17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
A complex story,
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This review is from: The Origin of Our Species (Hardcover)
There is probably no one better than Chris Stringer to write a book on our origins. His book is packed with information, scientific discoveries and theories attempting to take our knowledge further.
It is a topic of increasing complexity. 50 years ago it was believed that our ancestry consisted of a number of gradually more advanced species, where species A begat species B, which begat C and culminating with the tall and elegant Cro-Magnons, essentially modern people like ourselves (since then we may have gone slightly downhill). There was a bit of uncertainty regarding the role of the Neanderthals, were they part of the chain or a sidetrack?
30 years ago saw the confrontation between the two more recent theories: "Out of Africa" or "Multi-regionalism". The former claimed that modern man essentially developed in Africa and then moved out and conquered the whole world. The latter proposed that man developed into modernity simultaneously in many regions, and some cross-breeding ensured that we stayed one species.
Stringer starts out his book by describing some of the technology used by science, not the least in dating of fossils. He mentions some examples, and by then we are already in the thick of the action. The picture quickly turns very muddled. "Species" turn out to be very difficult to define and delineate, and the sequence in which they appear is not always as one would expect. More primitive individuals are found to be contemporary or even more recent than more advanced ones, and the geographic distribution only makes matters worse.
Our genes, carried by our DNA in several systems, provide lots of additional information, but unfortunately it does not always make the picture more clear.
Stringer steers the reader through this mess and tries to maintain a consistent picture of what might have happened. Obviously the past of humanity was in no way simple. We are dealing with a bush of species, sub-species and variants, some advanced-looking ones coming in rather early and some primitive ones staying late. And there is even evidence that the two sometimes mated when they met - not a very surprising thought given the proclivities of man - and just underlining how fuzzy the species concept is, especially over a period of time.
Human development is not just a question of bigger brains and more dexterous hands. Culture has had a tremendous role to play; tools, organisation of work, spiritual beliefs, etc. Archaeologists have unearthed many fascinating items, shedding light on these aspects, but also giving rise to rampant speculation. Stringer presents a number of theories proposed by scientists, ranging from reasonably plausible to the downright silly, with rock-bottom reached on p. 137 with the hypothesis of women going on regular sex-strikes by faking menstruation with red pigments. Not a shred of evidence but Stringer keeps his tongue in cheek.
The book is highly recommendable, but the reader should not expect a clear-cut story on just exactly how we came about. Because nobody knows, yet.