Human Origins: A Short History, by Sarah Wild

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Review by Liz Dexter

I have […] tried to highlight how much our understanding of human origins has changed – and continues to change – and how, in some ways, palaeoanthropology showcases some of the best features of scientific inquiry. New evidence displaces old theories, assertions have to be strongly defended in the face of robust criticism, and methodical, careful science triumphs over outdated biases.

Sarah Wild, originally from South Africa, where many of the hominids she describes were found, now lives in Kent, where some other remains have been found over the years. She’s a writer and speaker on science and has an MSc in bioethics and health law. In this book she pulls together the latest research, including very recent studies, to encapsulate what we know at the moment about the development of the hominids who came before Homo sapiens, and why Homo sapiens became the single and dominant species.

A lot of the book details academic arguments – or at least discussions – and re-classifications as knowledge has become less stereotyped and more precise. New technologies are explained alongside the older ones early in the book when we look at how evidence is dated, and Wild does a good job of clarifying sometimes complex processes without talking down to the reader. She’s also clear on when we don’t know something and doesn’t attempt to fill in gaps without evidence or references. She’s careful to debunk old theories and even covers the changes in naming that have happened to, for example, remove a reference to the imperialist Rhodes from the name of one species, also mentioning that the Zambian skull in question has been requested to be repatriated from the Natural History Museum, so she really does cover modern issues in the book.

Coming right up to date with Homo sapiens, we hear about how the DNA some of us have from Neanderthal and Denisovan groups affects the severity of the Covid we catch or, in the case of Tibetans and Denisovans, allows some of us to survive at high altitude. Culture as well as bones is covered, with grave goods and other artefacts allowing us to rethink attitudes to non-Homo sapiens forebears.

In the Afterword, Wild reiterates her assertion that our study of our own origins is perhaps our most human activity, and she’s certainly produced a good, solid, but not-too-long work that shows the state of the art right now.

Illustrations of skulls, skeletons and maps and text-boxes covering terms and themes break up the text. The back of the book contains a satisfying amount of reference material and detail. There’s a timeline of discoveries going back to Homo neanderthalensis in Gibraltar in 1848 up to Homo longi in Harbin, China, in 2021 (with a note that many of these have been reassessed and shifted in terms of descriptions over the years); a timeline of human ancestors; bibliographical endnotes and a thorough index.

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Liz Dexter blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Sarah Wild, Human Origins: A Short History (Michael O’Mara, 2023). ‎ 978-1789295788, 224 pp., ill. hardback.

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1 comment

  1. This sounds a fascinating read

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