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 wisdom can shape how we interpret fossil findings, that what we expect to find colours our understanding of what we do find. Refreshingly opinionated and vividly narrated. The Fossil Trail is the only book available to general readers that offers a full history of our study of human evolution, A fascinating story with intriguing turns along the way, this well-illustrated volume is essential reading for anyone curious about our human origins. spin resonance and the analysis of humanshow more

Product details

  • Paperback | 288 pages
  • 154 x 234 x 20mm | 498.95g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • New edition
  • New edition
  • line illustrations
  • 0195109813
  • 9780195109818

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

an outstanding achievement ... The task of organising such complex material into a narrative account would have defeated most writers, but Tattersall has mastered it with remarkable skill. The result is a smoothly flowing and wonderfully readable book that grips the attention without oversimplifying the arguments ... An altogether excellent book. New Scientist This lively, opinionated, personal account offers rare histories, hoaxes, and scientific fads; a readable, up-to-date account of current theory; and a healthy skepticism based on the author's own quest for our origins Natural Historyshow 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 more

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73 ratings
4.08 out of 5 stars
5 37% (27)
4 37% (27)
3 23% (17)
2 3% (2)
1 0% (0)
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