How did we become human? Revolutionary advances in science are transforming our understanding of how it happened. DNA clues extracted from ancient fossil bones are opening up once undreamed-of secrets of our early ancestors, including family relationships, migrations, diet and disease, even hair and eye color.
Other techniques are revealing the forces that helped shape their world, from episodes of harsh climate that challenged their survival to the expansion of the human brain and the emergence of hunting and cooking, symbolism, and art.
In 50 lively and up-to-the-minute essays, Discovering Us: 50 Great Discoveries in Human Origins presents stories of the most exciting and groundbreaking surprises revealed by this wide-ranging new science.
The human story has long been pictured as a single line of ancestors, a straightforward parade of progress. Once they had developed big brains and stone tools and could walk, hunt, and command fire, our ancestors became an unstoppable evolutionary force as they left Africa and rapidly drove their rivals into extinction.
Now we know the reality was very different: we shared the stage with many different human species that flourished for hundreds of thousands of years. These included the Neanderthals—far from the brutes depicted in popular culture—and the extraordinary three-foot-tall “Hobbit” that hunted fearsome Komodo dragons on the Indonesian island of Flores. Meanwhile, decoding DNA has revealed previously unknown human species like the Denisovans, first identified in 2010 from a single tiny pinky finger bone found in a Siberian cave. Why these other humans eventually failed and we survived is a scientific detective story packed with intriguing new clues.
Long-term field observations have also transformed understanding of our living primate relatives. We now know that male gorillas make gentle, doting fathers; chimpanzees are preoccupied with peace as well as war; and bonobos follow social rules in which females dominate and banish males who misbehave. The lessons of monkey and baboon societies shed light on issues such as monogamy, infanticide, the stressful impacts of social competition and childhood deprivation, and whether the roots of violence and cooperation are deeply rooted in our nature.
No less significant is the rise of a new, diverse generation of scholars and researchers who are at the forefront of the field. Discovering Us tells vivid stories about two Ethiopian scientists, Zeray Alemseged, who discovered the exquisitely preserved fossils of the world’s earliest child, and Chalachew Seyoum, who spotted the earliest known jaw of our Homo ancestors on the first morning of his fieldwork. Vital support for these emerging researchers comes from The Leakey Foundation, initially set up to support the work of Louis and Mary Leakey and primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Mary Galdikas. The book tells the story of their pioneering work and profiles the rising stars of the new generation.
Prepared in consultation with leading experts and written by Evan Hadingham, Senior Science Editor for NOVA, Discovering Us features stunning photographs, some taken at the actual moment that groundbreaking discoveries were made. The book presents a highly accessible account of the latest scientific insights into the ultimate question of humanity’s origins.
WHAT REVIEWERS ARE SAYING:
“…a powerful and breathtaking collection of fifty tales of discovery…richly recounted and wonderfully illustrated stories…tales filled with surprise, serendipity, and humanity…” — Ira Flatow, host, Science Friday.
“For those who are intrigued by how humans have evolved, how we are related to our fellow primates, and how technology has changed over time, DISCOVERING US fills an important niche.”
— Don Johanson, Founding Director of The Institute for Human Origins, Arizona State University, and discoverer of the iconic ancestor ‘Lucy.’
“Informative and thought-provoking, this celebratory book is hard to put down.” — Virginia Morell, author of Ancestral Passions