If this book is any indication, palaeoanthropology needs new electives in its curriculum. A course in "Field Combat Tactics" appears useful, while "The Intricacies of Site Permits" seems almost essential - perhaps a requirement. Ann Gibbons may not be certified as a combat correspondent, but she does a fine job of narrating the course anthropology has taken in seeking the "first human" and the conflicts that have arisen over the findings. What is notable about the strife among the members of that community is that Roger Lewin seemed to have covered it in "Bones of Contention" in 1987. Things appear to have heated up instead of calming down.
Opening with an account of French scholar Michel Brunet's work in the desert of Chad, Gibbons explains what's involved in finding human fossils. Darwin, she reminds us, suggested human origins lay in Africa. This idea challenged the received wisdom of Asia being the source of humanity. Gibbons' account of how ideas about human origins became established, challenged and regularly overturned makes gripping reading. She notes that Don Johanson's "Lucy", a pivotal find in tracing the human lineage, held primacy for many years. Lucy's age and location seemed indicative, granting her direct ancestry to modern humans and pinpointing the upper Rift Valley as humanity's starting point. Brunet, among others, has doubts about this scenario. It was too simple, and simple answers have no place in human evolution.
From Piltdown to Pithecanthropus, Gibbons clearly depicts the various ideas, their promoters and their resolution that have occurred during the years. Fossil hunters have roamed over Africa's wild landscapes seeking clues. They are scattered and rarely definitive, usually providing only tantalising and incomplete bits of information. Lucy herself was but 40% complete [if you pair the bones, 20% if you count them against the total], while Nariokotome Boy had 80% of his skeleton retrieved. Gibbons explains why certain bones have importance in determining if a fossil indicates it's a hominid, while others provide clues to environmental conditions when the creature lived. Diet, activity, and other hints can be derived, but the analytical task is arduous. Almost as difficult as the field retrievals themselves.
The competition to find the "first human" is sometimes intense. Finding the fossil is tough enough, with searchers crawling over the ground like penitent supplicants. Getting to the site is more than simply boarding a 4 X 4 or camel train. Since the searchers are mostly Europeans or North Americans, the issue of permits to dig arises early. These often require months of negotiation, sometimes with money changing hands to facilitate the process. Abandoned sites or lapsed permits may require additional resolution. In at least one case, weapons were in evidence. What more could shatter the stereotype of the bumbling academic unable to deal with the "real world"?
The conflicts and contentions are slowly being resolved. "Lucy", once firmly lodged on the track leading to modern humans, is now on a side track. New finds, some not even clearly bipedal, let alone proto-human, need corroborating fossils. The recent discoveries have emerged almost too rapidly to identify or classify them. "Orrorin tugensis", or "Millennium Man" as he was mis-named for having been unearthed in 2000 C.E., triggered a major media event. The label "Our Newest Oldest Ancestor" applied to the find implied that there might be more to come. Such was the case when Michel Brunet's team, working in Chad, far from the Rift Valley, produced "Toumai". This unexpected fossil has become the actual "newest oldest" clocking in at about 6 - 7 million years old. As with all palaeoanthropologists, Brunet isn't satisfied with this revolutionary discovery. He is headed north, into Libya, to see if the Okavango Delta might prove the "Garden of Eden" for ancient humanity. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
** with apologies to Roger Lewin