From Lucy to Language: Revised, Updated, and Expanded
In 1974 in a remote region of Ethiopia, Donald Johanson, then one of America’s most promising young paleoanthropologists, discovered "Lucy", the oldest, best preserved skeleton of any erect-walking human ever found. This discovery prompted a complete reevaluation of previous evidence for human origins.
About the Author(s)
Donald Johanson has explored the Great Rift Valley of East Africa for more than two decades, seeking clues to our ultimate origins. One of the most lively and controversial scientists working today, he is the author of five previous books, the host of the three-part Nova series In Search of Human Origins, and continues to lecture regularly. Known worldwide for his discovery of the Lucy skeleton, he is founder and president of the Institute of Human Origins in Berkeley, California, where he resides.
An excellent overview of human origins, October 22, 2006
"From Lucy to Lanuage" is somewhat of a misleading title as it covers evidence from before Lucy and the discussion of the development of language is limited. However, it has a better ring to it than "From Sahelanthropus tchadenis to Language" and Lucy is probably one of the best know discoveries. (Donald Johnson by the way being one of the discoverers of Lucy).
Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the science of paleoanthropology (the study of ancient humans) and the evidence that has been accumulated on the evolutionary history of modern humans.
It is a large format book – a coffee table book size although most people don’t leave books on their coffee table with picture of skulls in them. This large format allows for the often full size photographs of the evidence, which are simply magnificent photographs primarily taken by David Brill. Although I haven’t counted them, I would guess there are over 100 pages of these photographs that allow you to see the actual evidence while it is being described in the text.
The book is divided into two major sections – the first hundred pages or so is called "Central Issues in Paleoanthropology" and this reviews key concepts and issues in the subject in a series of 48 short sections looking at everything from techniques of paleoanthropology, to problems of evidence to art. This is clearly written for the general reader and does a good job of explaining some difficult and often contentious areas without oversimplification. I liked the way they would use technical terms but explain them and repeat that explanation at various stages throughout the book. However,at one or two points it can become too superficial and more pop-science than serious science and there a few silly comments like "a prefrontal cortex that is more than 200% smaller than that of the human brain!". Fortunately these moments are rare.
The second section is called "Encountering the Evidence" and this presents, over about 150 pages, many of the major finds with a one or two page background on the find and its significance accompanied by a full page (or sometimes two pages) photograph of the actual evidence. To be able to see the evidence in so clear a way helps to understand the difficulies of collecting evidence, why there are often strong disagreements but at the end shows a strong case that there is a line of evolution that can be demonstrated.
In a very contentious and aggressive area of science, Johansen and Edgar, appear to have pulled together a balanced view of the current state of science including the very recent (and definitely contentious) Homo floresiensis find in Indonesia. Clearly Johanson has a view and expresses it but does reference diffences of opinion (if only briefly sometimes)
Apart from some of the occassional sloppy writing in the first section, two other minor quibbles. In the second section, each find is independently described within a species and the finds seem to be presented in estimated age of the specimin. This may seem to be logical but it does get a little confusing when the actual date of finds are in a different order as the narrative refers to events that you have not yet read about. One recurring and more irritating issue is in the editing. Words are missed out or misspelt and in a couple of the captions on the photograph the text is cut off at one end. A shame for such an otherwise well laid out book.
Overall, highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the issues in human evolution and actually see the evidence.
In the years since this dramatic discovery Johanson has continued to scour East Africa’s Great rift Valley for the earliest evidence of human origins. In 1975 this team unearthed the "First Family", an unparalleled fossil assemblage of 13 individuals dating back to 3.2 million years ago; and in 1986 at the Rift’s most famous location, Olduvai Gorge, this same team discovered a 1.8 million-year-old partial adult skeleton that necessitated a reassessment of the earliest members of our own genus Homo.
Johanson’s fieldwork continues unabated and recently more fossil members of Lucy’s family have been found, including the 1992 discovery of the oldest, most complete skull of her species, with future research now planned for 1996 in the virtually unexplored regions of the most northern extension of the Rift Valley in Eritrea.
From Lucy to Language is a summing up of this remarkable career and a stunning documentary of human life through time on Earth. It is a combination of the vital experience of field work and the intellectual rigor of primary research. It is the fusion of two great writing talents: Johanson and Blake Edgar, an accomplished science writer, editor of the California Academy of Sciences’ Pacific Discovery, and co-author of Johanson’s last book, Ancestors.
From Lucy to Language is one of the greatest stories ever told, bracketing the timeline between bipedalism and human language. Part I addresses the central issues facing anyone seeking to decipher the mystery of human origins. In this section the authors provide answers to the basics — "What are our closest living relatives?" — tackle the controversial — "What is race?" — and contemplate the imponderables — "Why did consciousness evolve?"
From Lucy to Language is an encounter with the evidence. Early human fossils are hunted, discovered, identified, excavated, collected, preserved, labeled, cleaned, reconstructed, drawn, fondled, photographed, cast, compared, measured, revered, pondered, published, and argued over endlessly. Fossils like Lucy have become a talisman of sorts, promising to reveal the deepest secrets of our existence. In Part II the authors profile over fifty of the most significant early human fossils ever found. Each specimen is displayed in color and at actual size, most of them in multiple views. With them the authors present the cultural accoutrements associated with the fossils: stone tools which evidence increasing sophistication over time, the earliest stone, clay, and ivory art objects, and the culminating achievement of the dawn of human consciousness — the magnificent rock and cave paintings of Europe, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.
In the end From Lucy to Language is a reminder and a challenge. Like no species before us, we now seem poised to control vast parts of the planet and its life. We possess the power to influence, if not govern, evolution. For that reason, we must not forget our link to the natural world and our debt to natural selection. We need to "think deep", to add a dose of geologic time and evolutionary history to our perspective of who we are, where we came from, and where we are headed. This is the most poignant lesson this book has to offer.