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Hardcover Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins Book

ISBN: 0060829613

ISBN13: 9780060829612

Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins

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Book Overview

From the savannas of Africa to modern-day labs for biomechanical analysis and molecular genetics, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins reveals how anthropologists are furiously redrawing the... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

4 ratings

Covers a lot of ground concisely

I read this book within two days, enjoyed every minute, and learned a ton. That's what a writer can do when he organizes his material superbly yet parsimoniously, resisting the temptation to get technical on you or brandish everything he knows about a subject. The book does a wonderful job of laying out (most plausible) hypotheses by drawing on the latest observations and discoveries, several from the last 4-5 years. This is critical because a lot has been learned and revised in recent times. Here's one example of a recent study that illustrates this dynamic aspect, but hasn't made this edition. First reported in May 2006, this study found through genetic analysis that the split between human and chimpanzee lineages, a pivotal event in human evolution, may have happened much later than supposed through fossil evidence. DNA analysis suggests that the split happened somewhere around 5.4 mya, much later than first assumed. So what then are we to make of the proto-human fossil discovery of 2002, Sahelanthropos tchadensis, that is dated at 6-7 mya, appears to possess both ape and human traits and was possibly even bipedal? An intriguing explanation offered in this study, to fit both facts above, is that chimps and human ancestors branched off twice, with the first split being followed by interbreeding between the two populations before the second split. So we are all a result of hybridization according to this stunning hypothesis. But, back to the book. At the end of the reading, you will have a reasonable map of timelines, migrations and seminal events in the evolution of our species. Many other reviewers here have remarked on the wonderful diagrams and artwork that accompanies the narrative. The book also has several arresting callout sections on related topics and here are a few: genetic engineering, reconstruction techniques used by paleoanthropologists, language and its cause-and-effect role in human evolution. Another thing I really liked about the book is that it allowed me to feel as though I was piecing together the evidence myself, and drawing the conclusions. This is the first book from Zimmer that I have read and it will not be the last.


Here's the abbreviated version: The earliest hominids evolved from a primate in the Rift Valley in East Africa almost 7 mya (million years ago). The early group became extinct, but their descendents became australopithicus, represented best by the 3 foot tall 3.5 mya Lucy, also in the Rift Valley. Australopithicus became extinct about 2.2 mya. Descending from them before their demise were the Paranthropus group and the Homo group about 2.7 mya, again in the Rift Valley. The Paranthropus group, best known by P. robustus, became extinct by 1.2 mya. Homo habilis was the first of the homo species, giving rise to H. ergaster (a dead end), H. erectus, and H. heidelbergensis. H. erectus (fossils found from 1.9 mya to 30 kya) is thought to be the immediate ancestor of H. floresiensis, whose remains were discovered in 2004 and lived only 18,000 kya (thousand years ago). H. heidelbergensis gave rise to H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens. H. erectus wandered out of Africa 1.8 mya. Fossils have been found as far west as Italy and as far east as China and Indonesia. A group of H. heidelbergensis migrated from Africa about 600 kya and their fossils have been found from Spain to China. The European descendants of H. heidelbergensis evolved into Neanderthals (fossils found from 135 kya to 27 kya). African H. heidelbergensis is believed to have given rise to our own species 200 kya. H. sapiens migrated from the Rift Valley, throughout mid and southern Africa 150 kya. Some occupied part of the Levant from 130 kya to 80 kya. Another group headed east and by 50 kya had arrived in Australia and east Asia. Members of this group crossed the Bering Strait to the Americas about 20 kya. A fourth group headed northeast to Europe and northwest to all of Asia by 40 kya. Members of this group crossed the Bering strait again, this time 12 kya. This book from the Smithsonian is fantastic. They drafted celebrated Science journalist Carl Zimmer for the text and selected a whole field of supportive talent for the book's accessories. There are 164 high quality photographs, diagrams, and other visual aids out of 164 pages. Special one to two page synopses facilitate certain chapters on the subjects of: Fossil Evidence, Fossil Dating, DNA, The Chimpanzee Genome Project, Myth of the Missing Link, Orangutans and Upright Walking, Reconstructions of Specimens, Language, and Genetic Engineering. Of special interest to me is the explanation of how facial and bodily reconstruction is done - complete with beautiful reconstructive pictures of a Neanderthal mother and infant, a Neanderthal young girl, Lucy, H. floresiensis, and H. erectus. "Smithsonian Guide to Intimate Human Origins" is simple enough for any layman but concise enough for any scientist wanting a synopsis of the latest knowledge in human origins and paleontology. Complete with the DNA genealogies that have clarified so many questions in this field of study, this book is simply outstanding.

Engaging text, beautiful artwork

The romantic days of the search for the "missing link" are gone, and as science writer Carl Zimmer reminds us, that is all to the good since the very idea of a "missing link" is a misdirection. What we have today is the search for human ancestors and for a distinction to be made between our ancestors and other ancient hominids. This book with its beautiful prints and photos, engaging drawings and helpful charts, and especially the sprightly text by Zimmer brings the general reader up to date (circa 2005) on the latest developments. There's a lot going on. There's the controversy about Homo floresiensis, thought to be a tiny hominid, found in Indonesia in 2004. Zimmer presents the arguments. Some think that Homo floresiensis is an island adaptation of Home erectus, the first hominid to make it out of Africa 1.8 million years ago. After all, island adaptation often leads to diminished size. There are fossils of now extinct small elephants in Indonesia. But others believe that the skull found is an anomaly, a case of microcephaly, a birth defect. I'm betting on the latter. There are wooden spears found that are around 400,000 years old, meaning that Homo habilis or Homo ergaster (who may be one and the same) or the more recently discovered Homo heidelbergensis were accomplished tool makers long before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene. There is the idea that Homo neanderthalensis is a cold climate, European adaptation of Homo erectus. Part of the excitement in paleontology is in the new fossil finds, and part is in our new-found ability to analyze DNA samples to map the spread of Homo sapiens. This allows us to see the "out of Africa" phenomenon in three main stages: (1) Homo erectus leaving Africa 1.8 million years ago, followed by (2) Homo heidelbergensis expanding into not only Europe and the Near East and China, but into Southeast Asia as well. Finally (3), about 130,000 years ago, Homo sapiens begin to move out of Africa, first into the Levant and then into East Asia and Australia (50,000 years ago), then into Europe and Siberia (40,000 years ago) and ultimately into the Americas (20,000 years ago). Incidentally, this book has Homo sapiens coming onto the scene almost 200,000 years ago. Zimmer talks about the various hominid cultures and speculates on their social and religious possibilities. On the subject of what happened to the Neanderthal, he intimates that he believes it was a combination of things that allowed humans to survive while the Neanderthals went extinct, including being better able to adapt to climate change, having a more sophisticated culture and better hunting techniques. I think it's also possible (actually I think it's likely) that humans were better at killing not only herd animals but the competition as well, meaning that one of the reasons that the Neanderthals are gone is because we killed them. Zimmer more or less skirts around this, waiting (wisely, I think) until further evidence is in. In a fi

The Best up-to-Date Guide to Human Evolution

Human evolution is a complex subject that causes controversy between scientists, as well as bringing attacks from creationists. Because of the fact that we will never know all of the details there is much in the way of conjecture and argument about these details. However, despite some common notions to the contrary, the basic ideas of our evolution are fairly solid and backed up by much skeletal and biochemical evidence. The rapid development of research in the field makes it certain that every book published on the subject is, like every new computer, obsolete within a year or two. Now Carl Zimmer (in my opinion one of the best science writers around) has produced the most up-to-date review of the current knowledge of our origins. His book, "Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins," has got to be the best overview of the subject so far published. Zimmer has even included the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis, the so-called "Hobbit" man, as well as the latest thinking on the many other human fossils found in Africa, Europe and Asia. Zimmer is cautious, as he should be, about accepting pronouncements about such discoveries until the claims are well established and accepted by the majority. One fact that has come out of modern genetic studies on human populations mentioned by Zimmer is the discovery that all humans are very closely related (only 15% of the variation in human populations is between populations, while the other 85% is within populations.) We are truly all brothers and sisters (or more precisely cousins) and thus are all in the same human predicament. It is to be hoped that this knowledge will make us more respectful of people who are in reality only superficially different from ourselves. This well-illustrated book is another in a series of fine science books published by the Smithsonian and one that should certainly be read by anyone interested in our beginnings
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