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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars
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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:

Neanderthals
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)
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on 8 September 2012
We attended a fascinating presentation of his research by Chris Stringer in Oxford. My husband quoted his ideas often as very interesting. When came his birthday the book was an obvious choice for someone who 'does not need nor want anything and does not want any present". He accepted that one happily!
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on 8 January 2017
Arrived on time from seller. Im only half way through this book, as its not a quick read, which is good. The text is readable and keeps me turning the pages. Chris is clearly a competent writer and communicator. Basic background science is given as it is needed, but it does not become patronising, as with some other works. Plenty of relevant anthrapological information is given to provide the reader with plenty to think about after a reading session. I particularly like the attention given to dating of specimens, as this is pivotal in the whole picture. If you are interested in this topic, I would put this book near the top of your list.
However, questions remain in my mind. While Chris does provide detailed explanations, I am still left with nagging doubt about the poor condition, and limited numbers of many of the specimens. This combined with large error bars on many of the dates does mean, at least to my mind, that there is some extrapolation and interpolation within this field. The other issued I am still pondering is a kind of 'location bias'. As the number of specimens is limited, I wonder how the places we find fossils influences our models. Is it just that preservations conditions were good in Ethiopia for example? It could have been that early humans existed in central Asia for example, but none were preserved, or have so far been found.
Any way, from these brief pondering, you can see that it is an interesting read.
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 23 December 2012
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.
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on 18 January 2017
Excellent, thought provoking book. Chris Stringer explains melodically and interestingly. A great readCr
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on 4 January 2017
Excellent Book, quick delivery and no problems.
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on 8 February 2017
great
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on 10 November 2016
Great read
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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.
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