Book News, Part One

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My latest book, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins is now available on Amazon.com, and I think it’s getting put on the shelves at bookstores. I’ve only referred to the book here glancingly from time to time, and I wanted to take a minute now to give Loom readers a sense of the book (and perhaps inspire the sales of a few copies).

From the start of this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of space to new discoveries about where we came from. I’ve written about spectacular new fossils, from Sahelanthropus, the oldest known hominid to the Hobbits (a k a Homo floresiensis), which might have been a distant branch of hominid evolution that survived until just 12,000 years ago. It’s also been wonderfully exciting to see studies of the human genome reveal all sorts of fascinating twists and turns in our evolution.

In 2003 I wrote a cover story for Discover about the big questions in human evolution, and before long it evolved into an illustrated, 176-page book published by Smithsonian Books. Here’s a brief overview:

Chapter 1: The Clues
I introduce the book, starting off with Charles Darwin’s remarkably insightful ideas about human evolution–ideas that came to him without any knowledge of DNA or of hominid fossils.

Chapter 2: A Budding Branch

This chapter looks at the latest evidence for how hominids branched off from other apes. This evidence includes new fossils such as Sahelanthropus as well as insights from comparing human DNA to chimpanzee DNA.

Chapter 3: The Walk Begins
Charles Darwin thought that bipedalism, big brains, and tool use all emerged at the same time in human ancestors. It turns out that he was wrong. Hominids were walking on two legs for millions of years with brains not much bigger than a chimp’s. Why they made the transition remains a fascinating puzzle.

Chapter 4: The Toolmakers
Here I tell the story of how our ancestors began making stone tools, looking not just at the ancient tools themselves for clues, but also at the behavior of other apes that might have opened the way to our own technology.

Chapter 5: Becoming Human
This chapter looks at how tall, long-legged hominids emerged about 1.8 million years ago and spread across the Old World, ultimately evolving into species such as Neanderthals and perhaps Homo floresiensis.

Chapter 6: Sapiens
I describe what scientists have learned recently about the emergence of our own species in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago. New discoveries about this crucial time in our evolution–from ancient jewelry to hints of ritual cannibalism–are coming fast and furious these days. Some even had me revising the manuscript to this book at the last minute.

Chapter 7: The Last Wave
Once our species emerged in Africa, it expanded across the rest of the planet, even reaching the New World where no hominid had come before. In this chapter I look at the evidence for how our ancestors spread and the evidence as to why we are now the only species of hominid left on Earth.

Chapter 8: Where Do We Go From Here?
Everyone always wants to know what the future of human evolution will be. There’s plenty of evidence that our species has continued to evolve in just the past few thousand years. At the same time, though, the rise of human culture, medicine, and genetic engineering may be sending our species off on an evolutionary trajectory that’s impossible to predict.

So if you want a short, sweet, beautifully illustrated introduction to the science of where we come from–or if you’re trying to think of a Christmas gift for that cranky uncle who says there’s no evidence whatsoever for human evolution–please check out this book!