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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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Editorial Reviews


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)

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.


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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 (92 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #412,133 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

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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50 of 50 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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31 of 33 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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