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on 2 May 2010
In this excellent book, which is linked to the BBC TV series of the same name (available on DVD), Alice Roberts follows in the footsteps of our ancestors, who left Africa and ended up populating the whole world.

Roberts shows how the evidence from bones, artefacts and genes tells us that Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 150,000 years ago and that all non-African humans throughout the world today are descended from one group of Homo sapiens who left Africa between 85,000 and 65,000 years ago.

On her journey Roberts meets people who personify and bring to life many of the debates relating to human evolution. For example, at Pinnacle Point in South Africa she meets one of the archaeologists who have been excavating Blombos Cave. It was here that shell beads and pieces of ochre with carved geometric patterns were found dating back 75,000 years. At the same place other pieces of ochre were found dating back to 164,000 years ago, showing that modern humans were painting by that date. This evidence shot down the theory held by some scientists that art (and therefore modern brains and behaviour) did not appear until about 40,000 years ago in Europe. (For more on this, see my review here on Amazon of Stephen Oppenheimer's book, "Out of Eden".)

Roberts meets some people who still refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence that all humans today are descended from African Homo sapiens. Some still cling to the untenable view that different so-called "races" of people evolved separately in different parts of the world from an earlier Homo species. For example, the Chinese government advocates the view that the people of China are special because they evolved separately from the rest of modern humanity, from Homo erectus in China. This has echoes of the time when Western racists claimed that white Europeans were superior and had come into existence separately from other "races".

But Roberts also meets the Chinese geneticist Jin Li, who "started off wanting to prove the patriotic theory that the modern Chinese had a heritage that stretched back, unbroken, to Homo erectus, a million years ago." To his surprise, Li's research actually proved that this was NOT the case. It showed that the "recent Out of Africa hypothesis" was correct. To his great credit, Li accepts the evidence, and Roberts praises his "open-mindedness and objectivity".

Roberts meets surviving hunter-gatherers and sees their egalitarian way of life. She then looks at the origins, only about 12,000 years ago, of settled societies and agriculture. She shows the contradictory nature of this change. The development of agriculture is usually seen as "progress", and it certainly created the conditions for a massive increase in population by producing a food surplus. This in turn provided the basis for the later growth of cities and "civilisation". But Roberts also shows that farming led to a worse quality and variety of diet and to a "general decline in health". (I would add that farming also paved the way for the development of class divisions, gender inequalities and war.)

Roberts shows that some questions still have to be resolved. For example:
- Were modern humans responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals?
- Did modern humans interbreed at all with Neanderthals?
- Exactly when and by what route did our ancestors first move into the Americas?
- Did hunting by humans cause the extinction of large animals in various parts of the world?
- Was it natural selection in relation to climate or sexual selection which led to the physical and facial differences between humans from different parts of the world?
- Was it farmERS or farmING which spread across Europe from the Middle East?

Finally, Roberts shows throughout the book how the climate and climate change have had an effect on both the biology and culture of our ancestors. And she ends by warning that global solutions are needed now if we are to avert the dangers that climate change is facing us with today.

Phil Webster.
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on 3 July 2009
This is a wonderful book, much more informative than the television series and a useful backup to it. While I was reading it, I ordered another copy for my son-in-law when I heard that he and my daughter were fascinated by the TV series. Clever line illustrations by the author Alice Roberts greatly enhance the book, and there are plenty of maps. I am gripped by the central idea that only about 200 families originally emerged out of Africa and between them populated the whole world.
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on 5 February 2012
I have to confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the television programme of the same name produced by the BBC and presented by Alice Roberts. It was all fairly basic stuff, but it was also chock full of little titbits here and there, the filmography was gorgeous, and all in all it was a really enjoyable, interesting and engaging programme. So, naturally, I had my eye on this book for a while before I finally got my hands on it over Christmas.

Some scenes from the programme don't appear in the book, but we get many more that didn't make it into the programme. The book is told in episodic format, a series of anecdotes from Alice Roberts that reveal behind-the-scenes moments, illustrate the points that were being made in the series, and a few juicy little stories about encounters with experts in the field that we never got to see on television. There's some science-y stuff, which Alice does her best to make as clear and simplified as possible, but the book is also part travelogue as well, and the use of Alice's own illustrations throughout the text really do give it a diary feel. This might sound wishy-washy, and there's no denying that this is "popular history" rather than a scholarly, academic work, but I found that the episodes neatly illustrated the points Alice was making, and that and the conversational writing style and use of pictures made this a very easy read and rather fun and engaging. In terms of actual information and educational content soaked up, the book barely scratches the surface of the issues at hand, but it provides a taster and whets the appetite for more - after finishing this book, I plunged straight into Stephen Oppenheimer's Out of Eden, which The Incredible Human Journey mentions as an authoritative work on several occasions and whose author Alice meets in the course of her journey.
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on 22 May 2009
Beautifully written and illustrated, this book goes into a lot more scientific detail than the BBC series but never overwhelms the reader. If you like science writing and travel books then you will love this.
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on 27 May 2009
This fills in a lot of the gaps in the programmes, and is not quite so sensational (except for the parts of Alice's journey where things almost went wrong!). While not incredible to anyone with a bit of scientific knowledge, it is very interesting, especially as the bits of the DNA history in the human genome start to bear out many of the theories of migration which were developed since Darwin.
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on 7 August 2014
This book, by anatomist and television personality, Alice Roberts tells the story of our human journey from our evolutionary origins in east Africa, roughly 200,000 years ago, to our global diversity today. Roberts is unsparing on herself, travelling to a huge variety of actual locations where the various chapters of exploration take place, from the African and Australian bush, to the freezing reindeer territory of Siberia, living with the people she describes, sharing their food and habitation. Her bubbly sense of humour is here on the printed page, much as we find it in her television series. I was particularly impressed with her ability to cover quite complex ideas, ranging from genetics, palaeontology, anthropology, and medicine, all with effortless simplicity and ease. I was also impressed with her ability to bring the story alive, diving into interesting diversions of anecdote, or curious ways of making a living, all the while weaving a fascinating and informative narrative.

The illustrations are beautiful, including maps, colour photographs and - a delightful discovery - pencil drawings by Roberts herself of interesting little observational vignettes. She's quite a decent artist.

I would recommend this book without reservations for any reader who is interested in our human story.
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on 12 December 2013
After reading the book cover to cover I thought it was extremely well structured and informed when explaining various theories and aspects of the humans movements across the continents. I also found that the wide range of scientific approaches allow the book to be enjoyable and accessible to a wide range of audiences. For example whereas I found experimental archaeology segments particularly entertaining others I know enjoyed the genetics.
Despite this I found that the 1st person account of the authors personal experience did take away the enjoyment to some degree. These segments were often too long too frequent and broke the flow of the book.
Overall a good buy if you like travel writing but maybe not so much if all you ant is the facts and theories.
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on 15 July 2010
Roberts brings many of the debates and controversies of the 'journey' to life in her book, giving a richer and more complex understanding featured in the TV series. The 'journey' features the likely routes our species took out of Africa thousands of years ago and looks into what evidence there is to support various theories.

The book features many lively illustrations by the author as well as a rich array of very necessary maps and diagrams. The author does not ignore the present, bringing to life the contemporary settings of the many archaeological sites through personal anecdotes and travel writing. While the book is sometimes weighed down by the ins and outs of many of the academic debates (there must be 50+ plus pages concerned with bones!), it remains very accessible and likeable read. At its best truly profound and wondrous.
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on 24 November 2009
With this book, Alice Roberts has succeeded in providing the general reader with a clear and accessible introduction to our ancient human ancestry. She visits some of the key sites in the field and examines the evidence first-hand. Current theories are expounded with great lucidity and woven into an entertaining account of her travels. Several journeys are undertaken which require considerable stamina, such as the trek to the Omo findspot in sweltering heat; the long voyage by raft in the Indonesian islands; and the cold and lengthy sleigh-ride in Siberia. But Alice is equally bold in her approach to garnering evidence: she is not afraid to challenge the views held by experts and frequently offers possible alternative explanations.

The book is nicely illustrated with sketches, maps and photos, whilst the text manages to combine erudition with 'the personal touch'. So for anyone wanting to find out more about our human origins, 'The Incredible Human Journey' would make a great starting-point.
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on 18 July 2009
Great book, unsurprisingly goes into a lot more detail than the BBC2 series but it's an easy read although a little bit of a scientific background does help in the understanding. Hard to comprehend that as a species we've gone from near extinction to dominate the planet in the blink of an eye in evolutionary timescales - amazing!
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