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

Nicholas Wade
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (178 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: 1 x 6.7 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (178 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #222,223 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author


Nicholas Wade is the author of three books about 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, published in 2006, traces how people have evolved during the last 50,000 years.
The second book, The Faith Instinct (2009), argues that because of the survival advantage of religion, an instinct for religious behavior was favored by natural selection among early human societies and became universal in all their descendants.
A Troublesome Inheritance (2014), the third of the trilogy, looks at how human races evolved.
Wade was born in Aylesbury, England, and educated at Eton and at King's College, Cambridge, where he studied natural sciences. He became a journalist writing about scientific issues, and has worked at Nature and Science, two weekly scientific magazines, and on the New York Times.






Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
445 of 459 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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223 of 241 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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56 of 59 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
4.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Book on Human Evolution - but already passed 7 years old
An excellent rendition on human evolution. Through concise elaboration of the advances made from the various fields associated to the topic, this book permits the reader to gain a... Read more
Published 3 days ago by Josh Gaudet
5.0 out of 5 stars Most Enjoyable.
This is the most informative book I've ever read on the subject of human history - all five million years of it. Read more
Published 5 days ago by L. Farwell
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
A must read for anyone interested in genetics and the evolution of our language
Published 8 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Good
Published 8 days ago by Jill Leckron
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping book, clearly presented and reasoned.
The author wrote with clarity and humor, and distilled a vast amount of academic work into a readable and in fact enjoyable form. Read more
Published 13 days ago by Pater Familias
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read.
I learned more about human evolution by reading this book than I did in four years of college.

One of the reasons is that almost all of the science involving DNA and the... Read more
Published 23 days ago by Rand E. Gerald
5.0 out of 5 stars Important information, Skillfully Presented
Exceeded expectations. First portion more organized and specific than laager which seem to be condensed to fit pages allowed. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Panama Ice
5.0 out of 5 stars Focused Anthopology
This book is the best compendium on the early evolution of that great bipedal ape, Homo Sapiens. Yes, human beings are animals, not plants or minerals. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Brian Duggan
5.0 out of 5 stars Pre-historic man is explained
Excellent explanation of how archaeology, genetics, and physical science combine to show how we evolved. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Phil Riggs
3.0 out of 5 stars So so
At first I thought I had a five star book in my hands. The beginning part about genetics is good, but then he gets into these wholly unsubstantiated conclusions. Read more
Published 1 month ago by S. Morris
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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 Amazon Customer |  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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