The Origin of Our Species Paperback – 31 May 2012
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To follow the dramatic announcements that will be appearing in the media pretty regularly from now on concerning new fossil finds and detailed genetic knowledge on the mutations that distinguish us from Neanderthals, other hominins, and apes, you will need a primer to make sense of the story so far. Here is that book. (Peter Forbes The Guardian)
The Origin of Our Species combines anecdote and speculation with crisp explanation of the latest science in the study of the first humans. (John Hawks New Scientist)
When it comes to human evolution [Chris Stringer] is as close to the horse's mouth as it gets...The Origin of Our Species should be the one-stop source on the subject. Read it now (Henry Gee BBC Focus)
Combining the thrill of a novel with a remarkable depth of perspective, the book offers a panorama of recent developments...Stringer's original ideas will open up avenues for those who deal with genes, fossils or artefacts. (Jean-Jacques Hublin Nature)
The Origin of Our Species [is] the right book by the right author at the right time. It highlights just how many tantalising discoveries and analytical advances have enriched the field in recent years, and folds them into an appropriately comprehensive, generous and nuanced reflection. (Marek Kohn Literary Review)
The Origin of Our Species starts as a clear, perceptive survey. It ends by introducing a new way of defining us and our place in history (Mike Pitts Sunday Times)
Sets out to tackle the big questions about human origins...written in a personal, unpretentious style...a laudable summary of a vital subject (Matt Grove British Archaeology)
The most up to date synthesis available (Steven Mithen London Review of Books)
Stringer's writing style is lucid and all-embracing, pulling information and ideas together from all conceivable sources to support his central narrative ... stimulating, informative and entertaining. It deserves to be widely read (Stephen K. Donovan Geological Journal)
About the Author
Chris Stringer is Britain's foremost expert on human origins and works in the Department of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum. He also currently directs the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, aimed at reconstructing the first detailed history of how and when Britain was occupied by early humans. His previous books include African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity, The Complete World of Human Evolution and most recently, Homo Britannicus, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book of the Year in 2007.
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What evidence do we have? We have fossil evidence, genetic evidence, anatomical evidence, archaeological evidence and artefactual evidence. For example, genetic diversity is greatest in Africa but the further we get away from Africa, the less genetic diversity there is. Hence aboriginal peoples of Australia, at the farthest spread of human settlement, show the least genetic diversity.
The story is not clear-cut. Stringer acknowledges where the gaps are. Evidence of cultural innovations like cave art is easier to locate in Europe, not Africa. This is not `Eurocentricism' but the way science is done. It's a reflection of the current state of evidence, and the reality that cultural and physical artefacts leave fewer traces, and are more perishable than our chromosomes and DNA (which, in a sense, can live forever, as long as they keep getting passed down). Regardless, the direction of travel is clear: the more evidence that is uncovered, the stronger the foundations for the `out of Africa' theory of our origins become.
We also learn much about what distinguishes us from our now extinct relatives, the Neanderthals and why they failed but (so far) we have not. They were bigger and taller than us but they lived shorter lives (few lived past 40) and were less adaptable than us to sudden climate and ecological shocks. Once human population densities reached a certain threshold, innovation and adaptation by example spread fast. But Neanderthal numbers never reached the necessary numbers and density for cultural and social development to take off. Interestingly, where groups of humans were cut off (as in Tasmania) both cultural and technological innovation ground to a halt.
The book is well written throughout and handles technical issues, like the various technologies available now to date fossil and archaeological evidence (we don't just have to rely on carbon dating nowadays) very well, in a way accessible to non-specialist. It covers a variety of disciplines deftly. The author is a gifted communicator. The story of human origins is still being told and will doubtless be revised as new evidence comes to light. Stringer however works in an intellectually exciting and dynamic field, where our understanding of our origins is making leaps and bounds. To read this book is to share in this excitement and to share in this intellectual adventure (without having to suffer the slings and arrows of academic internecine warfare). I strongly recommend this book. Five stars.
Besides introduction, acknowledgements, sources, suggestions and index the work consists of nine chapters: 1: The Big Question. 2: Unlocking the Past. 3: What Lies Beneath. 4: Finding the Way Forward. 5: Behaving in a Modern Way: Mind Reading and Symbols. 6: Behaving in a Modern Way: Technology. 7: Genes and DNA. 8: Making a Modern Human. 9: The Past and Future Evolution of Our Species. The work also contains some helpful maps and some black and white illustrations and diagrams.
In particular there's a helpful section dealing with Homo floresiences, 'The Hobbit', remains of which were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores as recently as 2004. Chris Stringer is careful to present the known facts without jumping to conclusions, at the same time making the reader aware of differing expert views where they occur, although it is also clear that there is general agreement about the main thrust of it all among most of them.
All the evidence points to a multiple 'out of Africa' origin for the human species and that there were several spreads into what are now Europe and Asia before Homo sapiens became dominant. The work also illustrates the route taken by early modern humans from Asia into the North American continent. All told, this is a work that will inspire the general reader interested in this subject to research and find out more about it. Chris Stringer has a writing style and communicating ability that imbues this work with a readability regrettably not achieved in all too many novels. This work is a 'must read' for all those genuinely interested in the inspiring facts concerning human origins and evolution.