The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans
About the Author
G. J. Sawyer is senior scientific technician, Esteban Sarmiento is research associate, and Ian Tattersall is curator, all in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History. The authors live in New York City. Studio V is located in Connecticut. Donald C. Johanson is Virginia M. Ullman Chair in Human Origins, professor, department of anthropology, and director, Institute of Human Origins, at Arizona State University. Meave Leakey is research associate, National Museums of Kenya, adjunct professor, Stony Brook University, New York, and Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society.
A Hominid Family Photo Album, June 12, 2007
This book is the work of the artists and scientists of the Fossil Hominid Reconstruction and Research Team. Sawyer is the physical anthropologist and Deak is the paleoartist. They take all that is known about each species within the genera Australopithicus, Ardipithicus, and Homo, and synthesize that data into stunning, beautiful, and somewhat disturbing likenesses of individuals. Whether in forecasting the future or in reconstructing the past, the further you get from the present day, the more uncertainty is introduced. The authors admit to a blending of science and art, and they admit that the more flimsy the fossil record, the greater their artistic license. It is said that all of the known fossils of proto-humans would fit in the bed of a pickup truck, and it is with this implicit caveat in mind that you must evaluate the accuracy of the reconstructions. Also, only bone fossilizes, and this is a book about soft tissue, so there is considerable inductive logic implicit in the reconstructions. But, hey, it’s a good start, and it’s more than we had before Sawyer and Deak had their inspiration. My guess is that any future corrections to their work will likely appear immaterial to the scientifically literate general reader which is their target audience.
All of the paleoanthropological discoveries in the text of this elegant photo album of proto-humans have been published before, and the authors do not claim offer new theories or interpretations of hominid evolution. The reason you will want to read this book is to meet your family in the flesh, to see what your ancestors looked like. Take each reconstruction as a hypothesis; this is what they most likely looked like, based on our current interpretation of the fossil record.
This book’s stunning illustrations will be certain to attract a fresh audience of paleoanthropological novices, and they will find, after their initial shock, that the authors present a rather comprehensive introductory course in the topic. It is a welcome addition to a bibliography of recent books aimed at the general reader, including "The Dawn of Human Culture", by Richard Klein, "From Lucy to Language," by Donald Johansen, "Extinct Humans," by Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey Schwartz, and "Becoming Human," by Ian Tattersal (see my Amazon reviews). This book doesn’t require a vocabulary in craniodental morphology, and for the most part scientific terms are avoided. For instance, Sawyer uses the term "man-ape" instead of the term "hominid."
What emerges from these pages is the slow, but accelerating evolution of proto-humans, by a process of brutal natural selection, including many failed "branches" in the evolutionary tree, all but one ultimately leading to extinction, leaving only ourselves.
The Ultimate Extended Family Photo Album, July 3, 2007
"The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans" is a numinous, scientifically accurate, and artistically inspired depiction of human evolution – the ultimate extended family photo album and history – that follows the emergence of 22 human species from our primordial cradle in Africa six to seven million years ago to the dawn of Homo sapiens.
Unlike overly popularized accounts, "The Last Human" unflinchingly notes that Homo sapiens was not an inevitable outcome. Environment and contingency generated, and the fossil record documents, a hominid family tree sprouting many branches including forerunners, relatives, and extinctions. Photorealistic three-dimensional reconstructions portray hominids such as Australopithecus afarensis, Homo rhodesiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo neanderthalensis (among others) with startling and emotionally evocative intensity.
The accompanying text provides a comprehensive account of each species with information on its emergence, chronology, geographic range, classification, physiology, lifestyle, habitat, environment, cultural achievements, co-existing species, and possible reasons for extinction.
By masterfully merging scientific insight and artistic interpretation into a coherent and compelling whole "The Last Human" eloquently articulates how family history is everyone’s heritage. This is a category-defining book that deserves to be widely read. It has my highest recommendation.
Also try Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade, The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors by Ann Gibbons, From Lucy to Language: Revised, Updated, and Expanded by Donald Johansen, or the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins by Carl Zimmer.
A catalogue of cousins, August 2, 2007
There’s a great deal of information available to the interested seeker of human origins. What has been lacking is a good descriptive overview and logical arrangement of the fossils found. Sawyer and Deak have responded to that need with this volume. Arranged in order of the oldest to the youngest of fossil specimens, the authors summarise which parts have been uncovered. In addition, they further descriptions of the likelihood of bipedalism, the known locations with assumed roaming areas, the associated wildlife and climate information. A special feature presents the way the "man-ape" probably appeared in its natural habitat.
The oldest fossils are very fragmentary and lead more to suggestions as to how they fit in the human lineage. Some clearly were successful creatures in their own right, but likely lie in a line that died out in time. Those aged pieces need further finds to establish their place – the chief reason the authors describe the probable range they inhabited. Later, more complete, fossils offer more information. The authors begin depicting fossil pieces in a restored placement with Australopithicus afarensis, the now-famous "Lucy" revealed by Don Johanson and his team in 1973. The authors provide an almost startling image of this hominid searching the savannah for her "lost daughter" – a very human characteristic. Laetoli’s preserved footprints are described with the implications for how close to modern humans A. afarensis could stride.
After "Lucy’s" time, about 3.5 million years ago, hominids developed into many and varied types. Lucy’s fossils were found in Ethiopia, but a million years later a new species, with robust jaws and bearing a crested cranium appeared. Paranthropus aethiopicus had nutcracker jaws and was more sturdily built than Lucy. Yet, in the same time frame, Lucy’s likely direct successors also emerged. One of these may have been the first to apply tools to aid food processing. Far away in what is now South Africa, other branches of Lucy’s clan may have evolved as a result of earlier forebears migrating. Within another half-million years, examples of hominids in the direct lineage to today’s humans appear, only a short distance from the supposed range of Lucy’s wanderings. Their descendents launched new migrations traced by finds to the east of their original homelands.
The recent find near Dmanisi in Georgia provides a look at hominid life nearly 2 million years ago. Flaked stone, likely used for meat cutting, although no bones with cut marks have yet been revealed. A contemporary of the Georgian hominid wandered yet further east, typified by the skull and thigh bone excavated by Eugene Dubois in 1891. Homo habilis has been found in other sites, demonstrating its wandering habits. The most astonishing find outside our African origins is the small hominid, H. floresienses, discovered in a cave in Indonesia.
Ultimately, of course, the sole survivor of hominid evolution, Homo sapiens, outlasted its many competitors. The last major contender alongside our species was Home neanderthalis, ranging from today’s Middle East into Western Europe. The authors’ coverage of this species is thorough, but not extravagant. Moving to our species, Sawyer and Deak provide a good overview of the factors used in classifying the fossils without greatly extending their coverage in comparison to the other topics. To conclude the book, they describe the techniques used in making the representative images of the various hominid species discussed in the text. The key point is how they developed the faces in the images. These stand in stark contrast to some of the historical illustrations of "early man" done earlier.
This book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in our ancestral past. Written in a straightforward manner, the authors give the available data, describing various speculations with care. They avoid dwelling on the many controversial questions that have plagued palaeoanthropology, and have no particular positions of their own to forward or defend. [stephen a. haines – Ottawa, Canada]