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The Light Before the Dawn,
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This review is from: The Dawn of Human Culture (Hardcover)
"The Dawn of Human Culture" proposes a theory for the "big bang" in human consciousness, an event that occurred about 50,000 years ago for reasons that are not entirely clear. The archaeological record suggests that humans became physically modern about 120,000 years ago--if you could dress a human from that time in modern clothes, he or she would blend in on the streets of any modern city.
Behavior, however, is a different matter. The authors present a very strong case that whatever it is that makes us fully "human" did not appear until about 50,000 years ago. At about that time, people suddenly started engaging in recognizably modern behaviors--producing stunning cave paintings, carving figurines, making complex ornaments, burying their dead with ritual, building semi-permanent structures, assembling an intricate tool kit, and expanding throughout the world. The authors readily concede that there are a few ambiguous examples of similar behavior among more ancient Neanderthals and archaic homo sapiens, but the change after 50,000 years ago is a flood compared to the trickle that came before it.
To unravel the mystery of this abrupt event, the authors start with the appearance of australopithicenes and other "hominids" that may or may not be ancestral to modern humans. They then carry the tale forward, describing "revolutions" in tool making and other behavior (of which there were very few before 50,000 years ago).
I was impressed by how careful the authors were in laying out their arguments for the lay reader. Each point is clearly made, and the authors give fair treatment to scientists with whom they disagree. They scrupulously note when they have chosen to accept one point of view over another. The result is a meticulous, fair summary of what scientists know about the origins and development of the human species--as well as an intriguing answer to the mystery of how we came to be (no, I'm not going to give away the authors' theory--read the book).
If you enjoy "The Dawn of Human Culture," there are two other books that you might want to read. The first is "Origins Reconsidered," by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin. Although the book is now a bit dated (it was published in 1992, before several significant discoveries in the late 1990s), it is a very well written tale describing the discovery of a lifetime.
The second is "Mapping Human History" --while not in the same scientific league as "The Dawn of Human Culture" or "Origins Reconsidered," this book offers an often interesting story of what our genes tell us about human history.