Customer Reviews: Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth
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on April 2, 2012
Chris Stringer's "Lone Survivors: How We Came to be the Only Humans on Earth" comes along some seventeen years after his ground-breaking book "African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity" (Henry Holt, 1996). Stringer is one of the principal architects and proponents of the "Out-of-Africa" (OOA) hypothesis associated with the origin and dispersal of anatomically modern humans, i.e., Homo sapiens. According to Stringer and the OOA hypothesis, anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago, and then 'something' happened about 50,000 years ago that resulted in essentially the relatively rapid spread of our species into much of Eurasia, eastern Asia, Indonesia and Australia, and into western Europe over a period of about 10,000 years! What is even more remarkable is that it now appears that there were other populations of archaic Homo species that we coexisted and/or competed with for a time, likely including Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and the newly discovered little people of Flores, Homo floresiensis.

In just under 280 pages, Chris Stringer takes the reader through the history of our human origins with the fossil evidence. He synthesizes the latest advances in knowledge associated with paleoclimatology, geochronological dating methods, and geology and plate tectonics. Most importantly, Stringer spends much of the book talking about the evolution of human behavior (e.g., developing and utilizing technology, use of symbolism, developing survival and coping strategies, burial of dead, etc.). The evolutionary steps leading to Homo sapiens wasn't a given. It was really a very near run thing, and without the ability to rapidly adapt and respond to changing climate conditions and subsequent changed ecological conditions modern humans could quite likely have become extinct just as our close cousins, the Neanderthals, did about 30,000 years ago. For example, the massive supervolcanic eruption of Toba on the island of Java was very nearly a game-changer for all human species about 73,000 years ago. Finally, over the past couple of decades or so, much of the OOA hypothesis has been validated and bolstered with the results of numerous studies and analyses of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA. In other words, we really and truly are all African.

While all of this discussion of fossils, paleoconditions, and genetics may sound a bit daunting, complicated, or even off-putting, Dr. Stringer does a sterling job of leading the reader--whether layperson or specialist--through the data and evidence with his well-written and entertaining prose. I've kind of come to realize that Stringer and his peers--paleoanthropologists--are really much akin to detectives hot on the trail to better understand when we became who we are, and how we became who we are, and perhaps even be able to answer why. This book will definitely help you get your arms (and brain) around the critical issues and questions associated with what makes us human

In closing, it is my opinion that Chris Stringer's incredibly thought-provoking Chapter 8 of the book, "Making A Modern Human" ought to be required reading by all of us. I don't know that I have underlined more passages or made more marginalia notes in a book since I left college in the mid-1980s. Reading this book, and Chapter 8 in particular, has stimulated a desire in me to chase down a lot of the technical references and journal articles that Dr. Stringer has provided in the book's extensive bibliography. This is a subject that profoundly fascinates me, and I am committed to educate myself and better understand my human origins, and have nothing but admiration and gratitude to Chris Stringer for inspiring me toward this end. All I can say is read Lone Survivors, it really is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the current state-of-knowledge associated with our human origins that I've read.
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on April 10, 2012
Lone Survivor, titled Origin of Our Species in the UK, is an up-to-date overview of the science and speculation about our species' nature and survival. I found it well written and enjoyable but confusing at times because of a lack of headings of the different sections in the chapters. Springer changes topics and develops ideas within each chapter that could have been emphasized and organized by sub-headings.
The author deals mainly with the origins, cultures and travels of Erectus, Heidelbergensis, the Neanderthals and Sapiens. So, the book is focused on our species as the "lone survivor" with passing references to much earlier species. Springer also pays attention to the Neanderthals and, I believe, is up-to-date in the DNA science. I especially liked Springer's theory that cultures both grow and degenerate, explaining that physical and cultural changes may not be linear. He touches on art, language, and possible spiritual beliefs. Only occasionally did the author's suppositions not get labelled as such. For example, he mentioned that we are the only species to remember our dreams...
While this book is not a pure academic presentation nor a basic book nor summer beach read, it is written by an experienced scientist who is still entranced with his subject. I came away from this book with much more knowledge, the feeling that I had almost been in a conversation with the author and an admiration for the multiple hominids that walked all over this planet.
This book is worth a read and re-read! It has, by the way, a great bibliography. For more reviews, please check with AmazonUK.
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on October 14, 2012
I'm having a tough time deciding whether to give this book three stars or four. This is a very informative book, no doubt about that. If you're a layperson like me interested in the latest developments in the field of human origins, this book provides a wealth of up-to-date information and will also lead you into new ways of thinking about the subject. For instance, in my case, although it seems so obvious in retrospect, I never considered how important such a simple thing as population size was to the ultimate evolution of our species. But of course, ancient human populations were not necessarily expansive, as I had always tended to think of them, but at times could have been (and most likely were) limited to very small pockets of survivors, greatly impacting their ultimate chances for survival. And perhaps more importantly, greatly impacting the results of any survival. (Which leads to the further question, which the author puts forward: how many pockets like these might there have been which we do not yet even know about?)

And for this wealth of knowledge I give it four stars. This is a book well worth reading. You will be gifted with a thorough and thought-provoking survey of most of the recent trends and discoveries concerning the subject of human origins.

But, oh, the writing and editing ... It seems to me this book was a rush job, that with the field changing so quickly, both the author and editor felt compelled to get it to the market fast. And the text suffers for it. There are far too many references that are not adequately followed up on or placed out of context. Often the reader is left to simply scratch his head and wonder: what? And perhaps then wonder why even bother to continue. The chapter on dating techniques is almost unbearable. A little time and thought could have corrected many of these problems, but the editor(s) didn't seem to have or give much time and thought to it. And for that I am wanting to demote it to three stars.

But the light at the end of the tunnel, the one saving grace, is this: That each succeeding chapter tends to get easier to read than the one preceding. And in consequence, more interesting. So that if you can plow through the first eighty pages or so, you will get rewarded the rest of the way through. And even more so the further you read.
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on August 15, 2012
This book seems clearly intended for a lay audience (no footnotes or endnotes, lots of background info), but seems to me to be suffering from a case of "expertitis." I got about halfway through the book and became so befuddled with the cloud of information that I just gave up. I agree with Velho that a stronger editor's hand was needed, at least to bring out the substructure of Stringer's discussion so that the educated layperson could actually track and remember it. On the macro-scale, the chapters give the reader some help, and on the micro-scale, Stringer's prose is comfortable and engaging. Unfortunately in between it gets very disorienting - like having a map with only countries and no towns, or only towns and no connecting streets. Once I began to feel that, I looked around more critically and noticed that the illustrations (mostly photos of fossil remains and a couple of maps) seemed just plopped into the book in random locations, often far from where their subject matter was discussed in the text; there should also have been many more illustrations, tightly linked to the text, given the many relatively unfamiliar names that came up in his argument. An editor should have caught that and with a little effort the book could have been greatly improved for its (apparent) target audience.
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on July 11, 2012
Caution: As another reviewer noted, this is the same book as Stringer's The Origin of Our Species, published in the UK. Nowhere in Amazon's description is this stated, and since one was published in 2011 and the other in 2012, I thought they were different and ordered both titles. The book is an interesting survey of recent research, focused on the way genetics is clarifying much that was in the fossil record. I recommend the book, but it seems silly to have changed the title and cover when it crossed the ocean. Very confusing.
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on May 28, 2012
This book goes a long way to mesh the worlds of archaeology, genetics, anthropology, and religion. Thinking and questioning minds will love this work. It is an excellent synopsis of the studies done in paleo-anthropology over the last few hundred years, upto the current day. It provides a glimpse into what the future holds pertaining to human evolution. A layman such as myself will learn a great deal: I didn't know that bigger brains are not necessarily "better" and that interbreeding between Neanderthals and other hominids in many ways made us Homo sapiens who we are today and influence not only our bodies but our minds as well. There are a few places where the non-geneticist might bog down in scientific lexicography, but I found it a great read. I especially enjoyed chapters 8-9. It might be a a good purchase for some book/study groups as there are many interesting questions raised and should provide a lot of great discussions. I highly recommend this book.
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on April 25, 2012
One might say that Chris Stringer has had the ideal career that he dreamed of achieving when, at the age of eighteen, he switched his major from medicine to anthropology and was accepted in the PhD program at Bristol University to study Neanderthals. Shortly after graduating he received a job offer at the Paleontology Department at the Natural History Museum in London, where he is still a researcher, and is now one of the world's foremost paleoanthropologists.

Lone Survivors is the ideal book for any would-be fan of anthropology, wanting to get the latest news and discoveries on our ancient ancestors, as well as the perfect text for one either taking an anthropology course or perhaps contemplating switching majors, much as Stringer did. The book is an easy read in that Stringer's voice is conversational and pleasant, he breaks everything down to its base parts, and shows complex matters in a clear light. He has introductory chapters dedicated to the various methods of archaeology used in studying fossils, as well as dating them. Stringer also skillfully provides constant hints of matters he will be later discussing to entice and keep the reader hooked. By the end of the book the reader will feel well educated and well versed on our ancestors, as well as up to date on the latest findings in the world of anthropology.

Originally written on February 3, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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on May 24, 2014
Chris Stringer is no doubt a distinguished paleoanthroplogist and a leading expert on human evolution, so the book's information is authoritative.

However, the writing (and the editing, unless he refused to make the requested changes) is terrible. For example, the second chapter is a long description of different dating methods. The chapter is tediously detailed but not sufficiently clear to enable one to really understand the details. And then the subject is essentially dropped for the rest of the book. One could entirely skip the second chapter and lose nothing in comprehending what comes after. The whole chapter could be replaced with a sentence that read, "Advances in dating methodologies have added considerably to our ability to more precisely date fossils and other finds, but technical difficulties, ambiguities, and uncertainties remain." To bother the reader with something so useless and tedious in the second chapter, and that is unnecessary and never picked up or used again in the remainder of the book,is very poor form. If you do read the book, skip the chapter--you won't be missing a thing.

Also, Professor Stringer needs to master the concept of the topic sentence and the form of the elegant paragraph. Many of his paragraphs start off on one topic, immediately veer away on a long tangent and come back to the original topic several paragraphs later. Rewrite!

The result is a lot of wasted effort and confusion for the reader. I have read some of Stringer's scientific essays (e.g., Why We Are Not All Multiregionalists Now) and the writing there was much clearer. So, my suspicion is that Professor Stringer has sold us the poor first draft of a speedily written book. Very annoying.

Instead of this book, I would recommend "The 10,000 Year Explosion" by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. I read their book after Stringer's, and when reading them I finally understood what Stringer was talking about at numerous points in his book--they gave more information and gave it more clearly. Also, Nicholas Wade, for years the lead science writer for the New York Times, is an excellent source of clear, sophisticated science about evolution and human origins.
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on April 16, 2012
It's good to be able to keep up with the latest about the old history of humanity. In this case we are in the hands of a master where facts are concerned and a 95% achiever in the writing stakes. Still he makes the facts accessible, and that is a good thing. The field appears to be changing pretty quickly these days, there is stuff in the book I have never heard of and stuff that has changed its face. I keep as uptodate as I can by scanning the Scientific American, although in recent years it has been dumbed down somewhat. That aside it is a good uptodate read about what those old bones mean.
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A million years ago, our Homo erectus ancestors consisted of maybe 20,000 breeding individuals, according to wizards who speculate on the hidden secrets of DNA. This is similar to the current population of chimpanzees or gorillas. The ancestors lived in scattered pockets of Africa, at a time when Earth was a paradise of abundant life. From these ancient roots, a number of hominid species evolved, but only Homo sapiens still survives, at seven-point-something billion and growing. The chimps and gorillas continue to live in a manner similar to their ancestors of a million years ago. What happened to us?

Chris Stringer is one of the venerable grandfathers in the study of human evolution. He’s read the papers, attended the conferences, examined the skulls, and had a ringside seat at the noisy catfights. This field of knowledge is far from finished. New specimens continue to be found, and new technology provides deeper insights. Stringer’s book, Lone Survivors, discusses some primary issues, and the scholarly disputes surrounding them, as they stood in 2012. He does a pretty good job of providing an overview to a huge and complex subject, but readers with little background are advised to wear life preservers.

I learned a lot about Neanderthals. They survived 400,000 years on a climate change roller coaster. They hung out with hippos in warm forests near Rome, and they chased wooly mammoths on frigid treeless tundra. They had short, stocky bodies that were good for preserving heat, but which required more calories. Males and females were about the same size, suggesting little division of labor, everyone joined in the hunt.

The Neanderthal diet majored in the flesh of large game. Readers who have hunted hippos with wooden thrusting spears know that his is very dangerous. One site in Croatia contained the remains of 75 Neanderthals, and none were older than 35. In their clans, there were probably many orphans and few grandparents. The scarcity of elders, and the small size of their groups, sharply restricted the flow of cultural information from one generation to the next, and from clan to clan.

Some say that Neanderthals lacked shoes and close-fitting clothing. When Darwin visited chilly Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America, he was shocked to see natives wearing little or no clothing and sleeping naked in the open. Stringer noted that modern Europeans seem to be poorly adapted to the cold, physiologically.

Cro-Magnons were the Homo sapiens that moved into Europe maybe 45,000 years ago. European Neanderthals disappeared around 30,000 years ago. Neanderthals went extinct in the Middle East, Siberia, Gibraltar, and Britain at different times, probably for different reasons. This was an era of frequent climate zigzags. When temperatures plummeted, habitable territories shrank, and fewer folks could be fed.

Cro-Magnons apparently had footwear and warm, fitted clothing. They had better tools for hunting, so their diet was more diverse and dependable. They were able to extract more nutrients from an ecosystem, so they could survive in places where Neanderthals could not. They lived in larger groups, and more of them survived to middle age or old age, so more cultural information could be passed to the young.

Large populations are better at preserving cultural knowledge, acquiring new information from outsiders, and generating innovations. More busy minds interact, exchange ideas, compete, and imagine cool ways for living even farther out of balance. Witness the city of Los Angeles, where 14 million animals with hunter-gatherer DNA are temporarily able to survive because of a highly complex system of innovative technology. Note that this innovation has no relationship to foresight or wisdom. Time is running out on Los Angeles.

On the other hand, less innovation occurs in smaller simpler groups, and that’s often a blessing. Innovators can be dangerous loose cannons, introducing risky new ideas that result in horrid unintended consequences — like cell phones, automobiles, or agriculture. Nothing is more precious than a stable, sustainable, time-proven way of living, where the secret to success is simply imitating your ancestors, conforming to the norm, and enjoying life, like the chimps and gorillas do.

When the planet heated up 14,000 years ago, rising sea levels submerged the land link between Australia and Tasmania, terminating the exchange of people, ideas, and gadgets. Tasmania’s traditional way of life was also squeezed as the warmer climate spurred the expansion of heavy forest. The natives experienced a cultural meltdown. “Tasmanians appear to have led an increasingly simplified life, forgoing apparently valuable skills and technologies, such as bone and hafted tools, nets and spears used to catch fish and small game, spear throwers and boomerangs, and anything but the simplest of skin clothing.”

Will climate change have a similar effect on industrial civilization in the coming decades? Will it slash food production, sharply reduce population, eliminate travel between regions, pull the plug on modern technology, and erase lots of obsolete and unsustainable cultural information? Could collapse have a silver lining?

Climate change can derail any culture, and drive species to extinction. It can also produce beneficial conditions, like the unusually favorable climate of the last 10,000 years. Natural selection rewards species that can adapt to change, and it deletes those that fail. There is another important variable that is often overlooked — genetic drift — mutations that happen all the time when slight boo-boos occur during cell division. These tiny defects can provide a barrel of surprises.

We are repeatedly taught that humans are nature’s flawless masterpiece, the glorious conclusion of three billion years of evolution. But, if Big Mama Nature had experienced slightly different moods over the eons, we might be Neanderthals or Denisovans today (or maybe slime mold). Climate change and genetic drift are purely random. The fact that Homo sapiens is the lone survivor among the hominid species is not absolute proof of superiority, but it does indicate a temporary streak of good luck.

Homo heidelbergensis was an ancestor that lived 500,000 years ago. They had brains ranging in size from 1100 to 1400 cc (modern brains average 1350 cc). The average Neanderthal brain was 1600 cc — much bigger than ours. Stringer noted that our brains today are ten percent smaller than our Homo sapiens ancestors of 20,000 years ago. Is there a message here?

Without words, chimps and gorillas can express contentment, affection, irritation, excitement. But without complex language, they are more trapped within themselves. Language took us “into new and shared worlds that were unknown to our ancestors.” We can talk about the here and now, the past, the future, abstract concepts, feelings, imaginary worlds, and so on.

Later, innovative geniuses invented the use of symbols. Now we can convert words into patterns of squiggly lines, for example: “computer.” Writing enables us to communicate with folks in faraway places. I can read words written by Julius Caesar, and so might the generations yet-to-be-born, in theory. Industrial civilization cannot exist without symbols — numbers, graphs, pictures, status symbols. Progress abounds with powerful and dangerous juju.

Stringer is a mild mannered humanist. And so, he portrays the human journey as one of admirable advancement (the chimps fall down laughing). On the last page, he confesses a profound doubt. “Sometimes the difference between failure and success in evolution is a narrow one, and we are certainly on a knife edge now as we confront an overpopulated planet and the prospect of global climate change on a scale that humans have never faced before. Let’s hope our species is up to the challenge.”
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