The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins

The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins

by Alan Walker, Pat Shipman
     
 

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In 1984 a team of paleoanthropologists on a dig in northern Kenya found something extraordinary: a nearly complete skeleton of Homo erectus, a creature that lived 1.5 million years ago and is widely thought to be the missing link between apes and humans. The remains belonged to a tall, rangy adolescent male. The researchers called him "Nariokotome boy."

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Overview

In 1984 a team of paleoanthropologists on a dig in northern Kenya found something extraordinary: a nearly complete skeleton of Homo erectus, a creature that lived 1.5 million years ago and is widely thought to be the missing link between apes and humans. The remains belonged to a tall, rangy adolescent male. The researchers called him "Nariokotome boy."

In this immensely lively book, Alan Walker, one of the lead researchers, and his wife and fellow scientist Pat Shipman tell the story of that epochal find and reveal what it tells us about our earliest ancestors. We learn that Nariokotome boy was a highly social predator who walked upright but lacked the capacity for speech. In leading us to these conclusions, The Wisdom of the Bones also offers an engaging chronicle of the hundred-year-long search for a "missing link," a saga of folly, heroic dedication, and inspired science.

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:
04/09/1996
Edition description:
1st ed
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
6.01(w) x 8.71(h) x 1.32(d)

What People are saying about this

Richard E. Leakey
"A vivid insider's perspective on the global efforts to document our own ancestry."

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