The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins

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A remarkable discovery was made a decade ago on a dig in northern Kenya. When all the bone and skull fragments were painstakingly pieced together, they revealed the nearly complete skeleton of a teenage male (nicknamed Nariokotome boy, after a nearby sand river). Faced with the best-ever specimen of Homo erectus - a species long identified as the proverbial missing link between apes and humans - paleoanthropologist Alan Walker embarked on a long-term investigation of that species's nature. In this book, telling ...
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Overview

A remarkable discovery was made a decade ago on a dig in northern Kenya. When all the bone and skull fragments were painstakingly pieced together, they revealed the nearly complete skeleton of a teenage male (nicknamed Nariokotome boy, after a nearby sand river). Faced with the best-ever specimen of Homo erectus - a species long identified as the proverbial missing link between apes and humans - paleoanthropologist Alan Walker embarked on a long-term investigation of that species's nature. In this book, telling the story of that inquiry, he introduces us to his ever surprising, deeply engrossing world. Walker examines even the tiniest of bones and the subtlest of clues in his analysis. He first recounts the story of the more-than-century-long search for the "missing link," a bizarre and compelling saga made up of brilliant science and speculative nonsense. Then he builds, step-by-step, on some of his predecessors' assumptions, and he challenges others, using state-of-the-art techniques to reveal the truth. In Walker's hands the bones reveal an amazing amount of information about the Nariokotome boy's anatomy and the way he lived. We watch as Walker deduces from the evidence that community and cooperation were already very important at this stage of human evolution; that the boy was modern in climatic adaptation and locomotion yet archaic in growth pattern; and that the boy could not speak. In Walker's final assessment this last insight becomes the most important one.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1984, paleoanthropologist Walker, together with Richard Leakey and Kamoya Kimeu, discovered the 1.5-million-year-old skeleton of a teenage male Homo erectus in Kenya. Dubbed the Nariokotome Boy after a nearby sand river, this hominid fossil reveals a tall, strong toolmaker, a cooperative, intensely social hunter who, though adapted to the tropics, was not fully human because, according to the authors, he did not possess language or think as we do. In an exciting first-person narrative coauthored with his paleoanthropologist wife, Walker uses the Nariokotome Boy and other finds to buttress his conjecture that our Homo erectus ancestors migrated out of Africa via the Middle East into Eurasia. In his analysis, Homo erectus, a "missing link" between apes and humans, experienced the prolongation of childhood typical of humans and mastered the human evolutionary trick of bearing big-brained babies whose brains continued to grow rapidly during the first year of life. Photos. (Mar.)
Gilbert Taylor
In 1984 Walker, along with colleague Richard Leakey and their "hominid gang" of experienced Kenyan excavators, discovered a near-intact fossil of "Homo erectus". The find was a veritable trove of theory-busting information, which the authors take up after recounting the scientists who preceded Walker in investigating the species. After a salute to the eccentric founder of "Homo erectus" studies, Eugene Dubois, the authors tell the oft-told mystery of the field, the disappearance of the "Peking man" fossils in 1941, which the Americans failed to spirit out of China ahead of the invading Japanese. An interlude about Louis Leakey's perseverances follows; then they delve into the issues illuminated by Walker's 1.5-million-year-old specimen. The abiding question is, of course, how human was "erectus": Could it speak, for example? What impelled its spread around the world? Was it a social animal? The authors give interesting answers, but better yet, they convey how those answers come about through inference, argument, and dusty digging. A fluidly presented portrait of the people and process of paleoanthropology.
John R. Alden
"Fascinating. . . . As engaging an explanation of how scientists study fossil bones as any I have ever read." -- Philadelphia Inquirer
Portland Oregonian
"Brilliantly captures [an] intellectual odyssey. . . . One of the finest examples of a practicing scientist writing for a popular audience."
Kirkus Reviews
"I am striving to see the human animal in the right perspective." So says paleoanthropologist Walker in the first person, although the text of this first-rate exposition was actually penned by Shipman, Walker's wife and colleague in Pennsylvania State University's anthropology department.

The "human animal" in this case is the 1.5-million-year-old Nariokotome boy, unearthed by Walker near a sand river of the same name on the west side of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The discovery of an almost complete skeleton of Homo erectus, the hominid species presumed to have preceded us, was an extraordinary event. The painstaking analysis of the bones that followed involved collaborations with experts in nutrition, neuroscience, language, and behavior. From their findings and the distribution and dating of other erectus fossils, Walker concludes that populations of the species originated in Africa and were the first hominids to spread to other continents; that they were bipedal, social omnivores who could hunt and kill prey. Like us, their babies were born helpless, so that the head could fit through the narrowed pelvic opening needed for stable walking. This meant that infant care was essential and that the brain could continue to expand during the first year—if not much after that, apparently. The big surprise—based on studying the markings that the brain surface leaves on the inside of the skull—was that H. erectus lacked language: Nariokotome boy was a "large, strong, tall youth of 15 . . . with the brain of a toddler." Such a discovery raises a number of pressing questions—and may be challenged in the contentious field of paleoanthropology.

Nevertheless, the care with which Walker and Shipman lay out the evidence and their theories may well win the day. And even if not, readers will be rewarded by a fine telling of the always fascinating story of where we came from.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679426240
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/9/1996
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.01 (w) x 8.71 (h) x 1.32 (d)

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2002

    Absolutely fascinating!

    This was a marvelous book that is both extremely readable and intellectually stimulating. I'm not sure whether to give the credit to Walker or Shipman, but the author was a pleasure to know and a joy to learn from. The careful explanations of how the anthropologists reach their conclusions were gripping, amusing and make the joy of science palpable. I am happy to learn about the "Hominid Gang", the searchers who actually do most of the looking and digging, and to learn that Africans are beginning to set a high standard of excellence in anthropology. Recommended to anyone with even the slightest interest in the topic.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2000

    Amazing Story

    This book was required reading for my archaeology class. I was way behind and didn't start reading the book until two days before the test, but that didn't matter, I couldn't put it down. There is a little bit of jargon to get past, and some parts will seem drab to anyone not familiar with archaeological methods, but it's well worth reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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