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The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors [Paperback]

Ann Gibbons
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

21 April 2007 140007696X 978-1400076963 Reprint
In this dynamic account, award-winning science writer Ann Gibbons chronicles an extraordinary quest to answer the most primal of questions: When and where was the dawn of humankind?Following four intensely competitive international teams of scientists in a heated race to find the “missing link”–the fossil of the earliest human ancestor–Gibbons ventures to Africa, where she encounters a fascinating array of fossil hunters: Tim White, the irreverent Californian who discovered the partial skeleton of a primate that lived 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia; French paleontologist Michel Brunet, who uncovers a skull in Chad that could date the beginnings of humankind to seven million years ago; and two other groups–one led by zoologist Meave Leakey, the other by British geologist Martin Pickford and his French paleontologist partner, Brigitte Senut–who enter the race with landmark discoveries of their own. Through scrupulous research and vivid first-person reporting, The First Human reveals the perils and the promises of fossil hunting on a grand competitive scale.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 303 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books; Reprint edition (21 April 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140007696X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400076963
  • Product Dimensions: 20.2 x 13.4 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 675,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Bones of Contention" [updated] ** 29 July 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Hardcover
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars evolution 4 Feb 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is an academic study to uncover which of 4 groups discovered our earliest ancestors but it reads like a detective thriller with corruption,lies,dishonesty,forgery and gun toting all having a part to play.It is amazing how far some people will go to achieve some fame from a rather dull subject.
Of the 4 groups one was the clear winner with Toumai whose fossils date to 6-7 mya. and it is interesting that that group was attacked the most but did not practice any form of skulduggery.
Avery well written and researched book that deserves 5 star plus.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  36 reviews
45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Bones of Contention" [updated] ** 29 July 2006
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read! 6 Dec 2006
By Scott A. Blumenthal - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a student of paleoanthropology, I was slightly wary of reading another popular account of fossil hunting in Africa. After finishing "The First Human," however, I can say with certainty that not only did Ann Gibbons do her homework, but that she was able to deftly weave together both the science and the politics in one of the most fascinating narratives I've read in some time. One really begins to understand both the hardship of paleoanthropological fieldwork and the thrill of discovery. But that of course is only the beginning. Her descriptions of the ensuing scientific cross-fire, often tainted by personal and political conflict, are clear and engaging. All in all, a well-written and up-to-date chronicle of the science of human origins.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This book could have been more 8 May 2006
By Ursiform - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is really the story of a few teams looking for "breakthrough" early hominid fossils. As such it is episodic, and fails to give a broad picture of what has been learned about human evolution how it was learned. While generally well written and up to date, the concept of the book prevents it from being either a good overview of "The First Humans" or a compelling story. Past books written by paleoanthropologists themselves (Leakey, Johanson, Falk, and Shipman come to mind) have both explained more science and displayed far more passion for the quest, but at the cost of being expressions of one person's viewpoint rather than an attempt to deal with the subject objectively. It's been several years since I've found a really compelling book on this subject, so this one may be as good a choice as any for an up to date popular book. But it would be nice to see some more "insider" books hit the shelves with some real passion!
56 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read but...... 21 April 2006
By Robert Busko - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
First of all, let me say that I enjoyed reading The First Human. I thought Ann Gibbons managed to do a good job sifting through the newest material in the field of paleoanthropology. However, as with most areas of science, by the time new discoveries make it into a book the information has become passe to those most interested in it.

I thought Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade was more cutting edge than The First Human and made more solid connections. Gibbons book explores a great deal about the research being conducted, what discoveries have been made in the last decade and what they mean. Some of this information is very interesting. She also honestly reports on the researchers pushing the envelope on what we know about our ancestors. A few of them are just difficult, spoiled and weird. In fact, a thought that kept creeping into my head as I read The First Human is that I'm not sure evolution is working out. Humankind, if judged by some of the characters included in Gibbons book makes one wonder. Maybe the monkies new something we didn't when they got off the evolutionary escalator.

Gibbon's looks at the continuing race to find the oldest human ancestor. To the scientist who makes the discovery goes international fame and perhaps riches as well. And it is this prize that drives the researchers efforts and perhaps makes them so strange and difficult.

I highly recommend The First Human. Ann Gibbon's style of writing is great and she does manage to lace together a wonderful read.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where's the Passion and Mystery? 12 May 2006
By Brian Hann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Ann Gibbons has covered ongoing developments in paleoanthropology for Science magazine for the past ten years. She possesses an intimate knowledge of both the science and personalities of the field. She also has an ability to explain scientific information so that a lay reader can clearly comprehend it.

For all that, Gibbons is not a great storyteller. She does humanize and enliven this tale of scientific discovery by providing us with behind-the-scenes accounts of the egos and petty feuds of paleoanthropology. But there's little sense of suspense or drama (or even humor) here.

She mentions, for example, that Louis Leakey searched for two decades before discovering anything notable. She doesn't tell us what drove Leakey on this seemingly quixotic quest. Or what drives other paleoanthropologists to suffer inhospitable, and sometimes dangerous, conditions for years just to find a few hominid molars or - if they are lucky - the fragment of an ancient skull or femur. What mysteries haunt these scientists? What passions drive them? And what of our distant forbearers? Gibbons gives us surprisingly little information about what it might have been like to be a hominid 3 or 6 million years ago.

The book could have also benefited from illustrations. For example, when Gibbons discussed the dentition of new discoveries - which she did frequently - I wish I could have referenced photos or diagrams to better understand why the discoverers were excited, or not. Several species of hominids are discussed in the book and I would have understood them much better if I could have seen the similarities and differences with my own eyes.

All-in-all, not a bad book. But not a great one either. Let's call it 3.5 stars.
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