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Customer Review

on 9 April 2006
Among science's "throwaway" lines, few have achieved the status of Charles Darwin's. When "The Origin of Species" was published, he dropped a teasing line about human ancestry at the very end: "Light will be thrown on the origins of man . . ." For over a generation after his death, the most significant human fossil proved a forgery. Stringer and Andrews have updated the record. In doing so, they've given us a finely crafted and superbly produced account of our ancestry. The term "world" is significant, as they display fossils, artefacts and the digs where these items were found from the southern tip of Africa to the edge of South America.
Breaking the study into three segments, the authors relate the history of archaeology, illustrating the evolutionary picture and the tools that detail it. They explain what the fossil evidence demonstrates about our ancestors, primate through hominid to human. Finally, they trace the path of our ancestors' expansion out of Africa into Asia, Australia, Europe and the Western Hemisphere. The running theme of the book is that we belong to the ape family. The primates have a long, diverse history, which firmly set our roots. From African origins, the apes sent emigrants into Asia and Europe. The hominin apes followed those paths and further. Human evolution didn't cease merely because our species inhabited most of the planet. The authors note the complexity of evolutionary forces and caution those who feel there is some "directionality" in our rise. Species survival must reflect knowledge of our roots.
As an enhancement to explaining how data about our evolution has been found and assessed, the authors have selected several sites of major importance. These digs range from the famous Olduvai Gorge excavations of the Leakey family to the Boxgrove site on the south coast of Britain. Each site is historically described and depicted with location and detailed maps. The teams have a say and the techniques involved in revealing the evidence of our past are explained. Analytical methods are related, particularly as they involve the sites. Of major interest is the placing of the site's past environmental in its palaeontological context. There are copious photographs of the site area, the fossils and other artefacts gleaned. It's impossible to see the workers on the digs without wondering how many of them will go on to make significant finds of their own in some new location.
The authors are meticulous in presenting the maximum amount of information possible in a limited space. There are morphological comparisons - skulls, legs and feet, hands and, of course, teeth - of various primates. The illustrations indicate how the passage of time modified structures and what the changes represent. Teeth and jaws, the dietary indicators, are given close, but not overmuch, attention. Among the many examples, a skull from Turkey, "Ankarapithecus meteai" is one of the science's "head scratchers". Although clearly an ape from an ancient time, the skull bears many anomalous characteristics. It may be an ancestor of today's orang utan. Among other mysteries related to this find is that its teeth appear to be closer to the human, than to the ape line.
Although at first glance, this book may appear almost "coffee-table" in its format and its rich illustrative material, it is a compilation of many serious studies. Although topics that have aroused debate are discussed, the sometimes acrimonious exchanges have been mercifully omitted. There is little in the way of speculation here, and the evidence is handled with respect for the work underlying it. The "Further Reading" section is adequate, relying more on books than research papers or field studies, but is fully up to date to the time of publication. The book is a fine addition to any collection of human evolutionary accounts. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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