From Publishers Weekly
In recent years, paleontologists have feuded over the origins—long assumed to be African—of our very distant ancestors, the anthropoid primates. Fossil expert Beard presents his controversial case for Asia in this dense chronicle. Searching in central China for bones from the Eocene epoch, Beard's assistant Wen Chaohua, a local farmer, found an extraordinarily intact fossil jaw of the tiny prosimian Eosimias ("dawn monkey"). This jaw, Beard believes, will link small Asian primates such as tarsiers with the distant anthropoid ancestors of humans. Not exactly the Bigfoot-like missing link of popular imagination, but as Beard notes wryly, "The dirty little secret of paleoanthropology is that, while there are plenty of missing links, they don't occur where most people think they do." Knowing his findings will create an "academic brouhaha," Beard spends 300 pages building an intricate case for his tarsier theory. To establish context and popularize the subject, he describes the work of Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) and other noted paleontologists. But he also includes endless details about tiny skulls and their components, scientific conferences, global climate change hypotheses and the minutiae of Darwinist theory. Tales of harsh field expeditions make for good reading, and Beard's findings tell a startling scientific story, but information overload keeps this book from being suitable for most general readers. Illus.
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Popular interest in human origins is strong, especially in the evolutionary fork splitting hominids from the great apes; however, there is less interest in the preceding evolutionary fork, which separated anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humans) from prosimians (lemurs and tarsiers). Explaining when and where that happened is the controversial subject of this book because the author, a young vertebrate paleontologist at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is apparently agitating this specialized field by challenging orthodox theories. Traditionalists believe the anthropoids evolved in North Africa in the late Eocene epoch (about 34 million years ago), but Beard touts China and the early Eocene (about 57 million years ago). Since this bone war turns on interpretations of finger-size fossils of jaws and teeth, passages in Beard's account can be textbook technical, but otherwise, it bows to historical personages of paleontology and includes incidents from Beard's interesting fossil-hunting expeditions around the world. Those two features are of perennial appeal to general-interest readers and enhance Beard's capable presentation of an overlooked topic. Gilbert Taylor
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