Born in Africa by Martin Meredith covers well-trodden ground but it does so in a highly engaging way. The story of anthropological discoveries over the last century is a fascinating one made all the more so by the author's literary style. Events are explained with a journalistic flair and the story rollicks along. The fallibilities of human behaviour amongst Palaeontologists, Paleoanthropologists, Palaebiologists, and so on, are fully exposed: dirty tricks, spitefulness and bitter hatred are just a few of the charming qualities displayed by some of the pivotal protagonists. Yet much of the new knowledge was down to the work of these mavericks who usually struggled against the intransigence of the established academic community. But in the end new theories were accepted only then to be overturned by yet more new discoveries as our understanding of our own evolution became more complex and a great deal more interesting. Highly recommended for anyone seeking an entertaining, yet informed, account of a fascinating story - and covered in just under 200 pages!
on 14 September 2011
If you were to read the front cover of this book you'd form the opinion that this is a book about all the scientific discoveries that have occurred on evolution - with a specific focus being in relation to the discoveries made in Africa. Well, in one respect this book does just that. In another, it doesn't. Confusing I know...
To explain: this book reads and feels like a history book. It basically starts by explaining that Darwin proposed that the search for human evolution should start in Africa. His reasoning for this was that the main ape populations live there, and as man developed from a common ancestor with apes Africa seemed to be the logical place to start the search. Many scientists at the time disagreed with Darwin and instead argued that the search should start in Asia. Their reasoning was that the Asian orang-utan shared a greater similarity with humans.
The book then goes onto explain that one of the first significant fossils found was found in South Africa. This fossil was the famous Taung Child or Australopithecus Africanus. The book then traces the hunt for the illusive missing link between Australopithecus and Homo. This includes an almost chronological study of the impact and findings made by the Leakey family and Donald Johanson. The book then seems to conclude, in what feels like a rushed fashion, with a small touching on how Homo Spiens appear to have come about - the focus being from Homo Erectus and Neanderthals. The book finally ends in what feels like an abrupt fashion.
Now the scientific evaluation of the above material seems lacking. The book touches on the general discussions which occurred about the fossil's brain sizes, and which fossils showed an ability to walk up right. It touches on the theories proposed to explain why constant evolution has occurred - the main driving factor seeming to be constant geological change rather than strict natural selection. It also comments on whether the fossilized creatures would have made use of technology - i.e. what archaeological evidence has been found around the sites to support a theory that perhaps the creature may have had a possible culture (e.g. flint heads etc.).
Unfortunately the scope of this book appears to end there. It is at the end of the day an evaluation of the constant feuds that have gone on over the fossil record and the chronology of how those fossils were found and by whom. The book almost seems to treat the genetic side of the discussion as an annoyance and as such palaeontology seems to be the only topic discussed. In this manner the book came across, in my opinion, as slightly lacking a further dimension.
Nevertheless, Martin Meredith has an enjoyable and entertaining writing style. The book was overall a pleasure to read, and was thoroughly enjoyable. The book concludes that modern man and the first civilizations seem to have originated in Southern Africa. Being an author who favours and focuses on Southern Africa his preference to this region comes as no surprise. In any case, for another interested in reading about the fossil record, how it was found and what the implications of it are, this is the book for you. I learnt a great deal from the book, such as the impact the Leakey family has had on palaeontology and how much infighting occurs in this field of science. However, I suspect that the book will leave you with more questions than answers and as such it will probably prompt you to pick up further books on the topic. As I can only view this as being a good thing this book comes recommended.
on 24 August 2011
We all want to know something about our origins! And after reading Martin Merediths book you will certainly be a little wiser. There are many pieces to the puzzle though. And there is no simple path, where evolution turns a crouching ape into a tall, erect human male over the ages. Instead, the path to Homo Sapiens was very indirect. Along the way, our planet witnessed many variations of the human form, multiple migrations out of Africa. etc.
Nevertheless, Martin Meredith gives a good overview:
Most of our modern day ideas about evolution comes from Darwin, so it is fitting that Martin Meredith starts his book about the quest for the origins of human life, with a Darwin quote! The most likely birthplace of humankind is Africa, since it is the homeland of gorillas and chimpanzees, apes which he deemed to be our closest living relatives. In Darwins ''The Descent of Man'' his precise words are: ''The living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and the chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man's nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our earlier progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.''
That all sounds very logical to the modern reader, but obviously Meredith is right to state that: The implications of Darwins theory were profound, it opened up the possibility of a world without purpose, or direction, or longterm goal. It stripped humankind of its unique status and was seen to undermine Victorian respect for hierarchy and social order.
Sure, it might all be horrible confusion. But there is also truth and wonder in Darwins approach, and Meredith opens the book with a very fitting Sir Thomas Browne quote: ''We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.''
Eventually we became humans though. And off to a rough ''start'':
I.e. harsh conditions in Africa clearly took their toll on Homo Sapiens. Genetic researchers point to a bottleneck in population numbers some 60.000 years ago. Some estimates suggest that the numbers plummeted to as low as 5.000 people.
But, 60.000 years ago - African hunter gatherers had developed a fully fledged language. Making small groups more cohesive and facilitating long-range planning. And, according to the genetic evidence, all human lineages in the world today can be traced back to this ancestral population in Africa 60.000 years ago.
Then, some 60-50.000 years ago, geneticists informs us, a few people from the African population (perhaps as few as 150) left Africa at the southern end of the Red Sea, and went on to populate the rest of the world.
What a story!
on 17 February 2014
This is an interesting and well written book on the search for the fossils for the first humans with all the chicanery that surrounds the prroject but is badly biased in favour of the Leakeys -Louis, Mary and Richard to the virtual exclusion of all other contenders particularly Brunet and his colleagues who discovered the oldest fossils dated 6-7 million years old.
The book is badly in need of line diagrams and tables illustrating the relationship or non relationship of the various fossil species recorded.
For a much better book on this subject read Ann Gibbons book "The First Human".