The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolutionby Clive Finlayson
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Taking an ecological approach to our evolution, Clive Finlayson considers the origins of modern humans within the context of a drying climate and changing landscapes. Finlayson argues that environmental change, particularly availability of water, played a critical role in shaping the direction of human evolution, contributing to our spread and success. He argues that our ancestors carved a niche for themselves by leaving the forest and forcing their way into a long-established community of carnivores in a tropical savannah as climate changes opened up the landscape. They took their chance at high noon, when most other predators were asleep. Adapting to this new lifestyle by shedding their hair and developing an active sweating system to keep cool, being close to fresh water was vital. As the climate dried, our ancestors, already bipedal, became taller and slimmer, more adept at travelling farther in search of water. The challenges of seeking water in a drying landscape moulded the minds and bodies of early humans, and directed their migrations and eventual settlements. In this fresh and provocative view of a seven-million-year evolutionary journey, Finlayson demonstrates the radical implications for the interpretation of fossils and technologies and shows that understanding humans within an ecological context provides insights into the emergence and spread of Homo sapiens sapiens worldwide.
Evolutionary ecologist Finlayson (director, Gibraltar Museum; The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived) considers the entire course of human evolution against the backdrop of shrinking water resources as the African continent underwent a series of severe drying episodes. Beginning with our most remote ancestors, he describes how their physical adaptations (bigger brains, lighter bodies, longer hind limbs), as well as their behavioral ones, were in response to scattered and ephemeral water resources. He concludes with an examination of the survival strategies of the Mardu aborigines of Australia, presenting them as a window into our past as they live by their wits in the harsh Australian desert. Finlayson presents a number of provocative arguments and hypotheses (e.g., our adaptation to finding water in an increasingly drying world was the crowning evolutionary achievement of our species), but it's unlikely that nonspecialists will have the scientific background to evaluate their validity. It would have been helpful to include a glossary instead of burying definitions in the endnotes. VERDICT Recommended to serious human evolution buffs and those with an academic background in the subject.—Cynthia Lee Knight, formerly with Hunterdon Cty. Lib., Flemington, NJ
- OUP Oxford
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Meet the Author
Clive Finlayson is a noted expert on the Neanderthals and has been researching their final stand in Gibraltar. He is Director of the Gibraltar Museum and Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto, having trained in Oxford as an evolutionary ecologist. His previous books include Neanderthals and Modern Humans: An Ecological and Evolutinary Perspective (CUP, 2004) and The Humans Who Went Extinct (OUP, 2009).
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Clive Finlayson outdoes the crowd! We read about fossils, about stone tools...heck, genetics is often toated...but have you read about ecology, and the changes climate has had on humans? Then you gotta read this guy...he's good!