The value of this book hasn't diminished with the passage of time. It's compelling story of the growth of paleoanthropology in the 20th Century remains unmatched. Johanson's role should be known to most, but this personal relation endures as a landmark for those interested in the development of humanity. He's given us a lucid story of the life and work of the paleoanthropologist both in the field and laboratory. He is candid in assessing other workers and himself in tracing the line of descent from ape-like creatures to modern humans.
He opens with a peerless overview of the key figures in the field, their insights, prejudices, successes and failures. The field was dominated by British research. The small German community of scientists held little challenge, and American researchers were nonexistent. Heady with victories that had left the Victorian Empire firmly established, the British stoutly maintained that intelligent humans were the product of the North European environment. Tropic peoples were torpid and apathetic. The harsher conditions of Northern Europe had forced increased cranial capacity, leading to intelligence. Brain growth, in their view, had preceded human bipedalism. If cranial enlargement was shown to be of British origins, so much the better. The Piltdown find was a prime example of that scenario, nearly universally accepted as fitting into the preconceived assumption.
When a tiny skull found in 1925 in South Africa indicated that a human ancestor walked upright over a million years ago, there was consternation. Modern human roots couldn't be African and bipedalism before intelligence seemed outlandish. The Taung Child, however, couldn't be refuted, increasing the attention to African origins. Louis Leakey led the campaign and his many striking finds captured headlines and brought notoriety. And funding. More importantly, the new discoveries at last made it possible to begin drawing lines of human descent. While the Leakey team disclosures pushed the age of human origins into a more distant past, it was Johanson's discovery of an unusually complete skeleton that rocked the world. Finding ancestral human more than three million years old unseated the Leakey team as the leading paleoanthropological group and catapulted Johanson to the top.
Johanson's account of making the find and his subsequent discoveries makes vivid reading. His outlook is modest enough, admitting to uncommon luck and the support of a talented team. He also shows the value of perseverance in his field. None of this detracts from the science and the struggle he and Tim White endured in presenting Lucy as a likely ancestor to us. The later clash with the Leakey family was disconcerting at a time when some unity was needed to establish the path human evolution has taken. All these circumstances are related without rancour, done in a highly effective homey style. Johanson's respect is deserved, both as a writer and field researcher.
The shining jewel in this account remains the description of a seminar given to Johanson's graduate students by Owen Lovejoy. Lovejoy, an expert in animal locomotion, gives the clearest brief account of the course of human evolution yet offered. In a mere twenty-some pages, he shows how humans departed from other primates in bipedalism, sexual and child- rearing habits leading to modern family and community relationships. If for nothing else, this essay gives this book inestimable value. It remains unmatched, and belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in our origins. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]