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Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

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10:26p
Some splainin' about human origins ...
This was another of those delightful dollar store finds … always a treat to discover a nice hardcover, in perfect condition, for a buck! The randomness of the dollar store books is one of the most attractive (well, aside from the $1 price, of course) parts of the find, as these will, obviously, not be things that I went out looking for, but often are quite interesting, and expand my reading outside of its habitual ruts.

Not, of course, that paleoanthropology is a particular stretch for me, my having read many books on the subject … it's just one that I don't typically go out looking for. So, Donald Johanson & Kate Wong's (he's the paleoanthropologist, she's the co-author who happens to be the Editorial Director of ScientificAmerican.com) Lucy's Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins was a particular treat to discover some weeks back at one of my periodic trips to the dollar store.

As I was coming to this “by accident”, I didn't have much preconceived expectations of the book, and found that it was a very interesting interweaving of Johanson's personal reminisces and current research into the early predecessors of Homo sapiens. Johanson, of course, is a major player in the unfolding of the story of that research, having been the discoverer of “Lucy”, the famed fossil remains of a young Australopithecus afarensis female in the Hadar area of Ethiopia's Afar region back in 1974.

Lucy's Legacy follows his career, from the early '70s up through when the book was published in 2009, with much of the “action” happening in Ethiopia, from the later days of Haile Selassie's reign, and resuming in the 1990's. One is tempted to assume that the writing division here is Johanson providing the “boots on the ground” material, and Wong filling in the scientific background, as the narrative swings in and out of “what was happening” and into “what it means”.

One certainly gets an interesting look into the day-to-day activities of a working camp in a fossil-rich area, with all the inter-disciplinary work that's involved on dating finds, etc. There is also quite a bit of drama involved with the changing political landscape … as the Marxist military regime that ousted and succeeded Selassie was varying in how it related to “outsiders”, and for the better part of a decade forbidding any paleoanthropological research in the country. Later expeditions were also saddled with military escorts, but these were more in a “protective” role (despite having the predictably dampening role to open investigation) with active rebel activity in the regions Johanson and associates were working, as well as having significant tribal issues to deal with (at various times they needed to maintain close, or at least cordial relations with two tribes that were on either side of generations of hostilities).

The main thrust of the book is the efforts to figure out the “family tree” leading from our Australopithecine predecessors (in various manifestations, the relation of which are still very much under debate) on up the assorted branches of Homo, leading to our current sapiens “humanity”. One fascinating point is presented late in the book:

Geneticists believe that sometime around 140,000 years ago, the founding populations of modern humans underwent a catastrophic event that slashed their numbers from around 12,800 breeding individuals to a mere 600. Those 600 people gave rise to the modern humans that would one day leave Africa and colonize the rest of the world.
I'd read about “population bottlenecks” before (like the Toba event about 70,000 years ago), but this is the lowest number I'd seen for “surviving population”! Needless to say, with these sorts of realities in the mix, it's no wonder it is sometimes difficult to “connect the dots” between numerous sets of fossils.

I'm not going to even try to summarize the over-all paleoanthropological info from the book here … just suffice it to say, that this is not a “dry” presentation of the theory of Human Origins, but a tapestry of stories from the field, reminiscences from academia, and solid background information that only occasionally directly relates to the narrative (not a bad thing, it fills in the gaps that Johanson didn't specifically work on).

If you have any interest in this field, I'm pretty sure you will find Lucy's Legacy quite an engaging read. It is still available, in a new paperback edition, although the hardcover can be had (at Dollar Tree, if you're lucky) in “very good” condition via the new/used on-line vendors for under a buck (but with $3.99 shipping, of course). I suspect that even more “general readers” might appreciate the “story” here, and I'd certainly recommend it as both informative and a good read.


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