on 5 July 2011
Just two chapters into this book I have to pause and tell other Amazon users that this is definitely a 5-star book, for two reasons. First, Dr. Stringer was actually a party to much of the research on early humans conducted since the 1970s, so his first-hand survey is as authoritative as any could possibly be. Second, this lucid work on a complex subject is completely accessible to the general reader. What a pleasure it is not to have to run to the dictionary or the rest of my bookshelf, or to dubious Wikipedia entries, when encountering the jargon of this field. It's explained right there in the text, including the etymology (e.g. "These iconic artefacts characterize the Aterian industry, first recognized at the Algerian site of Bir el-Ater..."). And the train of thought in his explanations reflects the skill of someone who has discussed these topics time and time again. What this book lacks in pretty color photos is more than compensated for in the information conveyed.
Edit: Having finished the book, I want to comment that it provides the most comprehensive information I have seen on the following topics:
Where in the world humans originated
Did Neanderthals interbreed with modern humans?
Early humans in Africa
The mind of early humans, origin of culture, art, spirituality (not actually something I've read much about before)
It was Charles Darwin who speculated that our origins were African, in the Descent of Man, published in 1871. The theory fell out of fashion for a long time. Forty years ago the notion that our species emerged out of Africa was fanciful. Today, Darwin is being vindicated. Our African origins are broadly accepted, but not before acrimonious academic controversy and much blood letting in the academy. Chris Stringer has been in the thick of it, a pioneer of the theory since the 1970s. If he is feeling triumphant that things have been going his way since his student days, then he doesn't show it in this book. That's because it would be premature to assert that the argument for our shared African origins has been won decisively. Stringer shows that it hasn't. But the balance of evidence in support of the theory is compelling and it's growing.
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.
on 16 March 2012
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.
on 20 September 2011
I came to this book looking for a definitive account of human evolution, I didn't quite get what I was looking for, but I'm more than satisfied.
I've been looking for a book such as this because I've found that, at times, the usage of names differs so much author to author (Erectus, Ergaster, etc.) that it can get very confusing. This book seemed just the ticket as the author is the leading expert on human origins at the Natural History Museum in London and it shows: he has a dizzying command of his subject area.
The blurb on the inside cover says that he will answer all of the big questions in the debate on our origins. So, does he? As you might expect the answer is yes and no.
Yes, because many, or most, of the issues that you would want a book like this to deal with are discussed in detail: what kind of relationship existed between modern humans and the Neanderthals, where & when the first modern humans appeared, what the genetic evidence says about us, whether the Neanderthals and other hominins are actually cousins or ancestors of ours, and so on.
No, because some issues are not dealt with: the book does not really discuss species previous to Homo Erectus, so there's little or nothing about our common ancestor with chimpanzees, or the australopithecines, Homo habilis, etc. Instead, the focus is on the later hominins: Erectus, Heidelbergensis, the Neanderthals and us, especially the last two. So, roughly, the book covers the last two million years, but most especially the last few hundred thousand. This is fair enough - there are no superfluous sections in this book, and so discussing these species would have meant a lot more pages and taken the author away from his goal of identifying and describing the origin of our species specifically, rather than the whole Homo genus. But I didn't know this before I bought the book. Also no, because one question, which seems to me to be a central one, was dealt with only briefly over the course of four or five pages: the evolution of language. You might think this is because there's not much to be said - there aren't any fossils of words - but this is a whole area of study, so this was a slight disappointment.
Whether you like this book or not will also depend on what kind of book you usually read. If you have only a passing interest in evolution and science in general, but you find this issue appealing, I think you may find chapters 2 and 3 of this book hard going. These sections mainly focus on how experts in the field can date and extract information from the fossils they find; so, while these issues are relevant to the matter in hand, they concern the scientific method rather than the history and evolution of mankind. It's not overly technical, but there is a lot of information, mixed in with a little of bit of the author's own biography. I found it very interesting, but I did think that the author was brave to place so much of this material so early in the book.
On the other hand, if you're a scientist or you regularly read books on scientific subjects, I confidently predict you will lap this up. It covers a lot of ground authoritatively and, if you're the kind of person who, like me, reads books on issues which human evolution has some bearing on, I think you will often come back to this book for reference. It's well written, there's a bit of humour in there occasionally, and while the author is keen to put across his point of view - that we have a recent African origin - I think he deals with other opinions very fairly.
Highly recommended. If you like that kind of thing.
on 28 September 2011
I have just finished reading every word, underlining key ideas on nearly every page and now setting out to write a synopsis for the students I teach.
It is such a fascinating read that you too will probably work through every chapter and come to the same conclusion as me: This is an important book which deepens our understanding of what it is to be human: The stuggles of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens to survive after the Ice Ages, the development of the mind, the structure of family and society and even awareness of a spiritual; all these lead us to reflect on life now and in the future: The book ends with this thought provoking sentence: "Sometimes the the difference between failure and and success in evolution is a narrow one and we are certainly on a knife-edge now as we confront an over-populated planet and the prospect of global climate change on a scale that humans have never faced before - let's hope our species is up to the challenge." These two contemporary questions are not considered in the book, of course, but I would trust the author's intelligent perspective on them rather than the rhetoric of any politician.
Professor Stringer has written an authoritative and academic work. His life has been, and still is, extraordinary. His meticulous research and the discoveries and theories of other scientists who study paleoanthropology are sytematically considered. The result is a book which had to be academically rigorous and thorough. For those who are not graduate scientists or medical experts the prospect of trying to read and understand passages which detail human anatomy and genetics may sound too much to cope with. Don't panic. The book is very readable and difficult words and concepts are explained very clearly. The photographs and the cover are not brilliant; the text, however, most certainly is.
This is the most interesting and thought-provoking book I have read in years. Recommended without any reservation.
on 21 July 2012
I had read strong reviews of Stringer's latest work and the book itself doesn't disappoint. Previously I had enjoyed his 'Homo Britannicus', but this was even better. It delivers a detailed yet concise story of human evolution packing in both the recent findings whilst at the same time telling some of the 'back story' of developing views on evolution.
Stringer himself is closely associated with the 'Recent African Origins' model, but he shifts position slightly in the face of evidence of hybridisation between homo sapiens and both neanderthals and denisovans. The concluding chapters summarising the latest evidence are particularly useful.
As a non-scientist I found that his treatment of the DNA evidence was clear and relatively undaunting. For quite a short book it is also surprisingly wide-ranging, bringing in aspects of the development of certain behavioural traits and spiritual beliefs.
For students and the curious looking for a guide through the maze of human species, archaeological and DNA evidence and theories of evolution, I would strongly recommend this book.
on 28 July 2011
The simplicity of this book belies its in-depth analysis of man's origins. While medical terminology is used it is adequately explained, enabling the reader to follow the arguments easily. It does not try to identify all pre-homo sapiens species, contenting itself with just Homo erectus, heidelbergiensis, neanderthalensis and ourselves. Not being able to visualise the differences between these types of primates I found that a spreadsheet of their differences was useful.
Chris Stringer discusses how we have evolved and moved around the planet. He dismisses Stephen Oppenheimer's Out of Eden theories of a southern exit point with a nonchalent wave of the hand. This and other hints of academic bitchiness is quite amusing. The illustrations used are very poor; some being too small, others too dark to be of use to the reader. Coloured plates would have been most welcome. Having said all that I do recommend the book to those interested in our development and evolution as it follows its own narrow pre-arranged path and helps the reader to understand the changes and adaptations we have had to undergo. It explains much about ourselves that is remarkable and as it uses the latest discoveries would be of use to a newcomer to the subject
[Chris Stringer[ASIN:1846141400 The Origin of Our Species]]
on 31 August 2015
This book is an extremely comprehensive analysis of all the available paleo-anthropological evidence of the evolution of the human race, with clear descriptions of the development of the various dating techniques and a thorough exploration of how well the evidence supports or contradicts the various theories. However, it can be hard-going as the concentration is on presentation of evidence in archaeological context, rather than chronological order of evolution. The author jumps forward and back in the time-line so often that it made it quite a disjointed read. I feel that this book would have benefitted from a narrative flow that made it easier for the reader to fit the evidence into a progressive time-line and, therefore, make it easier for the non-expert to better comprehend the evolution of mankind. If you are new to the subject matter, this is an excellent book, but have a notebook and pen to hand to take notes as you go along!
on 15 March 2014
Chris Stringer, an expert in the field of more than 40 years, and currently attached to the British Natural History Museum guides the reader through the world of palaeoanthropology, and the changes and discoveries in this field over the past four decades. This book is well written, clear, and explains technical terms, so if you’re a newcomer to the subject this book is ideal, as it has been written to be easy and accessible for just such an audience. However, at the same time, it offers a pretty comprehensive discussion of the field and of the debates and exciting questions. Did humans really come out of Africa? To what extent did we interbreed with other human species? Were we as mentally proficient and inventive when we evolved as anatomically modern humans, or did our brain continue evolving and did we undergo a later revolution of thought, as some palaeoanthropologists argue? How is use of genetics changing our understanding of palaeoanthropology? Anything you ever wanted to ask about human evolution and stone age humans, it’s here. Of course, over time no doubt this book will itself become out of date, but I’m impressed with just how up to date it is, including discussions of the recently discovered Denisovans, Homo floresiensis, and the revelations in recent years that our species did indeed interbreed with both Neanderthals and Denisovans. I suppose my one criticism is that although I found the writing style easy and flowing, it was not deeply engrossing for me, and I would have enjoyed more photos to illustrate the points being made in the text.
on 15 July 2011
An excellent summary of all that is known and speculated about human origins. Includes the most recent research such as the Denisovans. Prof Stringer is not only a master of his subject, but writes clear, engaging prose.