Africa often is referred to as the cradle of humanity, but Ann Gibbons, in her new book The First Human: the race to discover our earliest ancestors, refers to Africa’s Rift Valley, in particular, as “the graveyard of humankind” in recognition of all the fossil bones of our ancestors found there. This evocative phrase reminded me of something the 19th century antiquarian Caleb Atwater once said about Ohio. In an 1820 paper describing the discovery of mastodon bones and burials of ancient American Indians, Atwater wrote that this region appeared to have been “one vast cemetery of the beings of former ages.”
Gibbons presents an enthralling overview of the search for the fossil evidence of the beginnings of humanity. By the “first human” she means a short, small-brained, hairy, apelike creature that lived sometime between 6 and 9 million years ago. In the words of fossil hunter Michel Brunet, it could “touch with its finger” the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. Obviously, this would not have been a “human” in the sense that most of us think about ourselves. (Tim White, another paleoanthropologist profiled by Gibbons, once told a radio talk-show host that you wouldn’t want to invite it to dinner.)
Gibbons’ book is a wonderful summary of the history of what and how we know what we think we know about human origins. It is a thoughtful review of the most important discoveries made in the last decade and a balanced consideration of the clash of personalities and sometimes-nasty turf wars among this dedicated group of fossil hunters.
Many of the scientists interviewed by Gibbons urged her “to stick to the science and to avoid writing about the politics and personal rivalries, because it might reflect poorly on the field.” Wisely, however, she chose not to try “to separate the human story of the quest from the scientific results.” Science is a human endeavor. Nothing humans do is ever simple and unproblematic and people naturally are suspicious when science is presented that way. As the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson and the philosopher Elliott Sober once wrote, “Science is often portrayed as an efficient process that cuts quickly to the truth. Alas, all too often it is like the Three Stooges trying to move a piano.”
The glory of science as a way of knowing the world, according to the anthropologist Marvin Harris, is not that it “guarantees absolute truth free of subjective bias, error, untruths, lies, and frauds,” but that it is “the best system yet devised for reducing subjective bias, error, untruths, lies, and frauds.” Our ideas about the identity and nature of the earliest humans certainly will change in the light of new discoveries, but Gibbons’ work will stand as a colorful chronicle of the state of the art of paleoanthropology as of 2006.
This is an edited excerpt of a longer review written for Ohioana Quarterly: http://www.ohioana.org/quarterly.