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Stringer Inherits Darwin's Crown on the Origin of the Human Species
on 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.