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The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors annotated edition Edition

40 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0385512268
ISBN-10: 0385512260
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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

In The First Human, Gibbons provides the first popular account of these intriguing discoveries and of rivalry and collaboration among the discoverers. An engrossing, fast-paced read, her story unfolds in many remote and rugged locales, from the Middle Awash of Ethiopia to the Tugen Hills of Kenya and the Djurab Desert of Chad. Gibbons tells of hard-driven, dedicated teams contending with extreme heat, blowing sand, illness and other hazards of fieldwork in Africa, where success demands years, or decades, of persistence. After all, hominids may not have been common creatures in their day, and only fortuitous circumstances of gentle, rapid burial in suitable sediments kept a carcass from being a carnivore’s meal, allowing it perchance to fossilize. Gibbons seems as interested—if not more so—in personalities and politics as in the identities and significance of her protagonists’ fossils. She is not the first to recognize that conflict as well as camaraderie accompanies the quest for human origins, and the scientists she portrays do possess the stuff of dramatic characters. There is the meticulous, mercurial paleontologist Tim White, co-leader of an international team with an unparalleled track record of spectacular discoveries, from the oldest modern human skull to one of the oldest human ancestors. And zoologist Meave Leakey, who has stepped out from the shadow of the most famous surname in human origins research to make singular contributions of her own. And Michel Brunet, a French expert on ancient hoofed mammals, inspired by Charles Darwin and Louis Leakey to pursue hominids. Brunet bucked the odds by not looking for fossils in the celebrated cradle of humankind, East Africa’s Rift Valley. He went to Chad, which hinted at its human fossil potential as early as 1961. Another hominid would not come to light there until 1995, but Brunet’s team found that australopithecine jawbone and then explored much older sites. In 2001 a Chadian student on Brunet’steam unearthed the cranium nicknamed "Toumaï." Formally named Sahelan-thropus tchadensis, it is currently the oldest known hominid skull and pushes the emergence of our evolutionary line as far back as seven million years ago—as Gibbons writes, "so ancient that Brunet said that Toumaï could ‘touch with its finger’ the last ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees."

Blake Edgar is a science editor and writer. He is co-author of From Lucy to Language, forthcoming in a revised edition from Simon & Schuster, and of The Dawn of Human Culture (John Wiley & Sons, 2002).

From Booklist

A writer for Science magazine, Gibbons explains what paleoanthropologists have been doing over the past 15 years: competing, feuding, and making dramatic discoveries. Anchoring her narrative to the anatomy that is the foundation of physical anthropology, Gibbons intentionally emphasizes the personalities involved. Leakeyesque fame is one unspoken prize in field research on human origins, and several scientists acknowledge here their youthful inspiration by Louis and Mary Leakey's careers. One was Don Johanson, celebrated for the "Lucy" fossil discovered in 1974 that reigned temporarily as the oldest human ancestor. From the state of scientific affairs at that time, Gibbons' narrative drives forward the hunt since 1990 for a hominid ancestral to Lucy. Amid the particulars of newly excavated fossils, which include a spectacular skull from Chad that provisionally is the oldest human progenitor at six or seven million years old, Gibbons pointedly dramatizes the field's territorial attitudes toward fossils. Science in the flesh is ever popular, and Gibbons' successful debut marks her as a writer to watch. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; annotated edition edition (April 18, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385512260
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385512268
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,537,484 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on July 29, 2006
Format: Hardcover
If this book is any indication, palaeoanthropology needs new electives in its curriculum. A course in "Field Combat Tactics" appears useful, while "The Intricacies of Site Permits" seems almost essential - perhaps a requirement. Ann Gibbons may not be certified as a combat correspondent, but she does a fine job of narrating the course anthropology has taken in seeking the "first human" and the conflicts that have arisen over the findings. What is notable about the strife among the members of that community is that Roger Lewin seemed to have covered it in "Bones of Contention" in 1987. Things appear to have heated up instead of calming down.

Opening with an account of French scholar Michel Brunet's work in the desert of Chad, Gibbons explains what's involved in finding human fossils. Darwin, she reminds us, suggested human origins lay in Africa. This idea challenged the received wisdom of Asia being the source of humanity. Gibbons' account of how ideas about human origins became established, challenged and regularly overturned makes gripping reading. She notes that Don Johanson's "Lucy", a pivotal find in tracing the human lineage, held primacy for many years. Lucy's age and location seemed indicative, granting her direct ancestry to modern humans and pinpointing the upper Rift Valley as humanity's starting point. Brunet, among others, has doubts about this scenario. It was too simple, and simple answers have no place in human evolution.

From Piltdown to Pithecanthropus, Gibbons clearly depicts the various ideas, their promoters and their resolution that have occurred during the years. Fossil hunters have roamed over Africa's wild landscapes seeking clues.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Scott A. Blumenthal on December 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a student of paleoanthropology, I was slightly wary of reading another popular account of fossil hunting in Africa. After finishing "The First Human," however, I can say with certainty that not only did Ann Gibbons do her homework, but that she was able to deftly weave together both the science and the politics in one of the most fascinating narratives I've read in some time. One really begins to understand both the hardship of paleoanthropological fieldwork and the thrill of discovery. But that of course is only the beginning. Her descriptions of the ensuing scientific cross-fire, often tainted by personal and political conflict, are clear and engaging. All in all, a well-written and up-to-date chronicle of the science of human origins.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Ursiform on May 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is really the story of a few teams looking for "breakthrough" early hominid fossils. As such it is episodic, and fails to give a broad picture of what has been learned about human evolution how it was learned. While generally well written and up to date, the concept of the book prevents it from being either a good overview of "The First Humans" or a compelling story. Past books written by paleoanthropologists themselves (Leakey, Johanson, Falk, and Shipman come to mind) have both explained more science and displayed far more passion for the quest, but at the cost of being expressions of one person's viewpoint rather than an attempt to deal with the subject objectively. It's been several years since I've found a really compelling book on this subject, so this one may be as good a choice as any for an up to date popular book. But it would be nice to see some more "insider" books hit the shelves with some real passion!
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58 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Robert Busko VINE VOICE on April 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
First of all, let me say that I enjoyed reading The First Human. I thought Ann Gibbons managed to do a good job sifting through the newest material in the field of paleoanthropology. However, as with most areas of science, by the time new discoveries make it into a book the information has become passe to those most interested in it.

I thought Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade was more cutting edge than The First Human and made more solid connections. Gibbons book explores a great deal about the research being conducted, what discoveries have been made in the last decade and what they mean. Some of this information is very interesting. She also honestly reports on the researchers pushing the envelope on what we know about our ancestors. A few of them are just difficult, spoiled and weird. In fact, a thought that kept creeping into my head as I read The First Human is that I'm not sure evolution is working out. Humankind, if judged by some of the characters included in Gibbons book makes one wonder. Maybe the monkies new something we didn't when they got off the evolutionary escalator.

Gibbon's looks at the continuing race to find the oldest human ancestor. To the scientist who makes the discovery goes international fame and perhaps riches as well. And it is this prize that drives the researchers efforts and perhaps makes them so strange and difficult.

I highly recommend The First Human. Ann Gibbon's style of writing is great and she does manage to lace together a wonderful read.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By David B Richman on October 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Few are neutral on the subject of human origins. Many find the evolution of the human species a subject that demeans the status of man as a little lower than the angels. Those that accept evolution find themselves on one side or another of the various controversies caused by the new discoveries that seem to appear on a very regular basis. It is this latter ferment that Ann Gibbons describes in her book "The First Human". She has produced an excellent account of the often contentious search for human origins.

It is certainly unfortunate that so many of the people involved in the discovery of human fossils have been egotistical and often vicious in their treatment of anyone they deemed as competitors. The political maneuvering that denied some researchers permits and the often lurid public attacks on rival researchers left paleoanthropolgy with a stained reputation and very possibly did some damage to the research itself. One is reminded of the famous Marsh-Cope feud over dinosaur and other fossil bones. Only medical research may have had as cut-throat a history as paleontology.

Still, either despite the unpleasant fights or perhaps because of them, many fossils have been discovered and our understanding of human evolution has become more solid with time. In fact there are so many fossils (as well as DNA evidence) connecting humans and our closest relatives that human evolution from the same line as apes is more established than ever. An African origin for all of the various "races" is also nearly certain, despite the various multi-origin or Asian origin hypotheses. We are thus all Africans and we are all also very closely related, despite superficial differences, such as skin color or head shape.

If you want a very readable history of the discovery of man's ancestors up to nearly the present, this is a good book to read. Of course it is undoubtedly already out of date in this fast moving field!
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