The hominid fossil record begins some seven million years ago with species that are like humans but not human. But on what basis do we identify members of our own family and say that they are not merely humanlike but human? Ian Tattersall makes it clear that we haven’t figured it out, and that this is what makes paleo-anthropology an interesting — and very human — endeavor. In this brief volume Tattesall can only hit the high points of the fossil chronology, such as “Lucy” “Turkana Boy,” and “Peking Man.” More important is his demonstration of how the sparse fossil record combines with the superabundance of life on earth to make questions of human identity and origins particularly challenging. Given the fluid concept of species itself — as many definitions “as there are naturalists” — can there be a standard definition of a human? “Defining” characteristics such as big brains and small canine teeth have come and gone. Upright posture is the current favorite, but Tattersall looks beyond the singular to complex combinations of traits that are greater than the sum of their parts. Whatever it was (probably language) and wherever we place it, such a combination separates Homo sapiens from all the other hominids that ever were; not least, perhaps, the capacity for self-reflection that motivates us to look into our own beginnings. -
About the Author
Sean Redmond is currently at work on a translation of a 15th-century monkâ€™s travel diaries.