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The Dawn of Human Culture
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108 of 112 people found the following review helpful
"The Dawn of Human Culture" proposes a theory for the "big bang" in human consciousness, an event that occurred about 50,000 years ago for reasons that are not entirely clear. The archaeological record suggests that humans became physically modern about 120,000 years ago--if you could dress a human from that time in modern clothes, he or she would blend in on the streets of any modern city.
Behavior, however, is a different matter. The authors present a very strong case that whatever it is that makes us fully "human" did not appear until about 50,000 years ago. At about that time, people suddenly started engaging in recognizably modern behaviors--producing stunning cave paintings, carving figurines, making complex ornaments, burying their dead with ritual, building semi-permanent structures, assembling an intricate tool kit, and expanding throughout the world. The authors readily concede that there are a few ambiguous examples of similar behavior among more ancient Neanderthals and archaic homo sapiens, but the change after 50,000 years ago is a flood compared to the trickle that came before it.
To unravel the mystery of this abrupt event, the authors start with the appearance of australopithicenes and other "hominids" that may or may not be ancestral to modern humans. They then carry the tale forward, describing "revolutions" in tool making and other behavior (of which there were very few before 50,000 years ago).
I was impressed by how careful the authors were in laying out their arguments for the lay reader. Each point is clearly made, and the authors give fair treatment to scientists with whom they disagree. They scrupulously note when they have chosen to accept one point of view over another. The result is a meticulous, fair summary of what scientists know about the origins and development of the human species--as well as an intriguing answer to the mystery of how we came to be (no, I'm not going to give away the authors' theory--read the book).
If you enjoy "The Dawn of Human Culture," there are two other books that you might want to read. The first is "Origins Reconsidered," by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin. Although the book is now a bit dated (it was published in 1992, before several significant discoveries in the late 1990s), it is a very well written tale describing the discovery of a lifetime.
The second is "Mapping Human History" --while not in the same scientific league as "The Dawn of Human Culture" or "Origins Reconsidered," this book offers an often interesting story of what our genes tell us about human history.
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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2005
I still don't know how Richard Klein and Blake Edgar managed to get so much of the story of human evolution into 277 pages. My guess is that Klein owes much to Edgar, who, as a professional science editor, had already co-authored a book with eminent paleoanthropologist, Donald Johansen. The book is just about as technical as the general reader can absorb, while patiently explaining, often repeatedly, why certain developments need to be understood. We get detailed explanations of all current geochronology techniques, along with the limitations of each. We learn how to overlay paleomagnetic dating to test dating processes. We also get a very readable sequence of craniodental morphologies among early hominids, along with explanations of why some of these hominids are, and some are not, our direct ancestors. The thoroughness of the presentation on artifact dating is more typical of academic writing, but Klein and Edgar believe we general readers need it, and they trust us to understand it. You will never be confused again about Oldovan, Acheulean, Mousterian, and Upper Paleolithic cultures, or how they fit into the Early, Middle, and Late Stone Ages. The illustrations are extremely useful, whether dealing with geochronology, hominid remains, artifacts, or migration patterns. Where this book stands above the field is in its treatment of the dispersion of hominids from Africa, intertwined with their anatomy and behavior. Klein and Edgar take particular care that we follow their logic that Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis share a common ancestor with Homo sapiens, likely Homo ergaster, but that they evolved on separate branches, leaving no descendants. For this, the authors rely on genetic analysis of the Y chromosome, correctly presuming that the general reader will not want excessive detail. In the last pages of the last chapter, the authors make good on the claim on the book's cover, to "a bold new theory on what sparked the "Big Bang" of human consciousness." Underlying the claim is the fact, as the authors persuasively document, that anatomically and behaviorally "near-modern" humans can be dated to 120,000 years ago, yet we see no evidence of a blossoming of the self-awareness and of self-expression which defines true modernity until much later. The earliest evidence is the Chauvet Cave paintings of 30,000 years ago. In explanation of this evolutionary lag, the authors offer their theory that "the...most economic explanation for the 'dawn' is that it stemmed from a fortuitous mutation that promoted the fully modern human brain." As the authors hasten to point out, "the strongest objection to the neural hypothesis (as they call it) is that it cannot be tested from fossils." And in the book's last line, they solicit "feedback on just how persuasive our logic is." This degree of diffidence is so uncommon in the community of professional paleoanthropologists that it will likely contribute to the theory's viability. But then, we wonder along with the authors, what alternative explanations to their neural hypothesis are even conceivable?
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71 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2006
There are in-depth reviews on this site that do justice to this otherwise excellent book. I would like to focus here on the one singularly troubling aspect (of this book) that has not received much attention in the other reviews.

The book's cover gives the impression that it reveals and expounds on a significant new theory on the genesis of human consciousness. At the least, a glance at the cover will give the impression that this theory is the central thesis of the book.

Much to my surprise and disappointment, however, I had to wait till the last 3-4 pages to discover what this 'bold new theory' was! Klein merely speculates in a few paragraphs that there was a fortuitous genetic mutation, circa 50,000 years ago, that resulted in a significant advance in human brain fuction.

There is no discussion on where this mutation occurred. If Homo Sapiens had already spread out of Africa by this time (as Klein states), how did the mutation effect all of humanity? If this is such a 'bold new theory', why does Klein spend so little space discussing it? Klein admits that no physical evidence for such a hypothesis can be found - the theory is not testable. Nevertheless, this does not let him off the hook for giving his thesis the detailed exposition that it deserves.

Undoubtedly, Richard Klein is one of the greatest anthropologists today. Given that, I am disappointed that he would (ostensibly) resort to a flashy title to increase this book's popularity. Klein's theory may well be actually what happened, but then it surely deserves a more in-depth treatment than what is presented here.

If you want to read a succinct account of human evolution and tool making, this book will satisfy you. There are a few other books, however, that are better in this respect. I was expecting more.....
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
This book is a very well written and detailed discussion of early hominid and pre-homonid evolution. In addition, Klein uses the fossil and cultural or tool-making evidence to address the issue of "the great leap forward," which occurred about 50,000 years ago. This event marked a key turning point in our cultural development, when humans began to engage in truly advanced, modern cultural behaviors as seen in the beautiful cave paintings, intricately carved figurines, and delicate, finely carved ornaments for jewelry such as ostrich egg-shell beads, the detailed and diverse toolkit, and the building of permanent and well-constructed houses and other structures.
However, I was mainly interested in this book because, since it was published in 2002, it contains discussions of the most recent palaeontological finds, such as Kenyanthropus platyops, Ardipithecus ramidus ramidus and Ardipithecus ramidus kadabba, and Orrorin tuganensis. These are then compared with the more well-known early ancestors, such as Australopithecus afarensis, or "Lucy," which is known from a number of fairly complete skeletons at this point, and others such as A. africanus, A. amanensis, and the three Paranthropus species, robustus, boiseii, and aethiopicus.
After reading the first 100 pages of the book, which discusses the finds up to about 1 million years ago, I looked up the original Nature article by Leakey, et al on Kenyanthropus online and read it. It was much more technical because of the specialized anatomical terminology (which, although I have some background in anatomy, I'm a little rusty), but I was able to get through it with some understanding after reading Klein's well-done presentation for the non-specialist.
Another nice feature is the excellent discussion of high-tech dating methods such as radio-isotope methods, luminescence dating, ESR or electron spin resonance techniques, and so on. Klein is also careful to discuss the pros and cons of each dating method, and what the difficulties are in using each method.
In addition to the discussion of the fossil finds, the author also does a fine job of carefully presenting the information and arguments about the cultural revolution that occurred about 50,000 years ago. All in all, a very well written, interesting, and enjoyable book discussing the most recent fossil finds and how the new evidence of our evolution and cultural development sheds light on the issue of the great leap forward.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2003
This is hands down the best introduction to human origins out there. Don't be fooled by the title: only a fraction of the text is devoted to explaining the dawn of human culture that occurred around 50 kya. The rest of the book superbly traces human evolution, from the earliest known hominids (including the recently discovered Sahelanthropus and Orrorin fossils) to fully modern Homo. Very clear explanations of modern dating techniques are interspersed throughout the text, and gathered together in an appendix for easy reference. The final chapters present a powerful argument for the authors' theory of what sparked the cultural transformation leading to behaviorally modern humans. Non-subscribers to this theory will be pleased with the coverage Klein gives to competing ones.

This is an excellent and very up-to-date introduction to human origins. Highly recommended.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Professor Klein and science editor Blake Edgar refer to "innovation" as the key to the great leap forward made by humans about 50,000 years ago. This was the beginning of human culture--the "dawn" as they call it. It wasn't a change in physiology--humans had been anatomically modern for something like 150,000 years. What changed was the wiring in the brain, or the chemistry in the brain or the linkage between the modules in the brain, or, as they express it, there was a "neurological shift"--at any rate, something that would never show up in a fossil.

This is Klein's theory and it is a persuasive one, albeit one that can never be proven--well, probably can never be proven. If under some ice sheet (as the planet continues to warm) we find a 100,000-year-old human intact, perhaps an examination of his or her brain and a comparison with the modern brain will give us the proof. Barring that very unlikely event, there is no way we can see what changed.

But it doesn't matter. Formal proof of Klein's conjecture (and of course, he is hardly the first to present such a theory) is unnecessary. We know from the behavioral changes that took place in something like a twinkling of an eye that humans beginning about 50,000 years ago were suddenly different. They had a culture that developed from the use of what might broadly be called symbolism. We can see this in the petroglyphs and cave art and artifacts that they left. We can also see it in the way they displaced the Neanderthals in Europe and left no trace of Homo erectus elsewhere in the world, and how quickly they spread to the far corners of the planet.

It is easy to see that they must have had symbolic language as well. Indeed, I think language really is the key to what happened, and this is Klein's point as well. The key idea is that "language is almost a kind of sixth sense, since it allows people to supplement their five primary senses with information drawn from the primary senses of others." (p. 146)

Today's mighty culture would be impossible without written language or some means of taking down and recording and maintaining human knowledge. Prior to written language this was done through an oral tradition handed down from one generation to the next. Myths, stories, poetry, ideas, information and methods were memorized and recited. Prior to that however, prior to the use of symbolic language, there would have been only a limited ability to pass ideas down from one generation to the next. It would have been difficult to even share some ideas with a contemporary. But once symbolic language developed, people could demonstrate events and things not present with others through the use of words--that is, symbols standing for the actual objects or events--nouns and verbs.

From a representation symbolically of something seen or something that happened, it was only a step to a representation of something never seen before--such as a net for catching birds or fish or a stampede of wildebeests over a cliff.

This is the innovation that Klein refers to. This is the difference between the Late Stone Age culture and the Middle Stone Age culture, between the Upper Paleolithic and the Mousterian. A human arm can throw a spear, but a human arm extended with a lance can throw the spear farther and with more force. People could travel only so far without water, but a people who carried water in skins or watertight baskets (not preserved in the fossil record obviously!) could travel much farther. Actually I imagine that the first truly modern humans carried soup--yes, soup with its sterile, boiled water--in skins on their backs!

What this book is about then is a close and detailed description of the progression from archaic humans to fully modern humans. It is a carefully constructed argument that shows that the change was not gradual, as some would have it, but abrupt. Whatever one may think about Gould and Eldredge's punctuated equilibrium, Klein makes it clear that in the case of human evolution, a key transformation--indeed THE key transformation--occurred quickly. The most persuasive part of their argument is that the "new" humans were able to not only dazzle us with their symbolic art, etc., they were able to grow their populations and thrive in places where humanoids had never survived before.

This book is also full of interesting information about archeology and anthropology, including how fossils are dated and theories developed. One of my favorite tidbits is this: the size of archaic human populations could be surmised by the size of tortoise bones! Since tortoises were relatively easy to catch, the biggest ones, "the most visible and the most meaty" would have been taken first. So as "the number of collectors increased, average tortoise size declined." (p. 166)

For many readers, the most interesting part of the book might be the distinction that Klein and Edgar make between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens: "It doesn't follow that Neanderthals and modern humans couldn't interbreed or that they never did, but the DNA results strongly support fossil and archeological findings that if interbreeding occurred, it was rare...this inference, together with fossil evidence...justifies their assignment to...separate species..." (pp. 185-186)

This is not an easy book, but it is not unnecessarily difficult either. I think Klein and Edgar did a good job of treading that fine line between being too technical (and jargony) and not technical enough.

By the way, despite the sensational subtitle (which only appears on the cover), the authors scrupulously and wisely avoid using the word "consciousness" throughout, and nowhere do they speak of a "Big Bang of Human Consciousness."
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2003
The Dawn of Human Culture is an excellent summary and synthesis of archeological evidence concerning the anatomical and behavioral development of that last 5 million years that led to the emergence of fully modern homo sapiens. The authors explain the theory of punctuated equilibrium and very convincingly describe the evidence and scientific analysis behind the identification of extraordinary punctuated events such as those that lead to bi-pedalism and tool making.
The strength of the book lies in its logical presentation, clarity of writing, explanation of key issues such as dating techniques and limitations, and behavioral inferences drawn from archaeological remains. Competing theories and evidence are given and, where rebutted, done so in a scholarly and positive way.
In addition to the excellent summation of archaeological and anthropological knowledge and theory to date, the authors postulate their theory, without avoiding discussion of its limitations, that modern human behavior, dated to have begun 50,000 years ago was due to a "genetic mutation that promoted the fully modern human brain". More could have been written in the final chapter to argue the theory; this is not a criticism, however, but rather a request for more from these two very accomplished authors.
I can highly recommend this book as a comprehensive and balanced summary and synthesis on the subject of human evolution.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2010
This is a very fun book of popular science. It covers the longitudinal evolution of humans from the split with the great apes about 6 million years ago, to the emergence of Cro-Magnon man as he emigrated from Africa. That part of the book is truly excellent: the authors reason through the suppositions in quite sophisticated arguments that describe the evidence and explain the techniques used to refine it, establishing what we know and what we can't, but never going into academic excess in convoluted proofs and arguments. There are many mysteries that they cheerfully acknowledge, such as the exact dates when Australia was populated or how the Neanderthals became extinct. It is both succinct and masterful.

First, you find the australopithecus and its evolutionary cousins, who began to walk upright and were less dependent on trees for protection and permanent habitat, though their arms were long and their legs relatively short. Their relatives - Gorillas, Chimpanzees, and Oran Utangs - stayed in the forest, while our ancestors moved into the savannah.

Second, you get the Homo Ergaster and Habilus, with the evolution of a thumb that could manipulate tools better as well as larger brains. Their stone tools were crude cutting edges that eventually evolved into hand axes, allowing them (with more nimble legs) to wander farther into the savannah and then to Europe and Asia. Though smarter, they kept to the same set of tools for nearly a million years, hunting in small bands and slowly fanning out to new geographical areas, essentially through what would become Israel. This brings us to about 800-500K years ago, when Homo Heidelbergensis (the common ancestor of Sapiens and Neanderthals) evolves a yet larger brain and far more refined stone tools and replaces Ergaster and Habilus.

Third, there emerges several variations of modern man: Neanderthals in Europe, and Sapiens somewhere in Africa. Evolving in parallel, they mingle some, but remain in their separate spheres until about 50K BCE. Both had brains that are essentially the same weight as the ones we have today, both used tools that varied little over hundreds of thousands of years, and as large meat-eating mammals both were essentially extremely rare, struggling in successive ice ages against predators of superior agility and strength. With extremely rare exceptions, they had no art, did not bury their dead with any ceremony (which would imply social sophistication), and remained slow to develop new technologies or hunting techniques. They were, quite literally, on the verge of extinction on numerous occasions, with perhaps only a few thousand in their populations.

Finally, about 50 K years ago, there is a revolutionary qualitative change in Homo Sapiens that no one can explain: they migrated out of Africa, began to quickly innovate with tools and hunting techniques; their populations exploded; eventually they even reached the Americas. They became the dominant predators, a force of geological impact as apparently they wiped out most species of large mammals wherever they went and even transformed the ecology of entire continents with the advent of agriculture; they had art, jewelry, ever improving projectile weapons, and extremely varied adaptability. About 10 K years ago, they began to differentiate into the races we see today, with the language roots we recognize today.

Now, according to the title, the book purports to explain this revolution. As many reviewers have noted, this occurs only in the last 3 pages of the book, and it is completely speculative, based on logic rather than evidence (which they acknowledge openly). They believe there was a mutation in the organization of the brain that enabled the Cro-Magnons to become fully verbal in their communication, allowing them to reason symbolically and share their ideas quickly, which gave them the edge to survive via communal action. This is extremely disappointing. I mean, you could also argue that they discovered something new to eat as the cause or that they mated with aliens as von Daniken speculated. Given the title, you would think that the entire book would be an academic proof of this concept, which is why I bought the book. This is why I rate this at 3 stars.

I recommend this book for its lucid and beautifully written overview of human evolution. However, do not look for anything really new, because it simply isn't there.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2007
As other reviewers have noted, this book presents a very nice summary of the current (as of 2002) knowledge about the history of the hominid lineage(s). (I know I'm supposed to say "hominin." Can't bring myself to do it.) The title, however, promises a "bold new theory" about the apparent very rapid flowering of human cultures roughly 50K years ago, and I have two problems with the book in that regard. First, I think "theory" is too strong a word for Klein's idea, because a scientific theory should be a solid and testable explanation that takes account of all the known facts. Klein presents a plausible-sounding hypothesis -- that some sort of genetic change, probably concerning language functioning, took place 50K years ago in Africa, but he adduces little evidence to support that idea. A genetic change is a reasonable idea of what might have happened, but Klein admits he sees no way to test that idea. He just thinks it's the best explanation for the explosion of culture seen in the archeological record shortly after 50K. My second objection is more substantive: his hypothesis conflicts with the genetic and archeological evidence that human beings had spread over a very large part of the world, including all the way into Australia, well before 50K years ago. For his hypothesis to be correct, all those pre-50K humans would have to have been swept away by the new improved version, and the genetic evidence that is available shows nothing of the sort. (For a thorough exposition of the genetic evidence based on mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome, including much information about the times at which various important genetic events must have occurred, see Oppenheimer's "The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey Out Of Africa.") Either the other evidence about when modern humans spread across the globe is wrong (unlikely but not ridiculous, given the uncertainties of dating), or Klein's 50K genetic change is wrong. They can only be reconciled by reconciling the dates -- maybe Klein's hypothesized genetic change took place 30K or 40K years sooner than he thinks. That, however, would place the genetic change far before the great cultural explosion that Klein supposes it to have caused.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2012

This book, despite its intriguing title and subtitle promising "a bold new theory on what sparked the "big bang" of human consciousness," does not deliver any information or ideas whatsoever about the "dawn of human culture" and delivers zero bold new theories about humanity's origins. Instead, it merely retreads -- at endless, pedantic length -- old information about the zillion differences between this old skull and that one, this hand ax and that one.

I only wish I had perused the reviews here and took in mind what other one-star reviewers had said. As several remark, is a REHASH of other, better books about -- as one reviewer pricelessly put it -- "bones, bones and more bones." Bingo. That's about all this book is. Olduvai Gorge, the Leakeys, hand axes, skulls, jawbones, femurs -- ad infinitum and tedium.

So whatever you do, if you are lookling for a good layman book on evolutionary ideas, don't believe the good reviews here -- they are clearly suspect. I love and read tons of layman books about science and evolution -- the last one I read, Catching Fire, by Richard Wrangham, is amazing -- and this is just flat-out not one of them. The author, editor and publisher should be ashamed of themselves for packaging a dull scientific survey of evolutionary footnotes as though it held anything as remarkable as one original thought anywhere between its two covers. The dust jacket might as well have been intended for another book entirely, it's so far from what it delivers.

This is truly one of the worst disappointments I think I have ever had in book form -- and probably having read close to a thousand books at this point, that is saying something. It's like Sea Monkeys in book form.

Clearly, the team behind this have a bright future in marketing.
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