on November 25, 2005
This book is actually about the evolution of apes, starting with Proconsul and working up to all of the living apes, including us. But it is we who are at center stage, with the others in supporting roles.
The book starts with an extended section on how fossils and evolution are studied. This includes how dates are estimated, how fossils are formed, and how environments and climate fit into the picture. Then there are descriptions of some dig sites. The next section, titled "The Fossil Evidence", covers many fossils from our past, along with some analysis. The final section, "Interpreting the Evidence", is mostly about what the evidence tell us regarding behavior, especially tool use. This will be the payoff for many readers, since it is what makes us human.
There is little technical language; when it is necessary to use a technical term, it is usually explained, for example "humerus (upper arm bone)". There is no way to avoid using the scientific names of the fossil species, but the translations, such as "Greek ape" for "Graecopithecus", will help.
The text is divided into bite-size pieces of 2-6 pages, each with several illustrations. The pieces have such titles as "Dating the Past", "The Neanderthals", "The First Americans". The illustrations consist of photos and drawings, mostly in color, as well as graphs and charts. It's not quite a coffee table book, but I did find myself a few times thumbing through to look at the pictures.
Obviously, a book with such a large scope can't cover any particular topic in any detail. But if you want more information on something, you can Google it. Instead, this book brings everything into one picture, so to speak, showing how the pieces relate to each other. It is a fine introduction or overview for any interested non-scientist.
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]
on July 19, 2006
I recommend that one read an introductory text on biological evolution before going into this book, but even without that backgroud "The Complete World of Human Evolution" is a great way to learn about apparent human evolution. The authors incorporate a lot of charts, graphs, and pictures to illuminate the field of paleoanthropology for the educated reader who has no formal background in the field. I liked how the authors introduced the academic study of paleoanthropology to the reader, as well as briefly discussing a handful of important archaeological sites. They discuss primate anatomy and evolution and how this relates to human evolution. In the middle portion they discuss each genus and/or species and how they fit into the entire picture. The final portions discuss the role genetics plays in our understanding of human evolution and migrations. The tone is mildly academic but if one knows how to read there shouldn't be a problem. Again, I particularly enjoyed this book because of the pictures and drawings of fossils, archaeological sites, etc., but they are by no means a crutch for the authors. They elucidate modern ideas about the subject, and they readily admit it when there isn't a consensus about a particular point. Admittedly, the authors believe what they know and one can tell that in their tone. There is also a nice bibliography but I found it to be a little dated. I would have liked to have seen more up-to-date resources about how the nonspecialist reader can find out about new finds and discoveries. Overall, if one is interested in this subject, one can start here.
on March 7, 2007
Chris Stringer and Peter Andrews did a superlative job with the book. It is the best one I have read on the subject. It is beautifully illustrated with copious colored photos and drawings. The pages are of thick quality paper. The topic is covered thoroughly and competently. It is very up to date and educational. It would make a great gift, a great reference book, a great textbook for an anthropology course, or just a great read for yourself. I think that it is priced at only one-fourth of its real value and I love bargains.
Ralph Hermansen, March 7, 2007
on March 29, 2008
This book gives a good introduction into the origins and ancestry of the human species. It is divided into three parts.
The first part gives insight in how the research field operates with chapters about the geological timescale, human variation, analytical techniques, dating technologies, taphonomy, etc. What is especially good about this segment is that it also discusses six excavation sites so you get a real feel about what paleoanthropology is all about. This is all done in a short, understandable way, but without simplifying things.
The second part covers the fossil evidence and takes us on the trail of our origins. It covers some 30 million years of history. Beginning with the origins of primates, it takes you on a tour covering the fossils of amongst others Proconsul, Australopithecus Africanus, Homo Ergaster, Homo Erectus, the Neanderthals, Homo Floresiensis, Homo Sapiens. These are all discussed in short chapters doing justice to the scientific issues concerning them (and there are a lot, because all the evidence is scarce and incomplete). Other issues, what makes an ape, migration (multi-regional versus out of Africa), Neanderthal DNA, and others, are also discussed separately.
The third part interprets the evidence. Discussing locomotion in apes and humans, feeding habits, use of tools, art etc.
All in all this book gives a short but clear cut introduction into this field. It is well ordered, written clearly and accompanied by beautiful photography, illustrations and graphics. I also read Carl Zimmer's Smithsonian Intimate guide to human origins but prefer this one because it does more justice to the scientific difficulties and complexities that this field of research has to cope with. (But by all means read that one also! Or his Parasite Rex, which was great!)
on February 26, 2013
This is an up-to-date and readable account of recent developments in Human Evolution. It presents a balanced account, without pushing any one particular view. So often authors in this area trumpet their own discoveries as being the important finds, and dismiss the finds of their competitors. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in science, and wishing to get current in this area. I myself am a Professor of Chemistry, but try to keep abreast in all major areas of science, and found this an excellent book in this regard. These authors are clearly 'splitters', however - almost every find is a new species. I would have preferred it if they reduced the number of species of hominids to perhaps a dozen at most. I also thought they might have given Robert Broom more coverage and credit - he was the real driving force behind the discovery of further Australopithecus examples, and of paranthropus.
on April 25, 2015
These folks know their stuff.
The authors are both prominent anthropologists connected with the Natural History Museum in London. Chris Stringer is a leading anthropologist in more ways than one. Involved since 1970s, he helped develop this field by being among the first: to focus on Modern Human Origins, to bring database analysis to Anthropology and use sophisticated statistical analysis to analyze information “buried” there. He is best known for being a first and leading proponent of “Recently Out of Africa" theory (ROA) for Modern Human origins. (On this he is about as close to the horse’s mouth as you are likely to get).
Peter Andrews was the head of Human Origins at the Museum until he retired. He continued there as a research associate and is a Professor Emeritus, University College, London. He is a noted expert on Miocene Apes and the evolution of primates leading to Human Origins, and is interested in their Paleoecology (ancient habitats and ecology).
LEVEL AND LITERARY QUALITY
So not surprisingly, this book is not the best book to read if it’s your first introduction to the field. But while not at the beginner’s level, it’s only a step up. You will get more out of it if you do read an introductory book like Carl Zimmer’s “Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins” or Robie Mckie’s “Dawn of Man- The Story Of Human Evolution” (IMHO – better written than Carl’s but more out of date). Both of those books were well written by talented science writers, and are heavily illustrated.
This book’s authors are scientists and the book has just a bit of a academia to it (especially the Miocene apes material). But it was written for the lay-public and it is definitely accessible with even just a little background. They try to avoid scientific jargon for and usually clearly define pretty what they cannot avoid. There is no technical analysis involved, not a bit of math or the like.
Chris is a talented wordsmith. His writing is open and conversational and he knows how to add color and interest to make it engaging. But his writing style also suffers from the downside of conversation – it can ramble and jump around and is prone to run-on sentences and paragraphs.
Dr Andrews is less open and conversational, but his structure is more coherent. On the other hand, both men tend to cross-references -move back and forth.
The publisher is great. Not only did they produce a high quality book, I believe they imposed a format that helps. The material is organized by being broken down into clear readable segments with subtitles. And they use copious illustrations that break up the text that would otherwise run-on. (I have read some other of Chris’s book without this format, and it’s a lot more work). A brilliant move by the publisher.
There are numerous illustrations: taking up about half the space of the book. But contrary to one reviewer’s comment’s, they are mostly useful and support the text and add clarify and additional information. There are, however, too many site collection and scenery photos which could be reduced.
The photos and illustrations are mostly high quality (many are colored) which adds to the reading experience. But I am not a fan of the reconstruction scenes. To me that artist’s interpretations tend to look too much alike (between species) and cartoonish - not of the same quality currently available. But some charts are exceptionally good. The species timeline at the front of book is one of the very best I have seen and it helped to stay organized in reading about the species, especially the apes. The land / sea configuration maps on page 100 is not usually seen in introductory books, but helpful. And generally the fossil comparisons are well done.
The book is an up to date (2011-12) overview of the evolution of late primate (especially Miocene Apes) to Modern Human origins. It covers most of the major species of Hominoids. One of the books strongest assets is material on Miocene Apes. Its hard to find such a review, written at this level. The book is worth having for this alone.
It mostly deals with the major fossil species but also describes important collecting sites and gives background on their likely habitats. This has a lot of information and detail packed into its 229 pages (about 115 pages of equivalent text). Most of this information is of a summary nature –the book is a good review of the field, but at the same time, gets into sufficient details on specific aspects of fossils that reveal information about our evolution.
Two other reviewers Vierhout "noord23" and Jerry Saperstein do a good job of summarizing the general content of the book so there is no point of repeating it here.
The publisher’s devices help organize the book, but it would help if the writing itself was more organized and coherent. (which is why I initially was going to give it 4 stars). I tried to use the index to overcome the fractured writing but found it to be a minimal ONE. This is a publishing area that could be improved. I also found the illustration credits almost useless.
A criticism on content is that it’s very weak in DNA and genetics – which has made major contributions lately, and is likely to become one of the most important subfields. You are going to have to get this information from more advanced reading. The same can be said about inferring behavior and social organization. While some is present at the end of the book there is much more that can be said about it. On the plus side, much in this area currently is really speculation – which this book does not get into. (Chris Springer's more advanced book: "Lone Survivors....." goes into more detail here but the fractured writing is the same, and the publisher is poor.)
RATING AND VALUE:
Initially I was going to give this 4 stars. But on reflection decided on 5 stars. For the right person, this would be appropriate. This is a very good book for someone who was more informed but hasn’t checked the field for a while and wants to be brought up to date. It’s good for someone who has an introductory level background but wants to begin to gain more advanced background in the area – an ideal transition book. And it’s illustrations, quality and information about Miocene apes and other incidental information make it worthwhile for others.
on September 13, 2008
I am not an expert in this area. I saw a TV series on Discovery channel and I got interested. This book offers SO MUCH information!! It is written rigorously like an academic book, but the wealth of pictures, photos, make it an interesting read. I learned a lot from this book. I also like the fact that they provide lots of facts, and not so much speculation. I'd recommend it to people who are interested in learning more about human evolution.
on June 14, 2014
In this outreach work, the author describes the possible paths of the evolution of man from twenty million years ago. Analyzes the findings of new researchers and how through these discoveries are the evolutionary pathways possible. But scientific language is not used; it is for the general public. The most important is that how new discoveries are collected and how these fit prior knowledge.
on February 2, 2014
I found the book to thorough in detail and well laid out but it had too many pictures. Or perhaps more appropriately too many effectively irrelevant pictures. About 30-40% of the way into the book up until about 70-80% the reading could be bit "difficult" for the average reader. I only say this as to keep all of the names in your head and their place in time and characteristics and frequent referrals back to them some times makes you think you are watching a Taratino movie with no sense of time lines. =) That is a bit facetious but correct in my view. If you are looking for a short book that gets you a wealth of information and a host of colourful pictures this is the book for you. I thought the last sentences of the book very pertinent even if not directly related to evolution but rather the human species as a whole.