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Sunday, December 10th, 2006

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1:14a
an interesting read ...
This is another of those books that's been sitting around on my to-be-read shelves for over 15 years ... I guess the wheels of anthropology turn slower than those of subatomic particle physics, but I wonder how much of the info in this 1990 release is still current, especially the bits about genetic tracing.

Brian M. Fagan's The Journey from Eden: The Peopling of Our World has a pretty direct premise, looking at the spread of humanity from its origins in sub-Saharan Africa and out into the various niches we currently occupy (for instance, whereas "anatomically modern humans" were in the Middle East as early as 100,000 years ago, remote places like New Zealand were only populated in the past 1,000 years!). The book largely walks through a time-line, looking at geological, archaeological, and anthropological information for various areas and discussing how various related/ancestor races (Homo erectus, Neanderthal, etc.) may have been supplanted by "modern man" (Homo sapiens sapiens).

This question is muddied by there being two competing general theories of the rise/spread of Humanity, one, the "candelabra theory" suggests that modern humans evolved separately from distinct groups of Homo erectus which had migrated out of Africa some one million years ago, leading to significant differences between African, European, and Asian peoples, the other, the "Noah's Ark" theory holds that modern humans evolved in Africa alone, and spread out to the rest of the world starting about 100,000 years ago, replacing (out-competing) our earlier, less clever (non-verbal/symbolic) cousins in the various environments around the world.

I suspect that, with the advances of genome mapping, many answers are currently available for questions posed in this book. Fagan does discuss the "Eve" mitochondrial data which indicates that all humans share a common female ancestor somewhere around 200,000 years ago (which would seem to favor the "Noah's Ark" distribution version), but I'm assuming more work has been done on this in the intervening time. It appears that the "population bottleneck" research post-dated this book ... this is DNA mapping which indicates that there was a significant population crash in ancestral Human stock somewhere around 70,000 years ago, at which point there were as few as one thousand surviving Homo sapiens (in the wake of a global environmental disaster brought about by a "supervolcano" eruption in Indonesia at that time which ejected something like 2,000 times the amount of ash into the atmosphere than the 1980 eruption of Mt.St.Helens) from whom we're all descended. In any event, I suspect that some of the arguments discussed here are by this point moot, based on more recent research.

The book has quite a lot of illustrations, from maps showing distribution of archaeological sites to drawings of various fossil remains, etc., most interesting of which are side-by-side comparisons of Homo sapiens sapiens with preceding forms of man, and diagrams of comparative stone-flaking "technologies" and "tool kits".

With the caveat that much of the research referred to in it may be out of date at this point, I'd heartily recommend The Journey from Eden to anybody looking for a nice look into the early history of our species. The book walks a nice balance between disciplines (i.e. it does not get bogged down in dig details when discussing sites, and provides interesting parallels for ancient technologies in various cultures in the modern world), and keeps things moving at a decent pace. The book does appear to be out of print at this point, so you'd be looking at using the new/used vendors, and via Amazon there are "very good" copies for as little as 1¢, and a "new" copy for under $5.00 (not bad for a hardcover that had a $22.50 cover price back in 1990!), and either of those options would be well worth the investment to have this in your library.


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