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Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins (MacSci) Hardcover – March 27, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0230108752 ISBN-10: 023010875X Edition: 1St Edition

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Product Details

  • Series: MacSci
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Trade; 1St Edition edition (March 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 023010875X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230108752
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #393,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Quietly magnificent”—The Atlantic, runner-up for the best book of 2012


“Fantastically interesting…Tattersall has been involved in many of the past half-century’s advances in understanding human evolution…Essential.”—Choice, a 2013 outstanding title


“An authoritative snapshot of the ongoing struggle to understand our evolutionary past.”—Financial Times


"A guide for the perplexed student of human origins ... Tattersall weaves a history of palaeoanthropology into the text, showing that though fossils may provide the bulk of the evidence for human origins, few of the details are set in stone."--New Scientist

"Tattersall is no slouch in the storytelling department, but his narrative emphasizes the necessarily fragmentary nature of the fossil record and the provisional nature of what we can safely conclude from it ...[His] account highlights the major advances in paleoanthropology that have been made in the last decade or two."--Natural History magazine

"An efficient survey of 7 million years of evolutionary development and two centuries of evolutionary thought ... In deft combinations of authority and caution, expertise and wit, Tattersall invites the lay reader to the party. Throughout, he remains grounded in the salient details culled from archaeology, anatomy, genetics, primatology, nutrition and social science." - The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Asuperb overview of how our species developed (a long process) and how we grew smart enough to dominate the planet ... Keeping a critical eye on the evidence and a skeptical one on theories, Tattersall confirms his status among world anthropologists by delivering a superior popular explanation of human origins." - Kirkus Reviews starred review

"A concise history of how humans became humans ... Tattersall moves through the complex fossil records effortlessly and with a welcome sense of wonder. He also consistently conveys a deep knowledge of his subject ... Tattersall's combination of erudition and a conversational style make this is an excellent primer on human evolution." -Publishers Weekly

"This is a book I will be recommending to anyone who wants a good overview of evolution. This book puts the new discoveries in their proper sequence and perspective. It is an excellent work." - Jean Auel, author of The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the rest of Earth's Children books

"We all think we know the story: first we evolved to walk upright, then use tools, then agriculture, language, and us - - an inexorable linear progression from ape to human. But Ian Tattersall introduces us to several different human-like precursors, all alive at the same time, as recently as 50,000 years ago - just barely before the period we humans chauvinistically refer to as 'history'. So it's no longer straightforward: beasts like us emerged several times within the past hundred thousand years, some of them distinct species. Some were the first to think like we do: in symbols and abstractions; those were our forebears. But while they were alive, these multiple different humanoids may have known about each other; interacted; fought; lived together or apart; possibly even bred. It turns out that our lineage is anything but linear; Tattersall demolishes the versions we were once taught, and lays out the remarkable new history of our diverse origins for the first time." - Richard Granger, author of Big Brain

"Are you ready for a 3.5 billion year stroll down the path of life's origins to the present. Ian Tattersall takes you by the hand and covers the highlights like few are capable of doing. The continuities and discontinuities reveal insights on why we humans are the masters of the planet. A must read." - Mike Gazzaniga, author of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique

"This [book] is excellent ... Among other things, and very importantly, it is a very good read." - Colin Tudge, author of The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor

"For almost 40 years, Ian Tattersall has been one of our leaders in the field of human evolution. Mastersof the Planet is a stunning culmination of a career in science: a brilliant and engaging account that illuminates and inspires. Read Tattersall and you will not see yourself, let alone our entire species, in the same way again." - Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

"This is a book full of wisdom: the distillation of a lifetime's experience combined with finely honed critical faculties. Tattersall is a captivating and surefooted guide through the ranks of hominids, over several million years, in search of the origins of our uniquely symbolic mind. He ranges widely across evidence from DNA sequences and molecular forensics to skeletal morphology and ancient artifacts, never shirking the telling detail, never lacking a finely judged opinion, yet always making the science beautifully clear. The best guide to human origins that I have read." - Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending and Oxygen

About the Author

Ian Tattersall, PhD is a curator in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he co-curates the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. He is the acknowledged leader of the human fossil record, and has won several awards, including the Institute of Human Origins Lifetime Achievement Award. Tattersall has appeared on Charlie Roseand NPR's Science Friday and has written for Scientific American and Archaeology. He's been widely cited by the media, including The New York Times, BBC, MSNBC, and National Geographic. Tattersall is the author of Becoming Human, among others. He lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Good book, well written.
Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall's lifelong fascination with humanity's prehistoric past shines through every page of his new book, "Masters of the Planet."
Otto Bingo
If you are interested in human evolution, definitely read this book.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

71 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Ralph White on April 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"Our narrative-loving species," as Ian Tattersall characterizes Homo sapiens, has long searched for the quintessentially human feature - that which unambiguously denotes our kind. Throughout history several unsatisfying candidates for that keystone feature have been offered up, including, inter alia, bipedalism, brain size, tool use, and language. For Tattersall, who has spent a career devoted to the question, that quintessential element is H. sapiens' use of symbolism.

In the early chapters of Masters of the Planet Tattersall introduces the reader to the practice of paleoanthropology, its essential vocabulary, and the state of the science. The reader gets just enough information about early hominid cranial shapes, dental wear patterns, skeletal variations, tool use, and geochronology as is absolutely necessary. We visit Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa as fossils and their strata are carefully unearthed, dated, and interpreted. We learn about early hominids' toolkits, their social lives, and survival mechanisms. We also get a refresher on genetics and geology.

It is only in the last thirty thousand years of the two and a half million year panorama of successive hominid speciation and extinction that our use of symbolism is unequivocally documented. It is only when cave art appears at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira that we are entirely satisfied that our ancestors have become as cognitive as we. This transition, Tattersall points out, would be utterly unbelievable if it had not actually happened. For the first hundred thousand years of our species' existence we were unaware of our brain's latent capacity for symbolism.

When such new applications for already evolved anatomical features are introduced they are called "exaptations.
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49 of 49 people found the following review helpful By danielx on August 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"Masters of the Planet" provides an excellent overview of the current state of our knowledge of the evolution of humans and other hominids. Back in the 1960s, hominid evolution could still be viewed as unilinear and progressive, leading towards "Homo sapiens " along a single axis of evolutionary change. As outlined in this book, an impressive array of fossil finds and sophisticated technical analyses have yielded a very different picture, one in which diverse lineages of hominids existed simultaneously and interacted. The profusion of paleontological discoveries has buried the traditional creationist myth of "missing links." Indeed, the sheer number of fossils and structurally intermediate forms has sometimes made it difficult to determine which of the many candidates is closely- related to which.

Ian Tattersall, author of "Masters of the Planet", is curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He brings to the issues a lifetime of expertise in hominid evolution, as well as abundant experience in writing books and articles for fellow scientists and general audiences. The book is organized historically, and traces the diverse and complicated history of hominids over the past 7-8 million years. Beginning with the ancient origins of the hominid lineage, it outlines the rise of bipedal apes, the variety of australopiths (including "Lucy"), life on the savannah, emergence from Africa (an event that occurred multiple times), the spread of early "Homo" throughout the Old World continents, the enigmatic Neandertals (distant cousins to ourselves, not ancestors - except to the degree in which we interbred), and ultimately, the arrival of modern "H. sapiens. " The book does not focus entirely on skeletal features.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Otto Bingo on April 4, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition
Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall's lifelong fascination with humanity's prehistoric past shines through every page of his new book, "Masters of the Planet." As curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, his mature reflections on the long, winding road our species has traveled is full of surprises and state-of-the-science information.
Tattersall is a seasoned and eminently reasonable guide, as well as a crystal-clear communicator in a field that can be technical and bewildering to the interested general reader and expert alike.
He is above all a sifter - sorting out the significant from the trivial among thousands of clues from fossil apes and humans, their predators and prey, petrified footprints, hi-tech reconstructions of past climates and ecologies, relevant recent studies of primate behavior and cognition, origin of language studies, and much more.
Eschewing a mere catalogue of stones and bones, Tattersall tackles head-on the questions about which we are most curious: Who performed the first known human burials? Where can we first see evidence of empathy and care for others, and its diametric opposite-- cannibalism? What were the similarities and differences in culture and behavior between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals? If several species of humans co-existed for thousands of years at the same times and places, how is it that only one now stands alone as "Masters of the Planet?"
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Nigel Kirk on May 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book on spec after it was reviewed in a science journal, wary of the difficulty of meaningfully covering the emergence of the hominids to the ascent of Homo sapiens in a relatively brief book. Tattersall overcomes this admirably. His account is very clear on where the gaps lie, particularly in respect of both the jump from primates to bipedal hominids and in the appearance of Homo sapiens.

Tattersall provides an excellent summary of current knowledge, and explains how our understanding of evolving anatomy, behaviour and genetics has changed the science of anthropology while it still primarily relies on fossilised remains and tools as evidence. The change in gait and skeletal structure as Australopithecus emerges, the tradeoffs as the savannah is exploited, the demands of an energy hungry brain, the improvement of tools as hominids relied less on throwing rocks - there are many elements in this history which the author collates comprehensively and with clarity. The supporting evidence is very disparate, each item often fascinating in its own right, and it is presented in a lively account which explains dates and places in a logical sequence. The Notes provided at the end are general and introduce bibliographies chapter by chapter, and therefore are not in a format that could be usefully referenced from the text (the merits of continuing a story through references to Notes at the end of the book are ambivalent, so this is not necessarily a criticism).

In a key later chapter, Tattersall looks for the `keystone' factor that allowed Homo sapiens its dominance.
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