William Morrow, $ 32.50
It is the most controversial fossil hominid, which defies conventions and has a stranger appearance than has been found. The group that discovered this 4.4-million-year-old adult female, nicknamed Ardi, includes the most controversial bone-hunting fossil analysts and analysts, who defy conventions (and some would say are the strangest) that have struggled with the puzzle of how humans and our ancestors have evolved.
In Fossil Men, journalist Kermit Pattison tells intriguing stories of Ardi scientists and how they came to challenge popular views of the evolution of hominids. Many incidents in the book show the courage and grit it took to find and dig Ardi in the remote Middle Awash area of Ethiopia, where local nomadic groups are prone to firing at outsiders. Pattison also examines how Ardi's skeleton makes it a unique discovery.
At the center of this ancestral show is team leader Tim White, a paleoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. A demanding and intense master of tasks in the field, White has a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest fossil hunters of all time. Pattison describes White as having very keen eyes for assessing fossil bones and an ability for the brutal and sarcastic removal of evolutionary (and scientific) arguments he considers deficient. In a published review of an eminent anthropologist's book claiming that the evolution of hominids included many species, White called him a provider of "politically correct paleoanthropological pontificate" that did not rise to the level of fiction as The Cave Bear Clan. Not surprisingly, White has accumulated scientific enemies since the early 1970s, when he worked with members of the Leakey family on fossil hunting in Africa. He takes his professional infamy calmly.
After helping to study and classify Lucy's famous partial skeleton after its discovery in 1974, White's friendship with Lucy's discoverer Donald Johanson broke down, as did his relationship with the Leakeys. White then took a position at Berkeley in 1977, where he joined forces with archaeologist J. Desmond Clark to hunt hominid fossils in Middle Awash. There probably awaited remains older than Lucy, 3.2 million years old. Clark recruited Berhane Asfaw of Ethiopia for the Berkeley graduate anthropology program, the first of a series of Ethiopians the Ardi team trained as paleoanthropologists. Asfaw joined the fossil expeditions led by White and ran an Ethiopian museum that now houses Ardi.
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Pattison recounts a crucial moment in the field when the team found a man named Gadi, a hunchbacked warrior with weapons from a local tribe called Afar. White befriended Gadi, who became a security force for investigators. In 1993, it was Gadi who noticed a tooth on the ground that was the first of 10 teeth the team found of the same hominid individual. These clues led to the identification of a new species, Ardipithecus ramidus.
The first parts of Ardi's partial skeleton – including much of the skull, hands, limbs, and pelvis – were found the following year, about 100 miles south of where Lucy had been unearthed. Pattison uses field anecdotes, from interviews and many videos and photos of White of years of fieldwork, to describe the dangers and rigors of the three years it took to dig up Ardi's remains. Pattison also highlights how White's team's insistence on careful preservation of fragile fossils and thorough comparisons with other species to rebuild Ardi's body plan for the next 15 years clashed with the desire of many paleoanthropologists to have quick access to Ardi for their own. studies.
The literary flow diminishes as Pattison probes the details of Ardi's skeletal parts. But patient readers are rewarded with a vision of a somewhat similar creature, somewhat munchy, somewhat human (SN: 16/1/10, p. 22) which, according to its discoverers, destroys the influential view that the first hominids resembled chimpanzees after having evolved from an ancestor that walked on its knuckles.
For anyone interested in fossil hunting, the science of evolution, and a hominid skeleton like no other, this book offers.
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