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Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors [Hardcover]

by Nicholas Wade
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (165 customer reviews)


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Book Description

April 20, 2006 1594200793 978-1594200793 1st
Based on a groundbreaking synthesis of recent scientific findings, an acclaimed New York Times science reporter tells a bold and provocative new story of the history of our ancient ancestors and the evolution of human nature

Just in the last three years a flood of new scientific findings-driven by revelations discovered in the human genome-has provided compelling new answers to many long-standing mysteries about our most ancient ancestors-the people who first evolved in Africa and then went on to colonize the whole world. Critically acclaimed New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade weaves this host of news-making findings together for the first time into an intriguing new history of the human story before the dawn of civilization. Sure to stimulate lively controversy, he makes the case for novel arguments about many hotly debated issues such as the evolution of language and race and the genetic roots of human nature, and reveals that human evolution has continued even to today.

In wonderfully lively and lucid prose, Wade reveals the answers that researchers have ingeniously developed to so many puzzles: When did language emerge? When and why did we start to wear clothing? How did our ancestors break out of Africa and defeat the more physically powerful Neanderthals who stood in their way? Why did the different races evolve, and why did we come to speak so many different languages? When did we learn to live with animals and where and when did we domesticate man's first animal companions, dogs? How did human nature change during the thirty-five thousand years between the emergence of fully modern humans and the first settlements?

Wade takes readers to the forefront of research in a sweeping and engrossing narrative unlike any other, the first to reveal how genetic discoveries are helping to weave together the perspectives of archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, linguistics, and many other fields. This will be the most talked about science book of the season.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Scientists are using DNA analysis to understand our prehistory: the evolution of humans; their relation to the Neanderthals, who populated Europe and the Near East; and Homo erectus, who roamed the steppes of Asia. Most importantly, geneticists can trace the movements of a little band of human ancestors, numbering perhaps no more than 150, who crossed the Red Sea from east Africa about 50,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, their descendents, Homo sapiens, became masters of all they surveyed, the other humanoid species having become extinct. According to New York Times science reporter Wade, this DNA analysis shows that evolution isn't restricted to the distant past: Iceland has been settled for only 1,000 years, but the inhabitants have already developed distinctive genetic traits. Wade expands his survey to cover the development of language and the domestication of man's best friend. And while "race" is often a dirty word in science, one of the book's best chapters shows how racial differences can be marked genetically and why this is important, not least for the treatment of diseases. This is highly recommended for readers interested in how DNA analysis is rewriting the history of mankind. Maps. (Apr. 24)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Genetics has been intruding on human origins research, long the domain of archaeology and paleoanthropology. Veteran science journalist Wade applies the insights of genetics to every intriguing question about the appearance and global dispersal of our species. The result is Wade's recounting of "a new narrative," which also has elements of a turf war between geneticists and their established colleagues. He efficiently explains how an evolutionary event (e.g., hairlessness) is recorded in DNA, and how rates of mutation can set boundary dates for it. For the story, Wade opens with a geneticist's estimate that modern (distinct from "archaic") Homo sapiens arose in northeast Africa 59,000 years ago, with a tiny population of only a few thousand, and was homogenous in appearance and language. Tracking the ensuing expansion and evolutionary pressures on humans, Wade covers the genetic evidence bearing on Neanderthals, race, language, social behaviors such as male-female pair bonding, and cultural practices such as religion. Wade presents the science skillfully, with detail and complexity and without compromising clarity. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1st edition (April 20, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594200793
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594200793
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (165 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #180,599 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dear Amazon Reader,
I'm the author of two books on recent human evolution. They are addressed to the general reader interested in knowing what the evolutionary past tells us about human nature and society today.
One, Before the Dawn, traces how people have evolved during the last 50,000 years. As of this writing the book has received almost 100 reviews from Amazon readers, most of whom have been kind enough to say they liked it.
The other, The Faith Instinct, looks specifically at religion. In it I first explore how religious behavior evolved in early humans, and then follow the cultural development of religion from hunter gatherer societies to those of the present day. One of the book's themes is that religious behavior evolved because it conferred significant advantages on the first societies to practice it, and that it is of continuing value today. The book should be of interest both to people of faith and to those with none. It does not attack the central position of either side, having nothing to say about whether or not God exists; it's about religious behavior, which everyone agrees does exist. Publication date is November 11, 2009.
How did I came to write these books? Not by any very direct or logical route. I was born in Aylesbury, England, then a rural outpost where cattle were stalled in the central town square on market days. I was educated at Eton, a school founded for poor scholars by Henry VI in 1440 AD, and then at King's College, Cambridge, also founded by Henry VI. Perhaps this connection with the medieval past gave me a fondness and respect for history. Still, I got my degree in science and have spent much of my life as a journalist writing about scientific issues of various kinds.
My first serious job was at Nature, a leading weekly scientific magazine based in London, after which I moved to Washington DC to join Science, Nature's principal rival in the United States. Nature and Science exist mostly to publish research findings but both have news sections addressed to scientists. It was in the course of writing news articles for Science that I learned of the epic rivalry between Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally to win the Nobel prize. Their 21 year race was the subject of my book The Nobel Duel, (now alas out of print).
Another book that grew out of reporting for Science was Betrayers of the Truth, written with my colleague William Broad. We analyzed the many cases of scientific fraud we had reported for Science, trying to find common patterns in who commits fraud, why they do it, and why they are almost never detected by the vaunted checking mechanisms of science like peer review and replication. The book appeared many years ago, but nothing has changed since. Fraud continues to be detected by those with personal knowledge of the deceiver, not by the official procedural safeguards of science.
Leaving Science, I joined the New York Times as an editorial writer and wrote about political issues to do with science, the environment and defense. After 10 years of issuing opinions, I moved to the more objective realm of the paper's science section, first as its editor and then as a reporter. A great benefit of reporting is that the job requires speaking to the leading experts in a field, through whom one has the chance to become very well informed - the perfect vantage point from which to write books. I wrote Lifescript (2001), an account of the race to sequence the human genome and its consequences. Then followed Before the Dawn (2006), the story of evolution since modern humans dispersed some 50,000 years ago from the ancestral homeland in northeast Africa.
Before the Dawn gave me the idea of trying to reconstruct the genesis of religion, a crucial social behavior that clearly emerged before modern humans left Africa. The Faith Instinct takes the reader from the religious practices of the ancestral human population, to the spring and harvest festivals of early agricultural societies, the historical origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the role of religion today in morality, reproductive behavior, warfare and statecraft. I learned much fascinating information from writing the book and reached conclusions that I hadn't at all expected to arrive at. If a book is a surprise to its author, as this one was to me, there's a chance it will contain something new and interesting for the reader, as I hope will be the case.
- Nicholas Wade



Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
433 of 446 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
"Before the Dawn" is a very well written survey of what genetics can teach us about the origin and evolution of the human species. Starting with the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees 5 million years ago, Wade explores the latest theories about the development of the "hominid" line and explains why homo sapiens evolved differently from our cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos.

Most of the books about human origins tend to focus on paleoanthropology and related disciplines. "Before the Dawn" does a great job of synthesizing the discoveries of paleoanthropolgists with the findings of geneticists--in some cases, examination of human DNA has confirmed what paleoanthropolgists have long believed, in others it has raised new and sometimes disturbing questions.

Without becoming overly technical, Wade explains how scientists use the study of DNA to determine when signficant events occurred in human evolution--for example, when humans began to use fully modern language (about 50,000 years ago), the size of the ancestral population of modern humans (as small as 150 people), or when the ancestral population left the African continent (also around 50,000 years ago).

Some of Wade's observations may surprise and trouble many people. Creationists will not be pleased with the book's basic view that Darwin's theory of natural selection is absolutely correct and that it applies to people as well as animals.
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219 of 237 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating, meticulous and wide in scope April 20, 2006
Format:Hardcover
I liked this book a lot. The material is complicated, but familiar at the same time. When I thought about it, I found that I had a number of ingrained notions about ancient human life. I had a picture in my mind of a relatively peaceful caveman, the same one from grade school textbooks and the natural history museum- I had never really thought about ancient human history, or what humanity's predecessors might have been like. This book examines those points in depth- how our ancestors might have walked, made tools, begun to speak, and spread across the world. A main point of this book is that scientists' growing understanding of the information encoded in DNA, along with integrating information from other disciplines, can provide a window into human history we have never had before.

The breadth of disciplines that apply to this topic are amazing, encompassing history, biology, primatology, archaeology, linguistics, paleontology, sociology, behavioral science, and many others- it was enjoyable to learn about different fields of normally esoteric knowledge from someone who can explain it all clearly and interestingly. And delicately- for example, the chapter on race is an artful discussion of the new questions we can ask about race and evolution with DNA, describing with precision what sort of meaningful things can and cannot be said about race from a biological standpoint, versus a sociological one.

This book is reminiscent in some respects to Guns, Germs, and Steel, another book looking at humans from a more biology-focused perspective (in fact, Mr. Wade addresses a couple of claims made in it), and people who liked that book would almost certainly enjoy this one. This book is similarly broad in scope, yet surprisingly concise, which I suppose might be expected from a journalist. Anyway, it is a well-written, fun and interesting book, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science in general and human history and biology in particular-
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92 of 101 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wow, a great read April 20, 2006
Format:Hardcover
For those of us science junkies Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade is a wonderful fix. Wade does a masterful job at making the science easy to understand and "wows" the reader with terrific examples at how modern genetic research is lifting the curtain on human history.

Wade links together diverse areas in his discussion of modern genetics. Language development is an interesting example, but he also looks at how the scientific evidence is also shedding new light on to areas of human development such as social behavior, and even ideas about the rise of religion, and also includes an interesting discussion of racism.

Organized in a logical manner with interesting chapters, Wade also includes great notes. At 320 pages the book is easily a weekend read and would be a great companion at the beach. Some of his conclusions will raise the ire of some readers, but Before the Dawn is a must read for those who want to stay on top of whats happening in human research.

Perhaps most refreshing of all is the application of genetics research to a topic of great interest and importance of all of humankind. Genetics in Before the Dawn isn't a punch line in some television show but hard science.

I highly recommend this book.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The science of DNA analysis has progressed with amazing rapidity over the last decade, confirming, correcting and filling in the details outlined by pioneers in human migration such as Stanford's Luigi Cavalli-Sforza. The most powerful tools at the moment are analysis of the Y-chromosome, which is heritable only from the father, and mitochondrial DNA, heritable from the mother. Both are subject to small mutations from generation to generation. The time at which populations quit interbreeding can be fairly accurately determined by which mutations they share and which they don't. Scientist Spenser Wells' "The Journey of Man" does an excellent job of describing the science. Wade does so with fewer words and less depth, and brings Wells' work up to date. Wells thought Europeans and East Asians parted company in the heart of the Russian steppes; Wade has Europe being populated by a more southerly route.

Wade's human timeline has us becoming "anatomically modern" 100,000 years ago, acquiring language sometime thereafter, with a pioneer group of 150 or so individuals emigrating out of Africa to displace Neanderthals and other archaic humans around 50,000 years ago. These timelines are later than other writers have posited. It raises the question, what is language? Wade sees it as the essential tool for communicating culture: the acquired knowledge, toolmaking skills, religion and social skills that made it possible for humankind to transcend the hunter-gatherer style of life.

His discussion of linguistic paleontology, and its ties with paleoanthropology, the ways in which people and languages moved and morphed, shows the benefit of coming at a problem from several angles. Languages evolve rapidly.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating material, but ...
Wade is fascinating until he gets to the "continental races" part. After that he tanks, especially since his (retrograde, no matter how delicately he frames 'em) ideas on... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Angela Sorby
5.0 out of 5 stars amazingly thought-provoking
An easy read if you have just a bit of scientific interest and education. Admire the authors willingness to address subjects normally considered verboten, such as why restriction... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Larry Gerbrandt
5.0 out of 5 stars The story of human evolution
An amazingly comprehensive history of the homo sapiens from its beginning five million years ago through its continued evolution in recent times. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Stanley K. Henshaw
5.0 out of 5 stars Where do I come from - read and find out!!
I am finding this book to be an eye opener. I was taught many conventional things as I grew up (I am now 85) and have often wondered about mankind and how it came to be. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Reg Brian-Davis
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Book | Interesting Topic
There is a great deal of material in this work and it is well written and interesting. Nevertheless, the work does at some points rely on very simple and weak inferences to reach... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Timothy E. Kennelly
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on the big picture of humanity
Great read on the pre history of humanity that got us to where we are as a species today. I think it could use an update on the Denesovian research of the human branch that is... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Chad Bester
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution to Date
Bang up to date and full of insights. Marvellous reading. Accessible and current. A wonderful book on evo devo to date.
Published 4 months ago by Glen Small
1.0 out of 5 stars Sexist and Racist -- deeply disappointed
I was really looking forward to reading Wade's "Before the Dawn" but was shocked, almost immediately, by the blatant sexism and racism in the book under the guise of... Read more
Published 4 months ago by EmmaSofia
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading for those interested in recent discoveries in human...
informative, describing much of recent genetic research that has influence views of human evolution, referencing prominent authors and researchers in the field.
Published 4 months ago by Richard Wohl
5.0 out of 5 stars DNA help in evoultion
DNA, an answer to many old questions and very important in today's research .. but it also creates some new questions about "us". Read more
Published 5 months ago by Robert K. Hamilton
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Before the Dawn
It's been six years. I demand an update to this wonderful book!Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors Read more
Mar 15, 2013 by Jane Tucker |  See all 2 posts
An unfounded assumption
The analogy here is chimpanzees (clearly hunter/gathers) who do go out in small raiding parties to attack neighboring groups.
Jun 2, 2007 by gypsy lee rose |  See all 5 posts
Who Was Adam?
How many times can you rewrite the Bible to fit new scientific findings? At some point you're going to have to concede that it has just been stretched too far to be infallible.
Dec 21, 2007 by Brian Hamilton |  See all 5 posts
natural selection
The professor does not understand evolution because he has never made the effort. Not only has research supported evolution, but the principles of evolution been used in computers to design new devices. Recently, for example, NASA used an evolutionary program to design a new antenna for use in... Read more
Oct 18, 2006 by R Young |  See all 3 posts
racism or just science?
The existence of genetic variations between different groups of Homo Sapiens is obvious to anyone with eyes. It's no more racist to notice this than it is to notice that a St Bernard and a German Shepard are different breeds of
canine. But don't take the baiting, ignorance and hysteria too... Read more
May 31, 2008 by Raymond Davis |  See all 10 posts
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