Masters of the Planet, by Ian Tattersall

In the beginning, Ian Tattersall presents us with a common situation: a human staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee.  He reveals more details, since the chimpanzee is in a zoo cage and the human is a Victorian.  What happened afterwards were an inter-species collision and a descent into the Uncanny Valley.  The Victorian, once comfortable in his status as a member of the ruling class of a global imperial superpower, now had his belief system shattered in this one brief moment.  How different are we than chimpanzees?  Masters of the Planet: the search for our human ancestors, by Ian Tattersall, seeks to answer that question.  Along the way, he confirms the existence of hominid descendents who roamed the planet millions of years ago.

Written in a jaunty, descriptive manner, Tattersall traces the story of human evolution back to its roots.  But make no mistake, this isn’t a simple rehash of paleoanthropology, this book includes information on the latest discoveries.  Additionally, Tattersall gives the reader a kind of historiography of paleoanthropology.  Unlike other branches of archaeology, paleoanthropology possesses a peculiar history.  Our most recent ancestors, the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal, were discovered first, sometime in the 19th century.  “Lucy” and our earliest hominid ancestors were discovered as recently as the 1970s.  On a few years ago, earlier specimens were discovered, along with the Homo florensis, the “Hobbit” species, complicating what was once perceived as a linear and progressive evolution from one hominid species to another.  At the beginning of the book, Tattersall provides a chart showing all known hominid ancestors.  It doesn’t look like one of those progressive charts with the chimp leading to the caveman leading to modern man.  Tattersall’s chart is, in a word, arborescent.  Hominid evolution had many branches, a few dead-ends, and a scattering of outliers.  The field of paleoanthropology is now locked in heated debates over how one species is related to another species, or if one is a sub-species of another.  And once a debate is settled, scientists doing field work discover another cache of specimens.  The book does a good job summarizing the present state of the field of paleoanthropology and the specific cases where interpretation is still very much “at play.”  (For those interested in further reading, Tattersall provides a generous bibliography of primary and secondary sources and sources pertinent to each chapter’s subject matter.)

The writing, while aimed at a popular audience, can get a little technical and clinical at times.  Rest assured, the terms and subjects discussed are given ample contextualization, making it easier to understand.  The book reads like a National Geographic or Learning Channel special, at least before both channels became devoured by reality shows about animal hoarders, storage wars, and whatever else TV executives can dream up between stealing ideas from European programs and scoring coke money.

Tattersall makes a series of bold assertions in Masters of the Planet.  In his quest to discover what makes us human, he posits several theories: bipedality, brain size, and language.  It is with language that he sees the cause of what makes us human and how we came to dominate the planet.  The capacity for language is based on the concept of understanding symbolic representation.  This quantum leap in cognitive functioning put Homo sapiens far above other competing hominid species.  The cognitive leap also occurred relatively early, at least in terms of evolutionary time, roughly 60,000 years ago.  By harnessing language, we could name things and make paintings and count and numerous other tasks we take for granted.

Masters of the Planet is a fascinating book exploring the always controversial field of paleoanthropolgy.  Tattersall succeeds, not only in re-affirming and explaining previous work in the field, but also changing this reviewer’s perception of human evolution.  Evolution is a given, but the archaeological record, the latest discoveries in both fieldwork and genetics, and compelling gift for storytelling make Tattersall’s work as a must-read for those wanting to know more about how we got here.

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