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The Origin of Our Species
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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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VINE VOICEon 16 August 2015
This is a very readable, 'expressing my thoughts on the subject' kind of book that also includes quite a bit about what various other experts think about it all. Although this can be irritating at times, it can also be useful in stimulating the reader to research further into the subject as questions arise such as: why does he think that or why should there be any disagreement about this? Best of all, it guides the reader into forming his or her informed appreciation of the subject.

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.
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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.
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on 23 April 2016
For anyone interested in anthropology this is an excellent book. It is written clearly and logically with precise explanations where necessary. Chris Stringer takes all the known evidence, explains the conclusions of other experts and then gives his own opinion, without resort to ego (so often found in scientific books). He explains where we came from and how we got to this stage of human development, in terms that are understandable to the layperson as well as to the academic.I cannot recommend this book too highly.
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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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on 2 May 2013
Just finished this and I can safely say this is a five star book. Its inherently fascinating, it is the ultimate forensic investigation in the search for where ""WE came from and how we got here in our evolution. Some of the techniques described in arriving at some of the conclusions are mind boggling. It gives you a sense of the human achievement of the development of the sciences required to examine an ancient ancestral fossil, which are so rare and precious they can only be very minutely interfered with, if at all, out of fear of damaging them and destroying evidence for future generations in the continued search of "the Origin of our specie". A specie that evolved to devellop the means to examines its own origin and ancient past,which in a way is a beautiful irony.

The book fills you with a sense of wonder and unity of our specie and a realisation we are all the remnants and surviving specie from a chain of evolution. The book can be complex, but that is not a criticism, I am a layman of moderate to stupid intelligence and I understood it all, the author is a talented explainer and you always come away with the intended conclusion. It's so well written it could easily be a holiday read.

If I had my way I would put this book on the school science curriculum, I highly recommend it.
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on 14 August 2014
Speaking as a non-expert, but also as somebody who is genuinely interested in how Homo Sapiens Sapiens got to be so big for his boots, I would rate this as the current best survey on the subject. This guy covers every angle of the subject expertly, readably and convincingly. He doesn't concentrate endlessly on, for example, archaeological finds, or genetic route plotting to the exclusion of all else. A beautiful rounded all-encompassing look at out remote past. The one flaw which he himself points out in the book is that he seems to have changed his mind a bit while writing it, as the last couple of chapters take a different tack. Anyway, its a really fine book.
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on 5 August 2013
The discovery of the exact path of human evolution seems to be very much a work in progress. In this book Chris Stringer sets out in an easily readable style, all the latest evidence. He also gives his own interpretation of that evidence as well that of others who may have differing opinions. My only wish is that this hadn't been the first book that I have read on human evolution, since there is a huge amount of information to take in and so much is still open to speculation. Had I read a slightly more basic book on the subject previously I'm sure I would have come away with a much greater understanding. In conclusion, highly recommended particularly if you already have some previous knowledge of the subject. If you're not familiar with the basics (as I wasn't) you might want to start with a simpler read before this one.
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on 11 May 2013
I have heard Chris Stringer in a staged interview with Jean Auel, the author of the wonderful Earth's Children series of books, set in the Stone Age. This book was an excellent way of learning more about our lineage, including the only fairly recently acknowledge fact that our DNA contains positive traces of Neandethal man.

When Jean Auel wrote of the mixture of our ancestors with the neanderthalls in her first book in 1986, it was not accepted at all by anthropologists or indeed anyone at all. She has been proved right and Chris Stringer's book makes that very clear.

It is a very readable book, with a wealth of references to follow up if one wishes to do so.

I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who wants to know about our origins.
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on 20 March 2014
Written for the intelligent but non-specialist reader, this is a good read. Though full of is and buts, the general story (and I use that word advisedly - I'm sure some critics would pounce!) of how humans evolved is quite clear and how knowledge has been gained, especially over the last forty years, fascinating. This book's from 2011 - given the speed our knowledge is advancing it would be good to see it updated from time to time. Even at extra cost.
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