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Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  1,037 ratings  ·  95 reviews

Fifty thousand years ago—merely a blip in evolutionary time—our Homo sapiens ancestors were competing for existence with several other human species, just as their precursors had done for millions of years. Yet something about our species distinguished it from the pack, and ultimately led to its survival while the rest became extinct. Just what was it that allowed Homo sap

Hardcover, 1st edition MacSci, 266 pages
Published March 27th 2012 by St. Martin's Griffin
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Steve Van Slyke
Jan 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Paleoanthropology fans
Just before reading this I read Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth by Chris Stringer. I wish I had read this book first because it covers the whole span of human evolution from before the split with chimpanzees 6-7 million years ago, whereas Stringer's book focuses on the development and exodus of modern humans from Africa 50 to 60 thousand years ago. Thus this book logically and chronologically leads you to Springer's book.

Tatersall agrees with Stringer that there was a
Jan 12, 2014 rated it liked it
I read this book because I'd been told it was a good introduction to the study of human ancestors attested in the archaeological record. The cover of the book claims that it is "the authoritative account of how homo sapiens edged out its cousins to become the world's only human species". The latter may be a better characterization, but that only applies to the tag-end of the story (basically why "humans" displaced Neanderthals). I found that the early parts of the book dealing with human ancesto ...more
Aug 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Given another chance at life, I would have chosen to be an anthropologist. So when I saw a new book about the development of humankind, I quickly grabbed it up (on my Nook). It was a great read for anyone interested in how homo sapiens came to be the premier species on the planet. Tattersoll tells a great story, using findings by researchers back to the earliest times of primates (over 2 million years ago). I learned that the path to homo sapiens didn't come straight through one species, but cou ...more
Aug 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
I read this book in preparation for teaching a course on the relationship between human cultures and the non-human environment. We begin the semester with a section on human evolution where I establish the evidence for a naturalistic explanation of culture. I have had problems finding a book for this portion of the class, mainly because the books written for a general audience (as opposed to anthro or bio majors) are dominated by bad science writing filled with just-so stories, libertarian fanta ...more
Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.)
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 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 documen ...more
Sep 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ebooks
Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall
If you’re at all interested in how humans came to be human–and I am–you’re going to love this! Even if you’re not, you probably will. Oh, in the beginning, he does throw the names of species in, but that’s okay because what he says about each is so tantalizing. So, forget the names, except for Austropithecus, Neanderthal, and Homo, and imbibe the methods used to uncover and analyze each fossil, including ancient weather.

If you’ve read Chris Stringer’s Lone
Mar 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: white
I have read a couple other books by Ian Tattersall previously, one on Neandertals specifically and one on non-sapien humans generally (if we can take "human" here to mean "anybody from the genus Homo whether they are Homo sapiens or not"). So, it did pass my mind that maybe I didn't need to read another Tattersall book on the topic of our distant ancestors. But I did, and I'm glad of it, because it turns out that the distant past of pre-sapiens ancestors, is a rapidly changing field.

Part of this
Begüm Saçak
May 30, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book is a scientific account of history of apes and us as a complex species. The book explains why things happened the way they did and the author points the evolutionary changes and their unique nature. In other words, evolutionary changes might not take place at once but they can be preserved in the system to be co-opted in future circumstances. A well-written, scientific book with illustrations. I found myself googling some subspecies to visualize some parts better. After reading this bo ...more
Mar 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this thoroughly researched and illuminating exploration of human evolution. It is difficult to stay up to date on all the new fossil finds, and this simple chronological explanation of all the evidence to date successfully pulled together all the disparate strands of evidence into a meaningful narrative. The only weakness is that discoveries are being made so fast, especially in improved genetic sequencing, that this book will probably be out of date in another five years. Altho ...more
Stuart Macalpine
May 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
One of a few books which have recently come out about human evolution as a result of the dawning realization, over the last few decades, that there have been many hominids wandering about Africa during the last two million years, and that human evolution isn't a simple story of a single lineage. The sections about evidence of social behaviour and diet are fascinating... but the best part for me was the last section which mentions the emergence of 'paleo linguistics' studying the way phonemes spr ...more
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Undoubtedly many mysteries remain undiscovered. It's actually breathtaking how scientists have put together the pieces enough to understand human evolution, for it seems the evidence is rather slim
Paul R. Fleischman
May 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing
It is amazing how little we know scientifically about the origin of our own species. Modern science has enabled us to look through telescopes across billions of light years, and has also made it possible for us to sequence the genome that carries the information necessary to run our bodies and ourselves. Modern science, however, is still struggling to create a coherent narrative about the evolution of our Homo sapien species, because our memory is personal and not historical, and because the ev ...more
Billie Pritchett
Dec 18, 2016 rated it liked it
I've heard that when reviewing a book, you should review the book that you've read and not the book that you've wanted to read. It's hard not to violate that general guideline when writing up something about Ian Tattersall's Masters of the Planet. Tattersall gives you the nuts and bolts of how anthropologists differentiate and sometimes disagree about differentiating human beings from other animals and ancestral relatives. If you like that sort of thing, you will enjoy the book.

What I really lik
This book was exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up: a comprehensive though not over-detailed discussion of the latest understanding of the path of human evolution. Tattersall manages to convey both the amazing discoveries and the great room for additional discoveries that have marked our understanding of human evolution. As can be expected, Tattersall discusses the fossil record in depth but still manages to keep the readers interest and does not get derailed in the minutiae of cra ...more
May 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
Well done book by prolific author on fossil records and what can be assumed by them. Tattersall goes deeply into original earlier beliefs about how man evolved but also adds current newer ideas of how we have come to be "Masters of the planet". Basically, what I got out of it is that people have a brain that uses symbolic thinking simultaneously on a variety of levels and can use language. I found it interesting that the farther one travels from man's beginning in Africa, the less sounds the peo ...more
Dec 08, 2012 added it
Very stimulating to reengage with physical anthropology. Very clear analysis of the major finds in human evolution and the pathway from australopiths to Homo. The decision to become fully bipedal was a near run thing. We almost didn't make it. I like that Tattersall thinks the invention of fire happened long before we have evidence for it. He's excellent when dealing with bones but becomes dubious when 'symbolic consciousness' is being bruited about. It's assumed Cro Magnon had language but not ...more
May 22, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, science
This science book club pick attempts to answer why we emerged as the dominant species in the homo genus. For a book under 300 pages it sure seemed like a long book. Partly to blame is the dry writing. It's heavy on fossils and minutia on this or that two-million-year-old bone. I read every word of the first third of this book and then skimmed heavily. I was a little late picking up a copy of this and before I received it, I was dipping into another book that touches on the same theme. It's calle ...more
Mar 18, 2020 rated it liked it
I bought this book for an overview the roots of human evolution since our split with the common ancestor of ourselves and other great apes and how homo sapiens appeared and spread around the globe. It did not disappoint and in spite of many new discoveries in palaeontology and genome studies it is still pretty relevant. However, those discoveries do mean that this book is dating fairly rapidly.

Although it was clear that the author would also deal with the subject of what makes us unique among an
Nov 30, 2019 rated it liked it
This book started off strongly with a walk through the different perspectives on evolution and closed off with a bang on an interpretation of how modern humanoids came to be and the traits that define that transition. Throughout the book, Ian Tattersall presented a chronological order of evolution through the discovery of fossils, never failing to mention the different theoretical findings surrounding the discovery and where it falls in the accuracy spectrum. I only wished to find a more elabora ...more
Dec 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Couldn’t put it down until I finished it!

This was better than my expectations, and definitely worth reading even if mildly interested in the subject. I learned many unexpected things, the best example bring the early appearance of tools vs the very late appearance of art (and thus symbolic thinking).

The only downside of this book is that I would have liked it longer and to include more of the recent (40k to beginning of written history), but that’s a different subject in reality, so no real comp
Jackson Compton
Feb 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was extremely fascinating but sometimes I got lost in the heaps of fractured hominid skulls.

Not the fault of the author, but I found myself getting frustrated with all the changing classification of species and all the unanswered questions. There really are no concrete answers to questions of human evolution but I guess it’s more fun that way.

I would recommend this book to anyone that’s interested in human evolution. It’s one of the top pieces on the subject.
Wes Cobb
Mar 26, 2017 rated it liked it
Less the story of human (e.g., homo sapiens) dominance of the planet than a catalog of fossils cleverly dressed up. Tattersall devotes 90% of his book to picking through the sparse bones of ancestors millions of years old and gives the most interesting part of the story - how modern humans became masters of the planet - little more than an afterthought in last chapter of the book.
Jim H
Dec 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Superb book. Exactly what I was looking for... an examination of our early divergence from other species. Chock full of interesting sidebars, too. My only possible complaint is that it was too short but that's because Taattersall sticks to what we know up to this point.
Dave Mahoney
Jun 14, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good overview of the current fossil record. Really interesting all the hominid offshoots and complexity of our evolution. A little dry for me but I gained some understanding about paleontology and really how complex and random evolution is.
May 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: biola, science
Tattersall is an excellent writer, and the story he tells is fascinating, even though I don't line up perfectly with all of his conclusions.
Simon Yoong
Aug 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
the definitive read on where we came from and how sapiens became the masters of the planet.
May 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, great insights into human anthropology
Oct 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
Very interesting, thoroughgoing look at the evidence of human development and evolution. Not the straight line I thought it was. Not even close.
Feb 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: life-sciences
Ian Tattersall's Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins is a true pleasure to read. Tattersall is meticulous in his chronological presentation of human evolution, carefully basing all definitive claims presented with direct evidence from the archaeological record. In the cases where physical evidence is lacking, which are fairly numerous, the author makes extremely well reasoned arguments using both living and extinct species and their respective cultures as analogs to illustrat ...more
Rebekah K
Apr 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: my-bookshelf
A bird’s-eye-view of this book would show you that Tattersall is taking us on a straightforward journey through the timeline of hominid evolution, starting around seven million years go. At least, it’s as straightforward as our messy, trailing bush of a family tree can be. He included as many of the major players as were known in 2012, and thankfully, he introduced me to several species that I had only ever seen in various evolutionary trees but had never known about in detail.

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