Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins

Overview

When homo sapiens made their entrance 100,000 years ago they were confronted by a wide range of other early humans—homo erectus, who walked better and used fire; homo habilis who used tools; and of course the Neanderthals, who were brawny and strong. But shortly after their arrival, something happened that vaulted the species forward and made them the indisputable masters of the planet. This book is devoted to revealing just what that difference is. It explores how the physical traits and cognitive ability of ...

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Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins

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Overview

When homo sapiens made their entrance 100,000 years ago they were confronted by a wide range of other early humans—homo erectus, who walked better and used fire; homo habilis who used tools; and of course the Neanderthals, who were brawny and strong. But shortly after their arrival, something happened that vaulted the species forward and made them the indisputable masters of the planet. This book is devoted to revealing just what that difference is. It explores how the physical traits and cognitive ability of homo sapiens distanced them from the rest of nature. Even more importantly, Masters of the Planet looks at how our early ancestors acquired these superior abilities; it shows that their strange and unprecedented mental facility is not, as most of us were taught, simply a basic competence that was refined over unimaginable eons by natural selection.  Instead, it is an emergent capacity that was acquired quite recently and changed the world definitively.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Tattersall (The Fossil Trail), a noted expert on human evolution and an emeritus curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, offers a concise history of how humans became humans. He explains how the sparse skeletal remains of ancient human predecessors are studied, how the shape of a molar, the tip of a pelvis, the design of the knee or the ankle all offer clues to the genealogical maps of our past. He revisits the usual suspects: the famous three-million-year-old Lucy; the unprecedented (in 1984) hominid structure of the Turkana Boy; and the 400,000-year-old Heidelberg man. Tattersall moves through the complex fossil records effortlessly and with a welcome sense of wonder. He also consistently conveys a deep knowledge of his subject. His discussion of the origin of symbolic behavior and the many theories that seek to explain early humans’ unprecedented leap in capacity, including the acquisition of language, the development of art, and the ability to deal in the abstract, is provocative and illuminating. Tattersall’s combination of erudition and a conversational style make this is an excellent primer on human evolution. Illus. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Tattersall (cocurator, Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, American Museum of Natural History) has authored and coauthored over 22 books on human evolution and is currently working on a multivolume project to document the major fossils in the human fossil record. He calls this book a progress report on human paleoanthropology, in which he pulls together the newest discoveries and current theories on the origins of humanity. Most of us learned that human evolution was a single line from the earliest upright apes to Homo sapiens, but Tattersall introduces readers to the wide range of species, many that lived at the same time, that are contenders for places on our ancestral tree. Even more interesting is his discussion of the factors that made us such a successful species and how these traits developed. He extrapolates from the limited physical evidence available what types of environments our precursors lived in as well as their social and mental abilities. VERDICT An excellent book for high school and college students as well as general readers.—Betty Galbraith, Washington State Univ. Lib., Pullman
Kirkus Reviews
A veteran anthropologist writes a superb overview of how our species developed (a long process) and how we grew smart enough to dominate the planet (a short process in which evolution played little part). Tattersall (Paleontology: A Brief History of Life, 2010, etc.), curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, begins with early hominids, who took the first step away from apedom about five million years ago by rising to walk on two legs. In absorbing detail, he describes two centuries of often-grueling field research that turned up more species that learned to make tools and whose brains slowly grew. For three million years, our small-brained ancestors, the Australopithecus genus, spread throughout Africa before leaving the scene. From about two million years ago, bigger-brained members of genus Homo ranged across Eurasia without making a great impression. Homo sapiens, remarkably young at 200,000 years, did not seem a great improvement until about 60,000 years ago, when their brains began processing information symbolically, leading to language, art, technology and sophisticated social organization, all of which accompanied our species across the world, wiping out competing hominids. While researchers argue over why this happened, Tattersall emphasizes that evolutionary milestones, even dramatic ones like flying, do not happen when new features appear but take advantage of those already present. Feathers existed long before birds flew, and Homo sapiens' brains were always capable of great things. Keeping a critical eye on the evidence and a skeptical one on theories, Tattersall confirms his status among world anthropologists by delivering a superior popular explanation of human origins.
From the Publisher
“Quietly magnificent”—The Atlantic, runner-up for the best book of 2012

“Fantastically interesting…Tattersall has been involved in many of the past half-century’s advances in understanding human evolution…Essential.”—Choice, a 2013 outstanding title

“An authoritative snapshot of the ongoing struggle to understand our evolutionary past.”—Financial Times

"A guide for the perplexed student of human origins ... Tattersall weaves a history of palaeoanthropology into the text, showing that though fossils may provide the bulk of the evidence for human origins, few of the details are set in stone."—New Scientist

"Tattersall is no slouch in the storytelling department, but his narrative emphasizes the necessarily fragmentary nature of the fossil record and the provisional nature of what we can safely conclude from it ...[His] account highlights the major advances in paleoanthropology that have been made in the last decade or two."—Natural History magazine

"An efficient survey of 7 million years of evolutionary development and two centuries of evolutionary thought ... In deft combinations of authority and caution, expertise and wit, Tattersall invites the lay reader to the party. Throughout, he remains grounded in the salient details culled from archaeology, anatomy, genetics, primatology, nutrition and social science." - The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Asuperb overview of how our species developed (a long process) and how we grew smart enough to dominate the planet ... Keeping a critical eye on the evidence and a skeptical one on theories, Tattersall confirms his status among world anthropologists by delivering a superior popular explanation of human origins." - Kirkus Reviews starred review

"A concise history of how humans became humans ... Tattersall moves through the complex fossil records effortlessly and with a welcome sense of wonder. He also consistently conveys a deep knowledge of his subject ... Tattersall's combination of erudition and a conversational style make this is an excellent primer on human evolution." -Publishers Weekly

"This is a book I will be recommending to anyone who wants a good overview of evolution. This book puts the new discoveries in their proper sequence and perspective. It is an excellent work." - Jean Auel, author of The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the rest of Earth's Children books

"We all think we know the story: first we evolved to walk upright, then use tools, then agriculture, language, and us - - an inexorable linear progression from ape to human. But Ian Tattersall introduces us to several different human-like precursors, all alive at the same time, as recently as 50,000 years ago - just barely before the period we humans chauvinistically refer to as 'history'. So it's no longer straightforward: beasts like us emerged several times within the past hundred thousand years, some of them distinct species. Some were the first to think like we do: in symbols and abstractions; those were our forebears. But while they were alive, these multiple different humanoids may have known about each other; interacted; fought; lived together or apart; possibly even bred. It turns out that our lineage is anything but linear; Tattersall demolishes the versions we were once taught, and lays out the remarkable new history of our diverse origins for the first time." - Richard Granger, author of Big Brain

"Are you ready for a 3.5 billion year stroll down the path of life's origins to the present. Ian Tattersall takes you by the hand and covers the highlights like few are capable of doing. The continuities and discontinuities reveal insights on why we humans are the masters of the planet. A must read." - Mike Gazzaniga, author of Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique

"This [book] is excellent ... Among other things, and very importantly, it is a very good read." - Colin Tudge, author of The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor

"For almost 40 years, Ian Tattersall has been one of our leaders in the field of human evolution. Mastersof the Planet is a stunning culmination of a career in science: a brilliant and engaging account that illuminates and inspires. Read Tattersall and you will not see yourself, let alone our entire species, in the same way again." - Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish

"This is a book full of wisdom: the distillation of a lifetime's experience combined with finely honed critical faculties. Tattersall is a captivating and surefooted guide through the ranks of hominids, over several million years, in search of the origins of our uniquely symbolic mind. He ranges widely across evidence from DNA sequences and molecular forensics to skeletal morphology and ancient artifacts, never shirking the telling detail, never lacking a finely judged opinion, yet always making the science beautifully clear. The best guide to human origins that I have read." - Nick Lane, author of Life Ascending and Oxygen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780230108752
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/27/2012
  • Series: MacSci Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 771,963
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Ian Tattersall, PhD is a curator in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he co-curates the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. He is the acknowledged leader of the human fossil record, and has won several awards, including the Institute of Human Origins Lifetime Achievement Award. Tattersall has appeared on Charlie Roseand NPR's Science Friday and has written for Scientific American and Archaeology. He's been widely cited by the media, including The New York Times, BBC, MSNBC, and National Geographic. Tattersall is the author of Becoming Human, among others. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Prologue ix

Major Events in Human Evolution xxi

1 Ancient Origins 1

2 The Rise of The Bipedal Apes 25

3 Early Hominid Lifestyles and the Interior World 45

4 Australopith Variety 69

5 Striding Out 81

6 Life on the Savanna 105

7 Out of Africa ... and Back 119

8 The First Cosmopolitan Hominid 135

9 Ice Ages and Early Europeans 145

10 Who were The Neanderthals? 159

11 Archaic and Modern 179

12 Enigmatic Arrival 185

13 The Origin of Symbolic Behavior 199

14 In the Beginning was the Word 207

Coda 227

Acknowledgments 233

Notes and Bibliography 235

Index 257

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