In the steps of Homo sapiens

The Origins of Man
October 19, 2007

This is the latest in a recent spate of illustrated introductory surveys of human evolution for the general reader. It therefore enters a crowded market but differs from competitors in its ambitious twin aims: to summarise current knowledge of human ancestry and, as the title suggests, to do so via an historical account of how understanding developed through the accumulating fossil and archaeological records. This duality makes for thematic complexity, some unusual ordering of material - the earliest possible hominins do not appear until the penultimate chapter - and a degree of repetition.

The account starts, understandably enough, with Charles Darwin, but Darwin as the prophet of Africa as humanity's cradle, not Darwin the evolutionist; surprisingly, there is scant treatment of evolutionary mechanisms and processes save for a brief reference to sexual selection.

Douglas Palmer has the enviable ability to distil complex material into clear, easily assimilated statements without oversimplifying to the point of distortion, and the text is remarkably up to date in coverage. Aided by some attractive and well designed graphics, Palmer skilfully summarises much contextual information that underpins the fossil and archaeological evidence; some, such as the deep-sea core record of climatic change, absolute dating techniques and the principles of molecular anthropology, in considerable technical detail.

Chapter eight is particularly impressive as an elegant and clear account of recent human evolution that melds molecular and linguistic evidence for human diversity while summarising their implications for our species' origin and for the genetic structure of contemporary human populations.

But elsewhere the account is rather let down by the illustrations. We have 11 colour reconstructions of Neanderthals doing what Neanderthals did, but just two reconstructions of other fossil Homo , one a decided museum piece of a largely imaginary Java Man with anthropoid arms and splayed toes. Reconstructions of all other fossil hominins - Cro-Magnons and other early moderns, Homo habilis , Australopithecus , Paranthropus , and so on - are entirely lacking, with these species pictured only as fossils.

There are conflicts between the main text and some figure legends. The Gona archaeological site is situated both in Egypt (wrong) and Ethiopia (right); a diagram shows Homo erectus spanning the period from only 0.8- 0.2 million years ago, but elsewhere is correctly reported present on Java from 1.5 million years ago. In the section outlining palaeomagnetism the Matuyama reversed chron is stated to last only 0.2 million years but elsewhere is correctly depicted as extending almost tenfold from 2.6-0.78 million years. Fossils of the claimed basal hominin Ardipithecus are referred to two sub-species on the relevant map but to full species in the text.

The clear impression is that author and picture editor haven't been communicating, and while Palmer's text is generally an accurate summary of current views these conflicts between text and image will puzzle the reader, especially one new to the subject and whose sole guide this is.

Given the book's ambitious range and basic approach, at under 200 pages its coverage is inevitably thin. In the end I was left wondering whether the intended readers might not prefer more balanced illustrations and a more detailed account for their money.

- Alan Bilsborough is professor of anthropology, Durham University.

The Origins of Man: An Illustrated History of Human Evolution

Author - Douglas Palmer
Publisher - New Holland Publishers
Pages - 208
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 9781845371654

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