50,000 years ago – merely a blip in evolutionary time – our Homo sapiens ancestors were competing for existence with several other human species, just as their own precursors had been doing for millions of years. Yet something about our species separated it from the pack, and led to its survival while the rest became extinct. So just what was it that allowed Homo sapiens to become Masters of the Planet? Curator Emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, Ian Tattersall takes us deep into the fossil record to uncover what made humans so special. Surveying a vast field from initial bipedality to language and intelligence, Tattersall argues that Homo sapiens acquired a winning combination of traits that was not the result of long term evolutionary refinement. Instead it emerged quickly, shocking their world and changing it forever.
Tattersall (The Fossil Trail), a noted expert on human evolution and an emeritus curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, offers a concise history of how humans became humans. He explains how the sparse skeletal remains of ancient human predecessors are studied, how the shape of a molar, the tip of a pelvis, the design of the knee or the ankle all offer clues to the genealogical maps of our past. He revisits the usual suspects: the famous three-million-year-old Lucy; the unprecedented (in 1984) hominid structure of the Turkana Boy; and the 400,000-year-old Heidelberg man. Tattersall moves through the complex fossil records effortlessly and with a welcome sense of wonder. He also consistently conveys a deep knowledge of his subject. His discussion of the origin of symbolic behavior and the many theories that seek to explain early humans unprecedented leap in capacity, including the acquisition of language, the development of art, and the ability to deal in the abstract, is provocative and illuminating. Tattersall s combination of erudition and a conversational style make this is an excellent primer on human evolution. Illus.