The Fossil Trail

The Fossil Trail : How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution

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One of the most remarkable fossil finds in history occurred in Laetoli, Tanzania, in 1974, when anthropologist Andrew Hill (diving to the ground to avoid a lump of elephant dung thrown by a colleague) came face to face with a set of ancient footprints captured in stone-the earliest recorded steps of out far-off human ancestors, some three million years old. Today we can see a recreation of the making of the Laetoli footprints at the American Museum of Natural History, in a stunning diorama which depicts two of our human forebears walking side by side through a snowy landscape of volcanic ash. But how do we know what these three-million-year-old relatives looked like? How have we reconstructed the eons-long journey from our first ancient steps to where we stand today? In short, how do we know what we think we know about human evolution. In The Fossil Trail, Ian Tattersall, the head of the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History, takes us on a sweeping tour of the study of human evolution, offering a colourful history of fossil discoveries and a revealing insider's look at how these finds have been interpreted -and misinterpreted-through time.All the major figures and discoveries are here. We meet Lamark and Cuvier and Darwin (we learn that Darwin's theory of evolution, though a bombshell, was very congenial to a Victorian ethos of progress), right up to modern theorists such as Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Tattersall describes Dubois's work in Java, the may discoveries in South Africa by pioneers such as Raymond Dart and Robert Broom, Louis and Mary Leakey's work at Olduvai Gorge, Don Johanson's famous discovery of "Lucy" (a 3.4 million-year-old femail hominid, some 40 per cent complete), and the more recent discovery of the "Turkana boy", even more complete than "Lucy" and remarkably similar to modern human skeletons. He discusses the may techniques available to analyse finds, from Flourine analysis (developed in the 1950s, it exposed Piltdown as a hoax) and a radiocarbon dating to such modern techniques as electron spin resonance and the analysis of human mitochondrial DNA.He gives us a succinct picture of what we presently think our family tree looks like, with at least three general and perhaps a dozen species through time (though he warns that this greatly underestimates the actual diversity of hominids over the past two million or so years). And he paints a vivid, insider's portrait of paleontology, the dogged work in the broiling sun, searching for a tooth or a fractured corner of bone amid stone litter and shadows, with no guarantee of ever finding anything. And perhaps most important, Tattersall looks at all these great researchers and discoveries with the context of their social and scientific milieu, to reveal the insidious ways that the received to reveal the insidious ways that the received wisdom can shape how we interpret fossil findings, that what we expect to find colours our understanding of what we do find.show more

Product details

  • Hardback | 288 pages
  • 163.6 x 243.8 x 23.9mm | 716.61g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • line drawings
  • 0195061012
  • 9780195061017

Review Text

A refreshing appraisal of the state of the science of human origins. Tattersall heads the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His review takes off from Darwin and the dawn of modern geology, tracks the major sites and discoverers, and ends with current controversies and his personal reading of the record. The lesson that comes through loud and often is how much personal bias and prevailing paradigms have colored interpretation. Examples: The Victorian notion that evolution is "directed," moving onward and upward, and the more recent idea that humans represent the end product of a single lineage of ancestors and a gradually changing species. Then there were the hoaxes to contend with, and controversies about whether the races evolved independently or derived from a common root. Into this morass came the burst of recent fossil discoveries, the mapping of diversity via DNA, and new dating methods. The conclusion that Tattersall reaches is that we ought to view modern humans as a surviving species with varying degrees of biological closeness with other Homo species. These in turn descended from several different genera, starting about four million years ago with the bipedal Australopithecus afarensis in Africa. As he spins his tale he makes the point that physical changes do not match advances in technological skills, but that in due course there were obvious changes in behavior that mark abstract thought and language. His epilogue carries the grim message that we cannot expect evolution to come riding in to rescue the future: "We shall have to learn to live with ourselves as we are East." Wise words from a highly qualified observer of humanity past and present. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

About Ian Tattersall

Ian Tattersall is Head of the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History, where he was Curator in Charge of the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, which opened in 1993.show more

Table of contents

Preface; 1. Before Darwin; 2. Darwin and after; 3. Pithecanthropus; 4. The early twentieth century; 5. Out of Africa; 6. ... Always something new; 7. The synthesis; 8. Olduvai gorge; 9. Rama's ape meets the mighty molecule; 10. Omo and Turkana; 11. Hadar, Lucy and Laetoli; 12. Theory intrudes; 13. Eurasia and Africa: Odds and ends; 14. Turkana and Olduvai - again; 15. The cave-man vanishes; 16. Candelabras and continuity; 17. So, where are we?; Referencesshow more

Review quote

"The overall effect is tightly controlled, measured, fair, thoughtful, and demands a good deal of respect."--The Times Higher Education Supplement"This refreshingly opinionated book will have a lasting influence on the next generation of paleoanthropologists."--Nature"Encapsulates the study of human evolution."--The Washington Post"Tattersall provides the richest and most comprehensive account to date of the thrilling quest to discover our ancestors. But more importantly, the book succeeds brilliantly in enlightening us about the varied scientific and intellectual frameworks in which fossil evidence for human evolution has been interpreted. This superb book is a must for everyone interested in understanding the human story."--Don Johanson, Institute of Human Origins"Lucidly crafted within the framework of modern evolutionary biology this volume affords a much-needed and long-awaited critical analysis of the now greatly enhanced documentation of the human fossil record and of major transformations in perspectives and methodologies in respect to its analysis and evaluation. The appearance of evolutionary novelties, the recognition of past species' diversities, of major extinction events, of persistent lineages, and their poles of adaption, of modern morphological differentiation, and of behavioral capabilities are singularly and effectively elucidated. The Fossil Trail is an unsurpassed, tour-de-force exposition of the growth of knowledge of the origins and evolutionary past of human kind. It constitutes an exceptional landmark in the literature of paleoanthropology."--F. Clark Howell, Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of California, Berkeleyshow more

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70 ratings
4.04 out of 5 stars
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4 39% (27)
3 24% (17)
2 3% (2)
1 0% (0)
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