I found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s...moreI found this very well-written and interesting book the other day on the bargain table at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, while just a touch over 250 pages in length, is a fascinating look at a series of seemingly unconnected historical events involving a group of prominent literary, theological, scientific, and artistic Americans during the late-1860s through the 1880s. Interestingly, what seems to link these persons together was their unmitigated passion for hummingbirds!
As Dr. Benfey writes, “they wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds’ return.” Dr. Benfey puts forward the proposition that this fascination was one result of the great tragic, but ultimately liberating, experience of the American Civil War. Benfey believes that “Americans during and after the Civil War gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies. In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism, in all aspects of life, found perfect expression in the hummingbird.”
The book kicks off with Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his black Union soldiers near Jacksonville, Florida, during the American Civil War. Before his military service began, Higginson wrote an essay entitled, The Life of Birds, that was published in The Atlantic in 1862. He began the essay with a long look at hummingbirds which, in his words, were “an image of airy motion,” and wondered if “gems turn to flowers, flowers to feathers, in that long-past dynasty of the humming-birds?” A fanciful nod to Darwinism, perhaps.
Higginson, during the war years, was already corresponding with Emily Dickinson, the shy and reclusive brilliant poet of Amherst, Massachusetts. In fact, in 1862, Dickinson sent three poems to Higginson for his opinion and asked if they had the potential for publication. Dickinson, it seems, was inspired by Higginson’s nature essays to begin writing poems about hummingbirds, including this example:
“Within my Garden, rides a Bird Upon a single Wheel— Whose spokes a dizzy Music make As ‘twere a traveling Mill—
He never stops, but slackens Above the Ripest Rose— Partakes without alighting And praises as he goes”
I learned some interesting new things about Emily Dickinson, Henry Ward Beecher, his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. To me though, I was most intrigued with Martin Johnson Heade. Heade was an artist, largely a landscape painter, of the American mid-19th century “Hudson River School;” that also produced artists like Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt. Heade loved painting nature and the wildlife that lived in it. It appears that he also had a bit of wanderlust in him as he traveled all over the globe in pursuit of practicing his art. He particularly loved to paint hummingbirds in their natural habitats, and visited Central and South America in pursuit of these little flying jewels. Many prominent Americans, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) ownws paintings by Heade.
Generally, the book gives a wonderful overview of each of these amazing people and what made them important in their own time. The real point of the book though, in my opinion, is Dr. Benfey’s contention that there was a convergence, of sorts, of most of these people in and around Amherst, Massachusetts from the mid-1870s to the mid-1880s, for a variety of reasons. I really don’t want to give anything away, but there are some really interesting and juicy tid-bits concerning Henry Ward Beecher, Austin Dickinson, the beautiful and talented artist Mabel Loomis Todd, Martin Johnson Heade, and Emily Dickinson.
Benfey’s book then, in a sense, is really a ‘string-of-pearls’ of connected, or quasi-connected, relationships among the book’s principals. These relationships occur over the twenty-year period following the Civil War, the so-called 'great American Golden Age,' and culminate with Henry Flagler’s promotion and development of Florida as a winter travel destination. As I mentioned above, the book starts in Florida with Higginson; it goes full-circle and ends in Florida with Flagler and Heade and Flagler's fabulous resort hotel in St. Augustine, Florida.
This was a very thought-provoking and fun book to read. I have to say that learning more about Emily Dickinson, the person and woman, has increased my appreciation of the brilliance and genius of her amazing poetry. Getting to know her brother Austin, and sister-in-law, Susan, and her friends David and Mabel Todd was an added bonus. Discovering Martin Johnson Heade’s life and paintings was fantastic, as I am a huge fan of the Hudson River School, landscape art in general, and especially paintings of birds. Finally, the book includes an excellent collection of end-notes and a superb index. This is a fast read and will make a wonderful addition to anyone’s American literature bookshelf. I highly recommend Dr. Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds.(less)
This is an excellent, and eminently readable, political and military history of the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars from the Russian perspective....moreThis is an excellent, and eminently readable, political and military history of the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars from the Russian perspective. Professor Lieven has done a superb job of crafting a suspenseful story involving some truly remarkable characters. His description of the battlefield tactical situations, the strategic implications of the armies moving across Europe in pursuit of Napoleon's Grande Armee is some of the best I've read, and rivals Shelby Foote's treatment of the American Civil War.
What really made this book stand out for me was Lieven's extensive and fascinating portrayal of the diplomatic and political machinations that led to the Allies finally coming together under the common goal of utterly destroying Napoleon's ability to wage war in Europe. For far too long too many people have been under the mistaken impression that it was the British, and the British alone, that led to the defeat of Napoleon. While it is true, in one sense, in another sense Napoleon's final defeat could not have occurred without the dogged perseverance of Tsar Alexander and the truly superb Russian Army that he led to ultimate victory on the long road from Moscow to Paris between 1812 and 1814.
I highly recommend this to any interested in 19th Century European history, and especially to those interested in Napoleonic history. This is an indispensable resource, and ever so well written.(less)
Caroline Alexander says in her Preface to The War That Killed Achilles that "this book is about what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the I...moreCaroline Alexander says in her Preface to The War That Killed Achilles that "this book is about what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war."
I loved this book! It is extraordinarily well-written, and to the point at 225 pages in length (plus another nearly 50 pages of end-notes). While scholarly, it reads very well. Alexander takes us through the Trojan War's cast of characters in chapters that cover topics like "Chain of Command", the "Terms of Engagement", "In God We Trust", "Man Down", "No Hostages", "The Death of Hektor", and the last chapter "Everlasting Glory". Alexander's book hones in on the seven or eight months that are covered in Homer's Iliad, and while it speaks to the historical context of Troy, Mycenaean Greece, and the Trojan War itself, I think the real message of her book is the psychology of the War and the psychology of the humans involved in it.
It is perhaps easy to come to the conclusion that the Iliad is really the story of the "rage" of Achilles. I don't know if it is that simple though, and I don't think Alexander does either. She spends a lot of the book discussing why Achilles is 'angry' with Agamemnon, and it is much more complicated than Agamemnon having relieved Achilles of his concubine, Briseis. She postulates that Achilles reaches the conclusion that Agamemnon is an inept and incompetent military commander, that this is really an unjust war, and that he--Achilles--really 'doesn't have an axe to grind' in this fight. All of this was very thought-provoking for me, and caused me to carefully reread the Iliad and rethink my feelings about Achilles' actions (or, inaction, as the case may be).
Alexander makes a strong case too, that both sides in this nasty little war were just worn out. The Greeks and the Trojans had been fighting for nearly ten years, with little in the way of tangible results other than seeing hundreds of their comrades killed or maimed. That can't be good for your overall mental health. The psychological toll of losing friends in combat must have been huge, and anger and guilt (i.e., 'survivor's guilt'), and post-traumatic stress disorder must have, by this time, affected all of the combatants. When Achilles' best-loved friend Patroclus is killed by Hektor, one can begin to understand how Achilles could have 'snapped' and just gone berserk. Particularly as one knows from Homer that Achilles, in essence, facilitated Patroclus' death at the hands of Hektor. Combat is violent, combat is horrific--whether it is in the Bronze Age on the Plain of Troy, or in 2011 in the Korangal River Valley in Afghanistan--and the human cost is always incalculably high.
Finally, Alexander finishes her book with a discussion about Achilles coming to terms with his own role in the Trojan War, and acceptance of his destiny and what Fate had in store for him, and the choices involved. Could Achilles have really packed up his 2,500 Myrmidon warriors and sailed back home in his 50 'black-hulled' ships to a peaceful and quiet obscurity? Could he have left without avenging the death of his beloved friend, Patroclus? Alexander is compelling as she lays out the case that Achilles was able to, as Homer alludes to in the poem, sort through the pros and cons of what faced him, and was able to 'make peace' with himself. Alexander, I think, believes that it was through Achilles reaching a resolution to these issues that freed him to fully embrace the warrior ethos of his time and meet his destiny and fate with honor and integrity--on the battlefield, or late at night in the parley with the Trojan king, Priam. Maybe the great Lycian warrior, Sarpedon, a Trojan ally said it best in describing the warrior's code when he tells his friend, Glaukos--
"Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others."
That's powerful stuff, and this is a very powerful book that Caroline Alexander has written. She's right too. This book is about "...what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war." (less)
Christopher Stringer's book, African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity is a thoughtful, very well-written and detailed presentation of the prevai...moreChristopher Stringer's book, African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity is a thoughtful, very well-written and detailed presentation of the prevailing model associated with modern human origins known as "The Out-of-Africa" hypothesis. Stringer is not only an incredibly articulate advocate for the model, but he is generally thought of as one of the principal architects of the hypothesis. Stringer's book, while written in the mid-1990s, provides the reader with an excellent synopsis and overview of the fossil, biological, cultural, and genetic evidence and information associated with the hominin species that occupied portions of our planet over the past five-million years.
If you're new to human origins and anthropology, or if you're looking for a good 'refresher' to the topic and the areas of controversy, then this is the book for you. While the "Out-of-Africa" hypothesis has morphed and has really become more complex over the past decade or so, particularly with the advent of so much of the genetic data, the basic tenets of the model still hold. In fact, it is safe to say that the Out-of-Africa hypothesis has become the only tenable hypothesis associated with the dispersal of anatomically modern humans around the planet starting about 80,000 years ago. Finally, it is my understanding that Chris Stringer's new book, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth (Henry Holt and Co., Inc.), scheduled to be published in mid-March 2012, provides an in-depth overview of the current state-of-the-knowledge associated with modern human origins. I, for one, am very much looking forward to reading it.(less)
Chris Stringer's Lone Survivors: How We Came to be the Only Humans on Earth comes along some seventeen years after his ground-breaking book African Ex...moreChris Stringer's Lone Survivors: How We Came to be the Only Humans on Earth comes along some seventeen years after his ground-breaking book African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity (Henry Holt, 1996). Stringer is one of the principal architects and proponents of the "Out-of-Africa" (OOA) hypothesis associated with the origin and dispersal of anatomically modern humans, i.e., Homo sapiens. According to Stringer and the OOA hypothesis, anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago, and then 'something' happened about 50,000 years ago that resulted in essentially the relatively rapid spread of our species into much of Eurasia, eastern Asia, Indonesia and Australia, and into western Europe over a period of about 10,000 years! What is even more remarkable is that it now appears that there were other populations of archaic Homo species that we coexisted and/or competed with for a time, likely including Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and the newly discovered little people of Flores, Homo floresiensis.
In just under 280 pages, Chris Stringer takes the reader through the history of our human origins with the fossil evidence. He synthesizes the latest advances in knowledge associated with paleoclimatology, geochronological dating methods, and geology and plate tectonics. Most importantly, Stringer spends much of the book talking about the evolution of human behavior (e.g., developing and utilizing technology, use of symbolism, developing survival and coping strategies, burial of dead, etc.). The evolutionary steps leading to Homo sapiens wasn't a given. It was really a very near run thing, and without the ability to rapidly adapt and respond to changing climate conditions and subsequent changed ecological conditions modern humans could quite likely have become extinct just as our close cousins, the Neanderthals, did about 30,000 years ago. For example, the massive supervolcanic eruption of Toba on the island of Java was very nearly a game-changer for all human species about 73,000 years ago. Finally, over the past decade or so, much of the OOA hypothesis has been validated and bolstered with the results of numerous studies and analyses of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome DNA. In other words, we really and truly are all African.
While all of this discussion of fossils, paleoconditions, and genetics may sound a bit daunting, complicated, or even off-putting, Dr. Stringer does a sterling job of leading the reader--whether layperson or specialist--through the data and evidence with his well-written and entertaining prose. I've kind of come to realize that Stringer and his peers--paleoanthropologists--are really much akin to detectives hot on the trail to better understand when we became who we are, and how we became who we are, and perhaps even be able to answer why. This book will definitely help you get your arms (and brain) around the critical issues and questions associated with what makes us human
In closing, it is my opinion that Chris Stringer's incredibly thought-provoking Chapter 8 of the book, "Making A Modern Human" ought to be required reading by all of us. I don't know that I have underlined more passages or made more marginalia notes in a book since I left college in the mid-1980s. Reading this book, and Chapter 8 in particular, has stimulated a desire in me to chase down a lot of the technical references and journal articles that Dr. Stringer has provided in the book's extensive bibliography. This is a subject that profoundly fascinates me, and I am committed to educate myself and better understand my human origins, and have nothing but admiration and gratitude to Chris Stringer for inspiring me toward this end. All I can say is read Lone Survivors, it really is one of the most comprehensive overviews of the current state-of-knowledge associated with our human origins that I've read.(less)
The Dawn of Human Culture can probably be fairly characterized as Professor Klein's 2002 synthesis and condensed version of his monumental textbook, T...moreThe Dawn of Human Culture can probably be fairly characterized as Professor Klein's 2002 synthesis and condensed version of his monumental textbook, The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins written for both the interested amateur as well as for anthropological professionals. In my opinion, this book is really well-written, incredibly fascinating, and lavishly illustrated with numerous superb drawings by Kathryn Cruz-Uribe.
For me, the story of the genus Homo and of the individual species that ultimately leads to us--Homo sapiens--is nothing short of amazing, and Klein's book exhibits that same enthusiasm and wonder that I still feel. Even though this survey of the paleoanthropological state-of-knowledge was published in 2002, it is really mostly still quite up-to-date and relevant. I also very much appreciated Professor Klein's in-depth and even-handed portrayal and treatment of the various positions associated with the major controversies associated with our human origins. When you're done with this book, and you want to find out more about your human origins, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of the Third Edition of Professor Klein's The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (University of Chicago Press, 3rd Ed., 2009).(less)
This is a terrific book, and one that I highly recommend. Let me see if I can do the book any justice with my efforts at producing a meaningful review...moreThis is a terrific book, and one that I highly recommend. Let me see if I can do the book any justice with my efforts at producing a meaningful review. I work with endangered species and degraded riparian ecosystems along a large river system in the American Southwest, and I very much appreciated Clive Finlayson's incorporation of the environmental and ecological aspects associated with the story of human origins. In Finlayson's The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived he takes great care to deftly weave together the latest information about paleoclimate conditions, the paleoecologies, paleoenvironments of the regions that were occupied by our hominin ancestors. Broadly speaking, Finlayson's tale is an "Out-of-Africa" story, and that is as it should be in my humble opinion. The Out-of-Africa model associated with modern human origins really does seem to make the most sense when compared to the existing fossil, archaeological, environmental, biological, and genetic evidence and data that is so aptly described by Finlayson in this fascinating account.
The important take-away for me upon finishing this excellent book was two-fold. First, we--modern humans--are incredibly lucky to even be here today. Little differences here or there over the past 75,000 years and it is very likely that Homo sapiens would be just as extinct as other human species, like the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Second, climate-change was the big game-changer over the five or six million years of human evolution, and it was the ability to rapidly react to these swings in climate and ecological conditions that made it possible for some human populations to ultimately succeed while many others did not. This is a lesson that we need to pay careful attention to now. Just because humans occupy the planet now really is no guarantee that we will still be here twenty millenia from now.
There's a lot of information in this book, and much of it is quite thought-provoking. I can honestly say that I am just a little bit sad too, that our incredibly long-lived close cousins--the Neanderthal peoples--are extinct. Somehow I think the planet is just a little bit lonelier without those people who lived here for hundreds of thousands of years in great harmony with their environment. It seems simply amazing to imagine that there was a fairly long period of time where Neanderthal peoples and modern humans actually occupied the same regions and probably even competed for the same resources in the day-to-day struggle to survive. This is a great and grand story, and in my continuing quest to more fully understand my own human origins I am so glad to have encountered and read Finlayson's superb book, and to now have it on my shelf to go back to periodically.(less)
I love history, and this was a grand tour of over nearly 200,000 years of human history from the small bands of anatomically modern humans that roamed...moreI love history, and this was a grand tour of over nearly 200,000 years of human history from the small bands of anatomically modern humans that roamed about Africa and then slowly spread across Eurasia and finally into the heart of western Europe. Professor Fagan is a great writer that brings to life these hardy peoples that most of us are descended from. Fagan carefully explains and puts into context all of the latest archaeological and climatological data as he tells this amazing story. There's lots of good stuff in this book too about the potential interactions between modern humans and our close cousins, the Neanderthals.
I have to say that I loved this book as much as Jean Auel's wonderful Earth's Children series (i.e., Clan of the Cave Bear through the Land of the Painted Caves). In fact, before you read (or re-read) Auel's books, I highly recommend reading Fagan's Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, as it really does provide a ton of background information that helps to put Auel's Ice Age world in context for the average reader. I really enjoyed reading Professor Fagan's book, and found it to be eminently readable, interesting, informative, and quite entertaining. There's a lot in this book for the serious student of human origins and archaeology as well as for the layperson just wanting to better understand our rich human history.(less)
This review is associated with the 3rd Edition of Richard G. Klein's The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (2009)--
Wow! Nearly one m...moreThis review is associated with the 3rd Edition of Richard G. Klein's The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins (2009)--
Wow! Nearly one month later I have actually come to the end of this most amazing book. My hat is off to Dr Klein, as The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins is arguably the most thorough and comprehensive, yet eminently readable, treatise associated with paleoanthropology, archaeology and human evolution that I've yet to encounter. While the book was primarily written to serve as a textbook in a university environment, its organization and explanation of the material makes it completely approachable and understandable by even the casual layperson. If you like history with a liberal dose of good science thrown in, you just might find yourself as enchanted as I was.
The nearly 800 pages of actual text is organized into eight solidly fascinating chapters, including--
1. Evolution, Classification, and Nomenclature 2. The Geologic Time frame 3. The Primate Background 4. The Australopiths and Homo habilis 5. Evolution of the Genus Homo 6. The Neanderthals and Their Contemporaries 7. Anatomically Modern Humans 8. Synopsis: Anatomy, Behavior, and Modern Human Origins
The presentation and organization of the material allows the reader to easily grasp the important concepts and salient details. Whether it is an in-depth discussion of anatomical details, archaeological artifact assemblages, habitat usage or cyclical climate-change records, speculations or observations in behavioral psychology, or even the latest important genetics information, Dr. Klein's explanations and descriptions of the relevant data and information in each of the chapters was always engaging, very well written, and always quite thought-provoking. I consider myself a fairly well-educated amateur, but very enthusiastic, paleoanthropologist, and I learned something new on virtually every page of this book.
I do need to point out that it is abundantly clear that Dr. Klein is largely (if not firmly) a proponent of the "Out-of-Africa" model associated with modern human origins. But he is also quite candid and forthcoming in describing the few shortcomings of the hypothesis that cannot currently be reconciled with existing data and/or the fossil evidence. Additionally, Dr. Klein spends a good bit of the last three chapters building the case not only for the Out-of Africa model of modern human origins and dispersal, but also the cultural explosion--the result of a new type of modern human behavior--that occurred about 50,000 years ago, and quite likely provided the impetus for the mass-migration from eastern Africa and out across Eurasia, into western Europe, to Australia, across Asia and Siberia and finally into the Americas. While I have been generally pretty familiar with much of this information, it was only through reading this book that I was able to put the whole picture together; starting with the Australopiths, and then into the Genus Homo, concluding with the stark fact that of all the human species we are the last one, Homo sapiens. The synthesis and synopsis provided in the last chapter was simply astounding, and was so damned interesting I read it twice. In sum, Dr. Klein tells a story in this book that is both deeply compelling and fascinating.
Finally, I also want to highly recommend the system of references and bibliographic citations that Dr. Klein has provided associated with the material in this book. At the end of each section within each of the chapters, Dr. Klein provides a brief compendium of the source material for each of the subjects discussed in that section. One can then refer to the extensive, nearly 200 pages, of references at the end of the book. Trust me, this system works well, and the extensive references are certainly 'worth the price of admission' on their own. Dr. Klein also provides a comprehensive Site Index that allows the interested reader to specifically look up an archaeological site. He has also provided a Reference Index (by author/researcher) as well as the obligatory Subject Index. As I said at the beginning, this is a comprehensive reference and resource, and I'm very glad to have this on my bookshelf now.(less)
This is an amazing book! It is perhaps better characterized as a naturalist's 'Field Guide' to the history of the evolution of human species (i.e., th...moreThis is an amazing book! It is perhaps better characterized as a naturalist's 'Field Guide' to the history of the evolution of human species (i.e., the hominins). The authors present a relatively detailed synopsis of the current state-of-knowledge associated with each of the 22 hominin species portrayed in the book, starting with Sahelanthropus tchadensis and Ororrin tugenensis at about 6 million years ago, and then finishing up with anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens. Along with the background information about each species, the authors have supplied beautifully reconstructed images of what these individuals may have looked like in the habitats they are thought to have occupied. They have taken casts of the fossils and added tendons, muscles, flesh, skin, and hair. The results are simply astounding. As just one superb example, the cover of the book is their rendition of the famous Australopith, "Lucy", the fossil of the little female Australopithecus afarensis discovered by Donald Johanson in 1974. It takes your breath away just to look into her face and realize that she and her kind represent something like 800,000-900,000 years in the several million year old history of the human species. This is a book that one can spend hours with every time you take it from the shelf, and learn something new each time too.(less)
Ian Tattersall's new book, Masters of the Planet, is an eloquently and well-written story of our human origins. While much of the material included in...moreIan Tattersall's new book, Masters of the Planet, is an eloquently and well-written story of our human origins. While much of the material included in this book was familiar to me, I have to say that Dr. Tattersall's organization and presentation makes this book the perfect gift for someone looking for a thorough but easily understandable first exposure to human evolution. Tattersall's love of systematics, anatomy and taxonomy shines through brightly as he uses the narrative to carefully document, explain and interpret the important fossils and archaeological evidence associated with many of our hominin ancestors.
This anthropological and archaeological detective story begins some 5-6 million years ago and culminates with the origin of anatomically modern humans (i.e., Homo sapiens) in Africa nearly 200,000 years ago, and subsequent dispersal through much of the rest of world starting about 60,000 years ago. This is the elegantly told story of--to borrow a phrase--"bones, stones, and molecules" that provides Tattersall's synthesis and interpretations of the current state-of-knowledge associated with the fossil evidence, the stone-tool traditions, and the latest genetic data. Finally, for those who are interested, Tattersall has provided twenty pages of detailed notes and bibliographic source citations for each chapter at the end of the book. I really enjoyed reading Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, and unhesitatingly recommend it for those interested in the natural and biological sciences.(less)
I think that Christopher Stringer, along with Ian Tattersall, are my two favorite writers when it comes to reading books about paleoanthropology and o...moreI think that Christopher Stringer, along with Ian Tattersall, are my two favorite writers when it comes to reading books about paleoanthropology and our human origins. Dr. Stringer's In Search of the Neanderthals: Solving the Puzzle of Human Origins, while somewhat dated (1993), is a fascinating account of the fossil, genetic, ecological, and archaeological data associated with the Neandertals (Homo neandertalensis) and anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens). For many years, almost since the first Neandertal fossil was found in the mid-19th century, it has been thought that modern humans (H. sapiens) were descendants of this earlier hominin species. We now know that this is not the case. In fact, it is now clear that at one point in time--about 45,000 years ago--there may have been as many as four different and distinct human species living on Earth at the same time, including the Neandertals, modern humans, and then the very ancient Homo erectus in southeast Asia, and perhaps the diminutive hominin on the island of Flores in the Indonesian archipelago, Homo floresiensis. [Note that this doesn't take into account the status of the still mysterious "Denisovan" hominin found in one cave in Russia's Altai Mountains, and that appear to be genetically distinct from both Neandertals and anatomically modern humans!]
Much of Dr. Stringer's book focuses on describing the fossil, biological, genetic and archaeological data and evidence that actually distinguishes anatomically modern humans (i.e., us) from the Neandertal peoples. It is Stringer's contention, and that of much of the paleoanthropological community as well, that anatomically modern humans are not descended from Neandertals, but were a contemporaneous species that shared a common ancestor such as Homo heidelbergensis or Homo antecessor between them and the earlier Homo erectus.
In this book, Dr. Stringer does an excellent job of making the case for an "Out-of-Africa" dispersal for anatomically modern humans that probably began about 90,000-70,000 years ago, and by 45,000 years ago these modern humans, also known as the "Cro-Magnon", had spread into western Europe, the home of the Neandertals for 200,000+ years and ultimately displaced them. It appears that the modern behaviors (e.g., planning, art, improved stone-tool and shelter technologies, language, etc.) and tremendous environmental adaptability exhibited by these new modern peoples was probably enough to pressure the Neandertals to have to shift to small isolated enclaves at the margins of their former range across much of western and central Europe. This diminution of their range and inability to adapt ultimately led to the extinction of the Neandertals approximately 30,000-25,000 years ago.
If you're looking for a good one-volume, easy-to-read, treatment of the origins and relationship between our close cousins, the Neandertals, and ourselves, then I highly recommend this book. Additionally, this volume is profusely illustrated with a terrific collection of photographs that illustrates and supports the fossil evidence for Stringer's contention that anatomically modern humans evolved separately and apart from Neandertals. Finally, if you want the latest--state-of-the-science--information about our human origins, I strongly urge you to read Dr. Stringer's latest book, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.(less)