And you thought being a scientist was all white coats, labs and test tubes? Not so for the teams of paleoanthropologists who fossick on the fossil-rich plains of Ethiopia, risking stand-offs with hungry hyenas and trigger-happy locals alike, weathering the extreme weather and negotiating with successive rulers and governments who operate in a state of turmoil. This, all for the sake of determining exactly how humans evolved from knuckle-grazing apes to bipeds with big brains and nimble hands. The answers, believe paleoanthropologists, lie in dem bones, and in the past few decades it’s become evident that the transformation is not quite the simple linear transition depicted in the well-known March of Progress image.
One successful team in particular is led by a fascinating but polarising figure: the blunt but extremely dedicated University of California professor Tim White, who has, more than any of his counterparts, enabled the education of Ethiopian locals in the science taking place on their doorstep, including helping to develop a museum and research facilities in the country’s capital. White and his team had the great fortune to stumble upon ancient human remains which formed a skeleton - “Ardi” - believed to be 4.4 million years old; more than a million years older than the world-famous “Lucy” skeleton, worthy even of its own new scientific classification.
It was a full 15 years of study behind closed doors before Ardi’s secrets were revealed to the world - which drew the ire of detractors in the scientific community - and when that skeleton came out of the closet, it blew away long-held theories about how we started walking upright, evolved our fine motor skills, and most importantly, whether we descended from an ancestor that resembled today’s chimpanzee.
Journalist Kermit Pattison devoted eight years - and braved an Ethopian expedition himself - to chronicling the crises, conundrums and chaos plaguing this scientific discipline, and he deftly guides the reader through the complex science involved. If you’re curious about where humans come from - and are fascinated by our feats and foibles - then this is the perfect read.
HarperCollins, RRP $39.99
Reviewer: Stacey Anyan