Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins
- Ian Tattersall
- Palgrave MacMillan
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by William J. Sanders
- June 20, 2012
The noted paleoanthropologist offers a succinct history of human evolution.
Reviewed by William J. Sanders
Masters of the Planet is a title suitable for science fiction, but in this case it refers to a richly factual chronicle of the improbable 7-million-year evolutionary journey of humanity’s fossil predecessors (“hominins”) from unexceptional bipedal apes with a tenuous hold on their habitats to our own ecological and geographic domination of the planet. Once at the mercy of predaceous carnivores, hominins have — by virtue of increasingly enhanced cognitive and technological prowess — reached the level of having such a profound effect on Earth’s ecosystems that our current geological age is now referred to as the “Anthropocene.” Ironically, human industrial development has become so pervasive that we risk the inadvertent destruction of the very environments and life forms we would otherwise control.
The author, Ian Tattersall, is curator emeritus of Biological Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History and has visited the human phylogenetic story before, with books on the history of discovery of the hominin fossil record, extinction of our close cousins the Neanderthals, and on the museum’s Hall of Human Biology and Evolution. Given his long engagement with the subject matter, Dr. Tattersall is one of the few paleoanthropologists who could weave so many diverse research threads with such ease into a short yet comprehensive account of our origins and evolutionary development.
The volume offers a mosaic of details that will fascinate those interested in how scientists use the available evidence to better understand human evolution: for instance, the use of inner ear canal shape for predicting the ability of early fossil hominins to walk and run; the utility of carbon isotopes preserved in teeth for reconstructing ancient diets; investigations of parasites that help estimate the timing of body hair loss in hominin ancestors; the story genetics tells about skin and hair color in Neanderthals; and how analysis of tooth enamel increments was used to calculate the pace of dental and skeletal development in the 1.6-million-year-old “Homo erectus boy” from Nariokotome, Kenya, to list just a few.
So is there a need for this book? After all, there is a proliferation of human evolution books and no lack of popular writing on the subject. However, the advancing cleverness of research methodology and the rate of fossil discovery make the half-life of such efforts very short indeed, so new accounts will always be welcome.
Masters of the Planet fills this need through a relatively quick and accessible read. We have come to understand that the human evolutionary journey occurred in fits and starts, in a complicated manner with many more losers than winners. For most of geological time since the inception of our taxon until quite recently, multiple hominin species co-existed, with the vast majority of them suffering extinction with no further issue. There was nothing inevitable about the origin and success of humanity, and there are abundant reasons to be pessimistic about the future survival of humans. These themes are all covered in the book, and readers stand to gain a more sophisticated understanding of their own deep ancestry.
That said, there are reasons small and large to quibble about with the book. It is dotted with typographical errors, contradictions and anthropological just-so stories, and bereft of useful illustrations except for a small handful that appear to have been randomly chosen. This book is not nearly as carefully or engagingly crafted as Dr. Tattersall’s previous efforts, such as The Fossil Trail. The largest problem, though, is that the author focuses too little on examining the proximate origin of the “masters of the planet” — our species, Homo sapiens — opting instead to devote equal effort to all phases of hominin evolution.
There are serious, intricate scientific debates raging about the timing and pattern of acquisition of modern skeletal traits and advanced cognitive abilities; the genetic and geographic models of human origins; the physical and ecological relationship of humans to contemporary hominin species; and the pathways and pace of the geographic spread of humanity across the globe. There is emerging consensus that Homo sapiens first appeared as a distinct lineage over 200,000 years ago in Africa (recent ethnic and racial differences are a thin veneer over the fact that all humans are ultimately African).
Our characteristic cranial features likely accumulated in a mosaic fashion over that time, reaching full expression only quite recently. Humans may have experienced cognitive evolutionary changes — including the ability for language, evidenced by new, more ingenious tool industries incorporating bone, ivory, wood and antler, widespread trade networks, personal ornamentation, and manifestation of ritual in art and burial practices, for example — in a similarly gradual manner over a long period of time.
Numerous clever archaeological and genetic studies are tracing the routes and timing of distribution of humans as they left Africa, and show that as they entered new territories, humans interbred with the archaic hominins (including Neanderthals) they encountered, though in the end these relatives all faded to oblivion in the face of human technological and ecological superiority. I would have preferred more emphasis on the details of these final acts of the human story. In a volume that offers so much to the reader about the long ancestral prelude to becoming human, the “masters of the planet” themselves should be accorded more deference.
William J. Sanders, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist and Senior Research Laboratory Specialist in the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan, and works primarily on proboscidean evolution and early hominid functional morphology.