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5.0 out of 5 stars Tracking our roots., June 26, 2006
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This review is from: Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (Hardcover)
Nicholas Wade thoroughly exercises his source material. As science writer for the NY Times he has access to many of the latest research reports on a wide variety of related fields including anthropology, archeology, languages, and genetics. In "Before the Dawn," Wade collected the latest findings from these fields and others and assembles them into a readable compiled description of the origins of modern humans. According to theories reported in this book our ancestors developed the mental ability for fully articulated speech only about 50,000 years ago or so. In a few thousand years thereafter our speaking ancestors had split into three genetic lineages and some small number of only one lineage left southern Africa to venture along the southern coast of Asia. Migration was slowly accomplished by growth of a tribe until it split and the new division moved a little farther along. Within a few thousand years or so humans from original genetic all the way to Australia. From southern Asia our ancestors also moved north and west. Fascinating DNA studies of people from all around the world show how various people migrated and when.

One aspect of human evolution that Wade devotes considerable attention to is the taming of our species. Primitive hunter gatherer tribes are constantly at war with their neighbors and generally value men who are successful warriors. When our ancestors moved into Europe and Asia these areas were already occupied by other species of early humanoids such as Neanderthals. Over a period of years and countless skirmishes, raids, and battles, our ancestors hunted them all down and exterminated them; there is no discernable Neanderthal DNA in modern humans. Constant tribal warfare eliminates about 30% of each generation of men so it is a very powerful evolutionary force. By comparison, even the wars of the 20th century killed a far smaller percentage of our whole population. In order to leave our age old hunter gatherer, tribal warfare, model of life and become villagers, farmers, and even soldiers, our ancestors had to evolve into less aggressive and more trusting people. Wade reports sociological speculation that one early function of tribal religions was to allow more trust among a wider group than immediate kin. Wider trust increases the size of the "us" group and helps all of the group to succeed in tribal warfare. Trust and peaceful coexistence wider than kin was a necessary change before our ancestors could settle in villages.

One chapter deals with the study of linguistics. Linguistics studies how common early languages split into divergent related languages and attempts to track how they are related. In theory all the small number of humans who originally left Africa about 50,000 years ago spoke the same language. When they became isolated in geographically separated areas their languages changed over time. In theory the history of language migration should be consistent with archeological and genetic evidence of human migrations. Wade provides the reader with an update on current linguistic thinking on the history of world language families and how they relate to DNA evidence and recorded history.

In the last part of the book Wade relates recent genetic findings from DNA studies of British, Icelanders and Jews, three groups where more extensive DNA histories have been worked on. Genetic data is compared to historic accounts. Some of it is surprising. In an area of the UK where successive invasions were said to have pushed out the previous peoples, the mitochondria DNA of an 8,000 year old fossil matches that of the current schoolmaster. Evidently the women, at least, stayed put all those centuries.

It took me some weeks to read the book because of all the interesting information. My brain would get loaded up with new information that needed to be thought about and discussed before proceeding on to the next chapter. For those who deny the existence of evolution for political or religious reasons it should be an eye opener. Science not only accepts evolution, but has now figured out the minute detail of how it works, and has tracked, classified and numbered human evolution through thousands of DNA modifications. I learned, for example, that sickle cell among people of African ancestry is a side effect of an recent evolutionary genetic modification that increases resistance to malaria. One criticism was that Wade often asserted major facts without backup or explanation. After a while it became apparent that the book already covers so much territory that he could not provide detailed support for much of the material. He does often say when the material is disputed by other scientists and what the disputes are. Although there are extensive footnotes, a bibliography would be nice.

I strongly recommend "Before the Dawn" to anyone who is interested in human ancestry, anthropology, history, evolution, or just figuring out where you own family came from.
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