In discrete chapters the authors tell of the discovery of four ordinary people who lived thousands of, and in one case more than a million, years before recorded history. Most of the action takes place after the exciting discoveries, when in the lab, scientists uncover how these four individuals lived and died.
Rubalcaba and Robertshaw do an excellent job of representing the excitement of the find. They write evocative descriptions of the moment each hominin died and describe the fate of the remains over centuries until the moment their bones are found by a modern human. The vivid images of the Turkana boy’s body bobbing face down in the lagoon or the surprise of college students who pluck a rock from a river only to notice it has teeth, grab the reader’s attention and set the stage for the details that follow. Each chapter includes sections on discoveries, deductions and debates and concludes with further reading, websites and source notes.
The four hominins are drawn from different countries and time periods and represent a diverse assortment of anthropological issues from questions about when language began, through whether humans mixed with Neanderthals, to who has the right to claim pre-historic human remains. Another advantage of the hominin’s diversity is that the anthropologists and filed workers represent both genders and varied ethnicities.
The book outlines arguments and evidence but strongly encourages readers to come to their own conclusions. The evidence and reasoning presented is detailed and sophisticated but written and explained engagingly. Rubalcaba and Robertshaw never talk down to their readers and their strong scientific and anthropological backgrounds come through in their familiarity with long-raging debates, scientific practice and rich ancillary information. Not only do we learn a lot about these four individuals and where they fit into human evolution we also acquire fascinating facts such as the insight that while agriculture is necessary to support large populations, the hunter gatherers they superseded were healthier and taller, and the tidbit that our prominent noses help conserve moisture and give us an edge over our primate ancestors.
The book offers plenty to interest forensics fans, those drawn to both field and lab science, anyone intrigued by human behavior and evolution and those who just want an exciting, and slightly gruesome, story.
Front matter: A prologue outlines the distinctions between Hollywood archeologists: who find things, and modern day scientists in the field: who seek to find out about things Each chapter and hominin are linked to larger debates: when did language begin and why did we start talking, how did humans disperse and populate the world and are we all part Neanderthal, who were the first North American peoples and how did they get here, and did Asian farmers displace early Europeans or did European hunter gathers simply switch to farming.
There is substantial back matter in addition to each chapter’s list of resources and notes. Further reading is grouped by subject. A timeline provides and overview back 1,800,000 years and focuses in on 50,000-5,000 years ago. A five page glossary defines terms. A cast of characters: Hominins and friends, describes the individuals featured in each chapter. A bibliography is broken down by chapters and topic and includes many web resources. An index, acknowledgements and photo credits concludes the work.
Similar books: Written in Bone, Bodies from the Ice, The Skull in the Rock.