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 carnivores meal, allowing it perchance to fossilize. Gibbons seems as interestedif not more soin 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 Africas 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 Brunets team found that australopithecine jawbone and then explored much older sites. In 2001 a Chadian student on Brunetsteam 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 agoas 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).
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 TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved