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The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution
     

The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know about Human Evolution

by Ian Tattersall
 

One of the most remarkable fossil finds in history occurred in Laetoli, Tanzania, in 1974, when anthropologist Andrew Hill (diving to the ground to avoid a lump of elephant dung thrown by a colleague) came face to face with a set of ancient footprints captured in stone—the earliest recorded steps of our far-off human ancestors, some three million years old.

Overview

One of the most remarkable fossil finds in history occurred in Laetoli, Tanzania, in 1974, when anthropologist Andrew Hill (diving to the ground to avoid a lump of elephant dung thrown by a colleague) came face to face with a set of ancient footprints captured in stone—the earliest recorded steps of our far-off human ancestors, some three million years old. Today we can see a recreation of the making of the Laetoli footprints at the American Museum of Natural History, in a stunning diorama which depicts two of our human forebears walking side by side through a snowy landscape of volcanic ash. But how do we know what these three-million-year-old relatives looked like? How have we reconstructed the eons-long journey from our first ancient steps to where we stand today? In short, how do we know what we think we know about human evolution?
In The Fossil Trail, Ian Tattersall, the head of the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History, takes us on a sweeping tour of the study of human evolution, offering a colorful history of fossil discoveries and a revealing insider's look at how these finds have been interpreted—and misinterpreted—through time. All the major figures and discoveries are here. We meet Lamarck and Cuvier and Darwin (we learn that Darwin's theory of evolution, though a bombshell, was very congenial to a Victorian ethos of progress), right up to modern theorists such as Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Tattersall describes Dubois's work in Java, the many discoveries in South Africa by pioneers such as Raymond Dart and Robert Broom, Louis and Mary Leakey's work at Olduvai Gorge, Don Johanson's famous discovery of "Lucy" (a 3.4 million-year-old female hominid, some 40% complete), and the more recent discovery of the "Turkana Boy," even more complete than "Lucy," and remarkably similar to modern human skeletons. He discusses the many techniques available to analyze finds, from fluorine analysis (developed in the 1950s, it exposed Piltdown as a hoax) and radiocarbon dating to such modern techniques as electron spin resonance and the analysis of human mitochondrial DNA. He gives us a succinct picture of what we presently think our "family tree" looks like, with at least three genera and perhaps a dozen species through time (though he warns that this greatly underestimates the actual diversity of hominids over the past two million or so years). And he paints a vivid, insider's portrait of paleoanthropology, the dogged work in the broiling sun, searching for a tooth, or a fractured corner of bone, amid stone litter and shadows, with no guarantee of ever finding anything. And perhaps most important, Tattersall looks at all these great researchers and discoveries within the context of their social and scientific milleu, to reveal the insidious ways that the received wisdom can shape how we interpret fossil findings, that what we expect to find colors our understanding of what we do find.
Refreshingly opinionated and vividly narrated, The Fossil Trail is the only book available to general readers that offers a full history of our study of human evolution. A fascinating story with intriguing turns along the way, this well-illustrated volume is essential reading for anyone curious about our human origins.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The overall effect is tightly controlled, measured, fair, thoughtful, and demands a good deal of respect."—The Times Higher Education Supplement

"This refreshingly opinionated book will have a lasting influence on the next generation of paleoanthropologists."—Nature

"Encapsulates the study of human evolution."—The Washington Post

"Tattersall provides the richest and most comprehensive account to date of the thrilling quest to discover our ancestors. But more importantly, the book succeeds brilliantly in enlightening us about the varied scientific and intellectual frameworks in which fossil evidence for human evolution has been interpreted. This superb book is a must for everyone interested in understanding the human story."—Don Johanson, Institute of Human Origins

"Lucidly crafted within the framework of modern evolutionary biology this volume affords a much-needed and long-awaited critical analysis of the now greatly enhanced documentation of the human fossil record and of major transformations in perspectives and methodologies in respect to its analysis and evaluation. The appearance of evolutionary novelties, the recognition of past species' diversities, of major extinction events, of persistent lineages, and their poles of adaption, of modern morphological differentiation, and of behavioral capabilities are singularly and effectively elucidated. The Fossil Trail is an unsurpassed, tour-de-force exposition of the growth of knowledge of the origins and evolutionary past of human kind. It constitutes an exceptional landmark in the literature of paleoanthropology."—F. Clark Howell, Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Head of Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History's anthropology department, Tattersall here weaves a vigorous historical narrative of paleontologists' attempts to reconstruct human origins from the fossil record. Beginning with the unearthing of Neanderthals and ``Java Man,'' he carefully sifts through a remarkable succession of hominid finds from Africa, Eurasia, China, Indonesia and Israel, including Don Johanson's 1973 discovery in Ethiopia of ``Lucy,'' a 3.4-million-year-old female hominid skeleton, and the Leakey team's 1984 find, ``Turkana Boy,'' a 1.6-million-year-old Homo erectus skeleton uncovered in Kenya. Citing disagreements among scientists over interpretations of radiocarbon dating, comparative anatomy and biochemical techniques, Tattersall unreels a catalogue of paleoanthropological misidentifications, dogmas and misperceptions. He draws a hypothetical evolutionary tree that includes three genera of our hominid ancestors-Homo and Australopithecus (accepted by conventional wisdom) plus a new genus, Paranthropus-altogether embracing a dozen species leading to Homo sapiens. Illustrated. (Feb.)
Library Journal
This informative and highly readable introduction to paleoanthropology by the head of the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History surveys the major discoveries in hominid evolution (fossils and artifacts) and examines both past and present principal interpretations of this growing empirical evidence for the complex emergence of humankind. Important fossils from Olduvai and other sites are critically discussed in terms of modern hominid taxonomy within the framework of climatic fluctuations, environmental changes, and morphological variety (species diversity). Throughout this detailed story, Tattersall argues against both human orthogenesis and the one-species hypothesis for explaining hominid evolution. He focuses on australopithecine diversity and behavior, those questions still surrounding Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, and the recent appearance of our own unique species in Africa. A fascinating and provocative overview of human paleontology that is highly recommended for all anthropology collections.-H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, N.Y.
Booknews
Tattersall, head of the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History, presents a sweeping tour of the study of human evolution, offering a fascinating history of fossil discoveries, including some very recent finds, and a revealing look at how these finds have been interpreted--and misinterpreted--throughout history. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Gilbert Taylor
Tattersall is curator of human evolution exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, which coincidentally sponsors the stunning Illustrated History of Humankind", the fourth volume of which is New World and Pacific Civilizations," edited by Goran Burenhult . Tattersall's independent volume cuts back on the visual spectaculars in favor of more detail about paleoanthropology. As much concerned with the dialectic of scientific advancement as with the specific, though fragmentary, fossil evidence, Tattersall courses through the interpretations of excavated discoveries since the days of Darwin. Given the meager evidence, a skull from China, a tooth from Java, most theories about the relics' relationship to modern humans are necessarily provisional, and with consummate objectivity, Tattersall outlines the debates about speciation or classification (the latter his own microspecialty), yet he doesn't shrink from offering his own opinions. Modern dating techniques have begun to sort out viable theories from crackpot notions, but Tattersall reminds us that somewhere in the eroding deposits lining Africa's Great Rift Valley there lurks the next Lucy, Turkana Boy, or Laetoli footprints that could completely revolutionize the field. That sense of ongoing discovery should appeal to the detail-demanding reader for whom even the best-done illustrated book is not enough.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780195061017
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
03/01/1995
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
9.50(w) x 6.50(h) x 0.98(d)

What People are Saying About This

Don Johanson
The richest and most comprehensive account to date of the thrilling quest to discover our ancestors.

Meet the Author

Ian Tattersall is Head of the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History, where he was Curator in Charge of the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, which opened in 1993.

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