, and Richard Leakey, son of Louis and Mary Leakey, who had made discoveries of his own in the Lake Turkana region of Ethiopia.
Going back in time from this debate, though not necessarily in their historical order, the author weaves the discoveries of Neanderthal man (1856), the Piltdown Skull (1912), the Taung Child (1925), Rama's Ape (1932), the Kanjera Skulls (1934), Zinjanthropus (1959), Kenyapithecus (1961), Sivapithecus (1967), Skull 1470 (1972), the "First Family", Haldar (1975) and a number of other fossils into the story. However it is not really the names and dates of the fossils that make exciting reading; it is the personalities, interactions, and theories of the palaeo-anthropologists themselves that makes the book so fascinating.
I will chose to mention just two further points that have interested me. The first is the way in which the science of chemistry has now been accepted as having a useful role to play in palaeo-anthropology after many years of being considered irrelevant. It is interesting to note that although there were several cases cited where chemistry was of great use in palaeo-anthropology, Richard Leakey relied on chemical evidence to date his find of skull 1470 and this was later shown to have been inaccurate, causing a decade of largely futile argument.
Lastly I tend to collect little stories that illustrate the place of serendipity in science. To my mind this anecdote illustrating the discovery at Laetoli of hominid footprints 3.75 million years old is a winner!
" Andrew Hill, a British palaeo-anthropologist then based in Kenya and now at Yale University, discovered the first (non-hominid) prints on that day, when his eyes came to rest a few inches from the recently exposed ash layer. Although his propitious posture was the result of a rapid evasive maneuver designed to avoid impact by a large lump of elephant dung playfully hurled at him by biologist David Western, rather than an instance of close paleontological prospecting, it was nonetheless effective." (p 278)
Generally the style of writing is excellent with some pleasant dry humor hidden away in places, there are a few "typos" and the photographs, though only in black and white in this edition, do add considerable interest to this work. I thoroughly recommend this book.