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In this dynamic account, award-winning science writer Ann Gibbons chronicles an extraordinary quest to answer the most primal of questions: When and where was the dawn of humankind?Following four intensely competitive international teams of scientists in a heated race to find the "missing link"-the fossil of the earliest human ancestor-Gibbons ventures to Africa, where she In this dynamic account, award-winning science writer Ann Gibbons chronicles an extraordinary quest to answer the most primal of questions: When and where was the dawn of humankind?Following four intensely competitive international teams of scientists in a heated race to find the "missing link"-the fossil of the earliest human ancestor-Gibbons ventures to Africa, where she encounters a fascinating array of fossil hunters: Tim White, the irreverent Californian who discovered the partial skeleton of a primate that lived 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia; French paleontologist Michel Brunet, who uncovers a skull in Chad that could date the beginnings of humankind to seven million years ago; and two other groups-one led by zoologist Meave Leakey, the other by British geologist Martin Pickford and his French paleontologist partner, Brigitte Senut-who enter the race with landmark discoveries of their own. Through scrupulous research and vivid first-person reporting, The First Human reveals the perils and the promises of fossil hunting on a grand competitive scale.


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In this dynamic account, award-winning science writer Ann Gibbons chronicles an extraordinary quest to answer the most primal of questions: When and where was the dawn of humankind?Following four intensely competitive international teams of scientists in a heated race to find the "missing link"-the fossil of the earliest human ancestor-Gibbons ventures to Africa, where she In this dynamic account, award-winning science writer Ann Gibbons chronicles an extraordinary quest to answer the most primal of questions: When and where was the dawn of humankind?Following four intensely competitive international teams of scientists in a heated race to find the "missing link"-the fossil of the earliest human ancestor-Gibbons ventures to Africa, where she encounters a fascinating array of fossil hunters: Tim White, the irreverent Californian who discovered the partial skeleton of a primate that lived 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia; French paleontologist Michel Brunet, who uncovers a skull in Chad that could date the beginnings of humankind to seven million years ago; and two other groups-one led by zoologist Meave Leakey, the other by British geologist Martin Pickford and his French paleontologist partner, Brigitte Senut-who enter the race with landmark discoveries of their own. Through scrupulous research and vivid first-person reporting, The First Human reveals the perils and the promises of fossil hunting on a grand competitive scale.

30 review for The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors

  1. 5 out of 5

    Greta G

    Michel Brunet and Toumaï “This is not about science! This is about theater!” The First Human is an excellent read. It tells the story of the scientific pursuits and rivalries of four international teams obsessed with solving the mystery of human evolution and finding the 'missing links' between humans and apes. There's Tim White and his team, the Middle Awash Research Group (Ethiopia), Michel Brunet and his team, Mission Paléoanthropologique Franco-Tchadienne (Chad), Richard and Meave Leakey a Michel Brunet and Toumaï “This is not about science! This is about theater!” The First Human is an excellent read. It tells the story of the scientific pursuits and rivalries of four international teams obsessed with solving the mystery of human evolution and finding the 'missing links' between humans and apes. There's Tim White and his team, the Middle Awash Research Group (Ethiopia), Michel Brunet and his team, Mission Paléoanthropologique Franco-Tchadienne (Chad), Richard and Meave Leakey and the 'Hominid Gang' (Tanzania, Kenya), and Martin Pickford and his partner Brigitte Senut (Kenya). The book transports readers into the lives of these and many other scientists and describes their work, their discoveries and the intense challenges of fossil hunting in Africa. This book is all about the competition between fossil-hunting scientists to find an important new link in the human evolution story. But don't be mistaken, this isn't an Indiana Jones-like story. Although the story specifically focuses on this competition, and on the strives and rivalries between these ambitious scientists, it also provides the reader with insight in the science involved with finding, handling and interpreting fossils. Ann Gibbons is an authoritative journalist for "Science", specialized in the field, and her knowledge of the material is solid. But she writes in a manner that is not too hard to understand for the reader. Given the dry material, this fascinating and enlightening account of the highly competitive and specialized field of paleoanthropology is a great accomplishment. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in this topic but don't know where to start, or if you want to have a look behind the scenes of this world of fossil hunting and scientists. It's the kind of book that inspires me and makes me enthusiastic about life. 9/10 Sifting fossils from dirt is tedious, difficult work. See if you can spot the tiny rodent fossil near the tip of this finger. Keeping it together — unearthed delicately after millions of years, this fossil is treated with preservative to harden and protect it. Turkana warriors near Kanapoi, Kenya. The dig — in Ethiopia at the Aramis site (Middle Awash). It’s desert now, but 4.4 million years ago, this was a woodland habitat. Prospecting the vast Middle Awash for hominid remains one square meter at a time. Wrapping a find for transport. Reviews of The First Human "An engrossing, fast-paced read, her story unfolds in many remote and rugged locales, from the Middle Awash of Ethiopia to the Tugen Hills of Kenya and the Djurab Desert of Chad. Gibbons tells of hard-driven, dedicated teams contending with extreme heat, blowing sand, illness and other hazards of fieldwork in Africa, where success demands years, or decades, of persistence." — Scientific American
 One of the top five books. "Ann is the correspondent for Science magazine who covers this field, so she is extremely knowledgeable and very much up to date. ... she covered not only our work but the work of many other people. So this gives the reader the most up-to-date knowledge of how modern paleoanthropology is done. And it gives you a sense of the personalities involved and the breadth of science...." — Paleoanthropologist Tim White, interviewed for The Browser web site, October 2011
 "From the outside, the science of paleoanthropology often looks like a swamp of ego, paranoia, possessiveness, and intellectual mercantilism. This view describes no more than the visible tip of a very large and profoundly fascinating iceberg; but there is more of a grain of truth in it nonetheless, as Ann Gibbons shows in an absorbing tale of discovery dominated by a handful of difficult and quirky characters worthy of a Gothic novel. If you want some insight into the human story behind current takes on the saga of our remotest origins, start here." — Ian Tattersall, author of Becoming Human
 "The past decade has seen a series of astonishing discoveries about our distant ancestors, but it has not seen a book that does justice to them until now. The First Human is a marvelous narrative of science and scientists, simultaneously exciting and authoritative. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand where we come from and how we know it." — Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh and Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins
 "Gibbons deftly weaves together the research and the human story. She conveys a very real--and uniquely objective--sense of the infighting that plagues paleoanthropology. Indeed, her account of these rivalries is likely to elicit squirms of regret among her sources for exposing the discipline's dark side. While the science alone is compelling enough to carry the book, Gibbons rightly notes in her acknowledgements that it would be impossible to separate the personal politics from the research results. "The science lurches forward," she observes, "despite the foibles of the individual scientists." — Archeology
 "With great flair (and a real gift for explaining a somewhat dusty science), Ann Gibbons recounts a recent tale of four research teams in The First Human — each with its share of gigantic brains, egos, and competitive drive — locked in a thrilling race to establish nothing less than the dawn of humankind — Entertainment Weekly
 Science’s evolution reporter traces the search for, and fractious debates over, the origins of humankind, from 1868 to 2005. Gibbons propels her narrative with the frenetic pacing of a thriller, full of ruthless competition, jumped claims, armed guards and one rescinded apology. It all climaxes with a debate in Paris at which Tim White declared: “This is not about science! This is about theater!” — Seed
 "... Gibbons explains what paleoanthropologists have been doing over the past 15 years: competing, feuding, and making dramatic discoveries. Anchoring her narrative to the anatomy that is the foundation of physical anthropology, Gibbons intentionally emphasizes the personalities involved. Leakeyesque fame is one unspoken prize in field research on human origins, and several scientists acknowledge here their youthful inspiration by Louis and Mary Leakey's careers. One was Don Johanson, celebrated for the "Lucy" fossil discovered in 1974 that reigned temporarily as the oldest human ancestor. From the state of scientific affairs at that time, Gibbons' narrative drives forward the hunt since 1990 for a hominid ancestral to Lucy. Amid the particulars of newly excavated fossils, which include a spectacular skull from Chad that provisionally is the oldest human progenitor at six or seven million years old, Gibbons pointedly dramatizes the field's territorial attitudes toward fossils. Science in the flesh is ever popular, and Gibbons' successful debut marks her as a writer to watch." — Booklist "Gibbons has been a commentator on human evolution research at Science magazine for over a decade. In that role, she has had unique access to the personalities and career fortunes of those intriguing hominids, the paleoanthropologists.... Through her interviews and reporting on scientific developments, Gibbons gives all parties an airing of their various interpretations of events and evidence. The captivating result is a near insider's account that still has the critical distance a nonpartisan can offer. Strongly recommended for public and university libraries." — Library Journal "A deft account — part detective story, part adventure tale — of recent breakthroughs in the search for human origins. 
Gibbons, Science magazine's primary reporter on evolution, frames her narrative around four prominent research teams responsible for discovering the oldest known examples of early humans (it is believed that African apes came down from the trees and began to walk some five to eight million years ago).... Gibbons provides inspiring portraits of genius laced with the nitty-gritty of mortal foible, all informed by firsthand accounts, interviews and research. While acknowledging a 2004 Gallup poll demonstrating that 45 percent of Americans believe "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago," Gibbons provides for everyone else an evocative examination of what we know about where, when and why our species arose--indeed, what first made us human.
Expert science reportage larded with an unexpected dose of intrigue." — Kirkus Reviews The author at Kanapoi, Kenya

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Shepherd

    As The Hominid Turns "My intent was to show the triumphs of the science of paleoanthropology and Darwinian evolution in the past century, despite personal battles and intense rivalries, false starts and mistakes. The science lurches forward despite the foibles of the individual scientists." ~Ann Gibbons 2006 - A glorious scientific soap opera. In a study of the tribalism of the people who study tribalism, Ann Gibbons lays out the paleoanthropologic hierarchy, along with all its trappings, for the As The Hominid Turns "My intent was to show the triumphs of the science of paleoanthropology and Darwinian evolution in the past century, despite personal battles and intense rivalries, false starts and mistakes. The science lurches forward despite the foibles of the individual scientists." ~Ann Gibbons 2006 - A glorious scientific soap opera. In a study of the tribalism of the people who study tribalism, Ann Gibbons lays out the paleoanthropologic hierarchy, along with all its trappings, for the whole world to see. This is about 60% solid science and about 40% backbiting, career-threatening drama that culminates in an all-out WWF cage-match in Paris between Michael Brunet (representing Sahelanthropus tchadensis), Brigitte Senut (representing Orrorin tugenensis), and Tim White (representing Ardipithecus ramidus). 5 stars. "...some researchers urged me to stick to the science and to avoid writing about the politics and personal rivalries... I found it impossible, however, to separate the human story of the quest from the scientific results; science is a social endeavor and the personal politics influence not only who gets access to data, in the form of fossils and fossil sites, but even how researchers interpret the fossils and formulate hypotheses." ~A.G.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Iset

    Well, I mistakenly bought this book thinking it’d be an intensive look at the discoveries and hottest issues in palaeoanthropology today, but when I dug into it I quickly realised that this is only one third of the book. The other parts of the book comprise the history of the field in the 20th century, how it has progressed and how paradigms have shifted – I admit I find all that stuff rather dull, though I am rather familiar with it, having spent a year of study on paradigms as a post-graduate. Well, I mistakenly bought this book thinking it’d be an intensive look at the discoveries and hottest issues in palaeoanthropology today, but when I dug into it I quickly realised that this is only one third of the book. The other parts of the book comprise the history of the field in the 20th century, how it has progressed and how paradigms have shifted – I admit I find all that stuff rather dull, though I am rather familiar with it, having spent a year of study on paradigms as a post-graduate. To be honest that’s never been my thing – I prefer digging into the history and archaeology directly, rather than the torturous tangle that is paradigm debate. Why the aversion? Well, other than the sheer dryness of paradigms, that world often comes along with professional rivalries and even enmities. It’s those biographies and rivalries that make up the final third of the book, detailing the astonishing viciousness between rival causes in the field. Like I said, I prefer to just steer well clear. But as regards to the book, I most enjoyed the overview of the discoveries, and although I may find the paradigms dry and the rivalries distasteful, looking at how the history of the field has changed and how professional rivalries have affected it is important for understanding how and why the field operates as it does today. Self-examination and critique has often been, and continues to be, an obsession of our field, and a vital part of rigorous scientific process. P.S. Please don’t ask me to weigh in on the Ardipithecus, Orrorin, Sahelanthropus debates. My area of work is mainly after prehistory. 7 out of 10

  4. 4 out of 5

    David

    This is a well-researched expose on the politics of paleoanthropology, and includes a little bit about paleoanthropology. 30 years ago I sat in the lecture hall and listened to Tim White tell caustic stories about Richard Leaky and others in the field. He had a deep resentment of what he called “goodie hunters” and hated the “Indiana Jones” depiction of archeology. This book explores those relationships and uncovers the backbiting, if not all-out combat, among researchers seeking the fossil evid This is a well-researched expose on the politics of paleoanthropology, and includes a little bit about paleoanthropology. 30 years ago I sat in the lecture hall and listened to Tim White tell caustic stories about Richard Leaky and others in the field. He had a deep resentment of what he called “goodie hunters” and hated the “Indiana Jones” depiction of archeology. This book explores those relationships and uncovers the backbiting, if not all-out combat, among researchers seeking the fossil evidence of the earliest humans. Having studied under others persons featured in the book, like Vince Sarich and Sherwood Washburn, I have a personal interest in the story, and a longing to go back and do it again, but this time enter the fray. But that aside, I think this is a good read for anyone.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Vaishali

    "The exceedingly cut-throat level of competition in Eastern African anthropology is a long-standing problem." - 1982 memo to Vice President George H. Bush Never thought there'd be a complete tell-all on the back-stabbing, politicking world of paleoarcheology... but here it is. A very well-researched read with gorgeous desert imagery, though it totally destroys my view of legends like Louis Leakey. Fascinating data, but what jerks :) Interesting Quotes : ----------------- "The underdog Frenchman woul "The exceedingly cut-throat level of competition in Eastern African anthropology is a long-standing problem." - 1982 memo to Vice President George H. Bush Never thought there'd be a complete tell-all on the back-stabbing, politicking world of paleoarcheology... but here it is. A very well-researched read with gorgeous desert imagery, though it totally destroys my view of legends like Louis Leakey. Fascinating data, but what jerks :) Interesting Quotes : ----------------- "The underdog Frenchman would beat the better financed and better known American. 'I am working in older sediments. I will win.' " "Temperatures can get so hot that plastic drink containers left in the shade of cars and tents - there is no other shade - can spontaneously explode." "They were careful not to touch anything metal, in case it was one of the mines left by the northern rebels - deadly reminders of civil war." "For 20 years, textbooks put Lucy's species as the ancestor of all humankind... by the mid 1990's when Brunet began scouting for sites in Chad, there were unmistakeable clues that this view was too simplistic." "... Where was the ever older ape that was the last ancestor humans shared with chimpanzees before they parted company...?" "In some years, windstorms had buried their tents, trapping them inside for several days, where they survived on pasta and tuna... But the wind was also their ally... exposing fossils that had been buried for millions of years." "(Tim White) once published a list of recommendations to paleoanthropology students that became known as the Tim Commandments and included such rules as 'If your career goal is to make a fortune, then go to medical school, become a knee surgeon, and practice on suburban soccer players.' " "He is even careful about how he poses for photos with his Ethiopian colleagues, so that he does not appear to be in charge." "... Team members crawled across a shallow gully, with gloves on their hands and pads on their knees, positioned shoulder to shoulder so they would not miss a fragment in the rubble." "An early photo of Maeve and Richard in National Geographic in 1970 - the year they were both married - showed them ... tall, bronzed, and good-looking, as if they had been cast for the parts, and were having the time of their lives." "Unlike Maeve and many of these young scientists, Richard was self-trained and had no academic degree..." "... Richard had been nearly killed in a plane crash. His road to recovery had been a difficult one, involving the amputation of both of his legs..." "They saw so many fragmentary fossils of ancient animals strewn across the hills and gullies of Kanapoi... as if they found the ruins of an ancient Greek temple." "Louis (Leakey) welcomed him by sending him on a detour, steering him to three different places where fossil beds proved a real disappointment." "Leakey felt entitled to reserve the most promising areas for finding fossil hominids for himself - or for his chosen associates... He is best known as the mentor to the three ape ladies... Jane Goodall... Dian Fossey... Birute Galdikas." "The unspoken rule was if they found hominid or fossil apes, they were to call in the Leakeys." "Patterson also had a reputation for getting lost... he was notorious for 'being lethal when left unsupervised in charge of machinery'. " "By the 1960s so many fossils of Miocene apes had been discovered that it was clear the earth truly was the planet of the apes... They flourished during a time when the Tethys Sea, which had long separated Africa and Eurasia, was retreating and creating a giant land mass thick with rain forests. Gangs of apes moved between the continents, traveling along thickly forested corridors from Spain to China. But the golden age of apes came to an end when almost all of these apes became extinct... as the climate cooled and got drier." "The mystery of the Miocene was 'Which one of these fossil apes was the one that survived to produce humankind?' " "... The chicken's immune system could not tell the difference between albumin from a human, a gorilla, or a chimpanzee - and fought them with equal vigor. But it did not recognize the blood proteins from orangutans or gibbon apes as invaders, which meant they were less like the human blood protein... Chimpanzees and gorillas were more closely related to humans than were orangutans and gibbons." "... The sun sets fast near the equator, because its path is perpendicular to the horizon." "... Researchers... including Tim White... had uncovered an ethereal trail of footprints in volcanic ash that dated to 3.6 million years..." "Johanson had kept Lucy locked in a wall cabinet in his office in Cleveland for 5 years." "... Gorillas are so similar to the two living species of chimpanzees... that they are often described as scaled-up chimpanzees." "... Savannah hypothesis... assumed that all the key phases of human evolution took place in the open grasslands of Africa.... But new studies would soon find that the earliest australopithecines still favored well-wooded areas near the shores of lakes and rivers." "No sooner had White wished out loud for a femur and a skull than the Middle Awash group delivered. It was uncanny." "... For every hominid fossil found in Omo, for example, paleontologists would find 10,000 fossils of extinct animals, a ratio that underscored how vanishingly scarce human ancestors were on the landscape 3 million years ago. Their populations had obviously been small... but as rare as hominids were there was not a single fossil of a chimpanzee or a gorilla in eastern Africa." "... Chimpanzees and gorillas lived in the large forests of tropical Africa but not in the more open terrain of the Great Rift Valley of the East." "... 8 million to 10 million years ago in the tropical forests that covered equatorial Africa ... was the home range of the common ancestor of humans and the chimpanzees until the movement of tectonic plates... remodeled the landscape and created the Great Rift Valley which bisects East Africa... The climate changed, with land on the western side of the rift remaining wet and humid, while the land to the east became hot and dry... The chimpanzees stayed in the forests west of the rift zone.... This compelling model would explain simply and clearly why chimpanzees and humans were so close genetically but why the fossils of their ancestors were never found in the same terrain." "It also had become clear to Brunet and Heintz that they would not find hominids in Afghanistan because the fossils of mammals discovered were not the type usually associated with early hominids." "When they arrived back in camp, many were angry that Kitonga had a gun." "...Every single team vying for access to fossil sites had friends and in some cases lawyers in high places in the governments..." "Do not try to revise history to give yourself an advantage, or make yourself look smarter, or better than other workers..." - from the "Tim" Commandments "Sometimes they walked as much as 20 or 30 miles following goat or camel trails through ancient lake beds and over prehistoric lava flows... They were so far off the beaten path that more than once they surprised Afar villagers and found themselves looking down the wrong end of a gun barrel." "White would comment later on Haile Selassie's uncanny ability to find fossils of hominids describing it as a talent... that is innate... 'It is this anatomical recognition skill that is absolutely essential in the field , because the fossils that you find aren't nice intact skulls... They're usually broken in very small pieces that are hard to identify, and you literally find hundreds of thousands of such pieces every day.' " "... Pickford would say later that he felt 'sorry for people who studied only human evolution. It's like picking up a book and skipping to the last chapter to read the ending...' " "National Geographic had offered him a lucrative contract as an explorer in residence in exchange for exclusive rights to his story and future research findings. Brunet declined the offer, noting that 'Americans want to buy everything.' " "The fossil record is exclusively African for almost 5 million years since no hominids older than 1.8 million years have been detected outside of Africa." "... There is little overlap in the skeletal parts to compare. Brunet has a skull, but no one else does, excluding White's unpublished crushed skull... Pickford and Senut have a thigh bone... but it is not connected to a toe bone, which is what Haile Salassie has... while Maeve Leakey and Alan Walker have a shin bone and a wrist bone..." "The real Garden of Eden it turns out looked a lot more like the Okavango Delta than the wide open spaces of the modern Great Rift Valley." "Some mammals were migrating between Europe, Asia, and Africa, presumably moving over a land bridge that connected what is now Yemen to Ethiopia 5.6 million years ago. Indeed one of the questions being hotly debated is whether an ape that was the ancestor of African apes and humans was ambling along with the animals on those migrations from Europe and Asia, or did the ancestor of African apes and humans arise in Africa?" "... When ancient animals migrated between Libya and Chad, some little two-legged ancestors might have been among the followers that moved along wooded corridors linking the two regions. The nomadic French paleontologist confided this to Libyan president Muhamar Qadafi on an official French expedition to Libya recently. Brunet left Qadafi's tent with a name of a guide and permission to explore southern Libya." .

  6. 4 out of 5

    Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.)

    Ann Gibbons has written a very solid and fascinating account of the relative recent discoveries of several of our earliest human ancestors. Gibbons is a well known science writer and brings significant journalistic integrity to her story-telling, as well as significant knowledge of her subject matter. The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (2006) is the story of the paleoanthropologists behind the incredibly important discoveries of hominin species that are currently some o Ann Gibbons has written a very solid and fascinating account of the relative recent discoveries of several of our earliest human ancestors. Gibbons is a well known science writer and brings significant journalistic integrity to her story-telling, as well as significant knowledge of her subject matter. The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (2006) is the story of the paleoanthropologists behind the incredibly important discoveries of hominin species that are currently some of the oldest yet found, and span a range of ages from 5.0 million years old to perhaps as much as 7.0 million years old. Gibbons, in telling the story of these discoveries, necessarily focuses much of the book on the out-sized personalities (and, dare I say, egos) of the anthropologists leading the teams exploring various important fossil regions in Africa. The teams she primarily focuses on in the book include Tim White and his work in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia; Richard and Meave Leakey in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya; Martin Pickford and Brigitte Senut in the Tugen Hills of Kenya; and Michel Brunet and his team in the Djureb Desert of Chad. Each of these teams of highly professional specialists in their respective fields have significantly added to our general understanding and knowledge base associated with the very earliest hominin species found to date, including Australopithecus, Ardipithecus, and two newly identified species, Orrorin tugenensis and Sahelanthropus tchadensis. Gibbons is quite even-handed in describing the tension and academic conflict that has arisen among some of these researchers associated with the interpretation and meaning of these important fossil discoveries and their role in understanding and explaining human evolution. Gibbons does a great job of not editorializing or letting her own emotions color the scenes she writes about, and simply factually recounts the stories of the fossil discoveries, the research science that followed, and the resultant back-and-forth academic squabbles that erupted as articles were published and discussed in various academic journals. As a serious amateur student of paleoanthropology and human evolution, I know that this is pretty much de rigueur, not only in anthropological circles, but among the scientific community as a whole. All in all, I think that a rigorous and scholarly debate is incredibly healthy and typically results in the advancement of scientific knowledge. Having said that though, and based upon my interpretation of what Gibbons presents in this book, it is my personal opinion that Martin Pickford--one of the co-discoverers of O. tugenensis--behaved simply deplorably in his much of his dealings with his peers in the academic community over many, many years. If you're interested in reading about how scientists gear up and conduct scientific expeditions in some very inhospitable portions of the world in their on-going search for the proverbial "needle in the haystack", then I think you'll very much enjoy Ms. Gibbons, The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors. Additionally, if you're specifically interested in learning more about these new, and incredibly ancient, species that have been discovered (i.e., O. tugenensis and S. tchadensis you'll very much appreciate the detail and solid science that Ms. Gibbons provides in telling this fascinating story.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Marcus

    One of the surest ways to turn me against a work of non-fiction is by misrepresenting its content to me. When I started to listen to 'The First Human', it was because I wanted to learn about the current state of paleoantropology and state of our knowledge about the 'ancient' humanoids. This book seemed to fill the bill. Well... In my opinion, only about a third of the book is dedicated to the topic that was of interest to me. Furthermore, a good part of 'relevant' information was presented in ob One of the surest ways to turn me against a work of non-fiction is by misrepresenting its content to me. When I started to listen to 'The First Human', it was because I wanted to learn about the current state of paleoantropology and state of our knowledge about the 'ancient' humanoids. This book seemed to fill the bill. Well... In my opinion, only about a third of the book is dedicated to the topic that was of interest to me. Furthermore, a good part of 'relevant' information was presented in oblique manner as arguments in what this book is really dedicated to - a tiresomly detailed recount of a variety of conflicts between leading names in this particular field of science. So here's the thing - a blow by blow narrative of battles between paleoantropology experts may be of interest to people who either work in this field or have for this or that reason a stake in this particular soap opera. And those people probably already know about all that stuff already! This book is however, to my best understanding, intended for general public as a popular scientific presentation of developments in and current state of paleoantropology. If my assumption is correct, then I'm sorry to say that the author completely missed the mark with this book. On the other hand, 'The First Human' seems to be a perfect illustration of realities of participation in modern academic world and the strifes and conflicts that occur in it all too frequently. Often petty or rudiculous to an outsider, more often than not based solely on clashes of big egos, these conflicts frequently create very real road-blocks in advancement of our knowledge and development. This book seems to illustrate this phenomenon perfectly. What's more, based on what Ann Gibbons reveals in her book, it seems that field of paleoantrophology suffers from this problem in the extreme. If I were an undergraduate student thinking about a career in this field and I've read this book, I would seriously consider switching to a different field. Perhaps that's where the real value of 'The First Human' really lies, as a warning to potential newcomers in the field of paleoantropology.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    Gibbons writes a real detective story--the search for the earliest ancestors of humans. She focuses on four international teams of scientists and their intense competition. Starting with the Leakeys, we know human origins begin in Africa, home of two great ape species, the chimpanzee and gorilla.It was in 1974 that Donald Johansen discovered "Lucy," in Ethiopia, pushing human origins back to 3.1 million years ago. What's amazing to me are all the discoveries made in the 90s and continuing into t Gibbons writes a real detective story--the search for the earliest ancestors of humans. She focuses on four international teams of scientists and their intense competition. Starting with the Leakeys, we know human origins begin in Africa, home of two great ape species, the chimpanzee and gorilla.It was in 1974 that Donald Johansen discovered "Lucy," in Ethiopia, pushing human origins back to 3.1 million years ago. What's amazing to me are all the discoveries made in the 90s and continuing into the 21st C. Very gradually, we are piecing together a picture of what our earliest ancestors were like.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Charles Matthews

    According to a Gallup poll taken in 2004, 45 percent of Americans believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago." More than 50 years after the Scopes trial, and 135 years after Darwin published "The Descent of Man," lots of people still find it hard to believe in human evolution. But though the fuss over "intelligent design" and other anti-evolutionary arguments has made a lot of headlines lately, it barely surfaces in Ann Gibbons' colorful and re According to a Gallup poll taken in 2004, 45 percent of Americans believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago." More than 50 years after the Scopes trial, and 135 years after Darwin published "The Descent of Man," lots of people still find it hard to believe in human evolution. But though the fuss over "intelligent design" and other anti-evolutionary arguments has made a lot of headlines lately, it barely surfaces in Ann Gibbons' colorful and readable book about the search for human origins. In "The First Human," Gibbons, who reports on human evolution for Science magazine, gives a lucid account of the science involved in finding fossils, establishing how old they are, and ascertaining whether they in fact belong to the ancestors of humankind. She also shows how difficult and sometimes dangerous the work of hunting for 7 million-year-old fossils can be. And that, like most humans, anthropologists are subject to such emotions as ambition and jealousy, especially when they're Indiana Jonesing for the next big find. Not even the most charismatic anthropologist swashbuckles like Harrison Ford, but some of them do have touches of glamour. "With his complex character and dark humor he could have sprung from a Hemingway novel," Gibbons says of Tim White, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. In 1993 White and his team were flown from San Francisco to Ethiopia in billionaire Gordon Getty's private jet, because Getty's wife, Ann, was studying anthropology at UC-Berkeley and was a field worker in the expedition. But White is also a no-nonsense type who likes to demonstrate the harsh reality of fossil-hunting for lecture audiences. He tells them that to re-create the conditions in the Afar rift of Ethiopia, he would have to heat the auditorium to 100 degrees, "blow in dust and sand, and bring in two dump trucks filled with scorpions, snakes, and malarial mosquitoes." In the course of his research, White has contracted malaria, Gibbons reports, as well as giardia, dysentery, hepatitis and pneumonia. White is not the only fossil-hunter who has suffered. Richard Leakey lost both legs when he crashed his plane in Kenya, and field workers have been killed by bandits and warring tribes. Teams are often threatened by the volatile politics of post-colonial Africa, where virtually all field research into human ancestry is conducted. One researcher was expelled from Ethiopia because of suspicions that he was working for the CIA. During the political turmoil of the 1980s, all fossil research in Ethiopia was halted by the country's government for eight years. And sometimes competing research teams are a threat to one another. Leakey virtually sewed up paleontology research in Kenya by cutting a deal with the government, and rival researcher Martin Pickford was arrested when he tried to make an end run around that arrangement. But Pickford could be equally protective of what he considered to be his turf. He once charged a Yale University team with raiding and corrupting a fossil site he laid claim to. When a Yale researcher returned to the site, she was met by a man who challenged the validity of her permits and added to the intimidation by flashing a gun tucked into his waistband. These tensions and turf wars arise because the rewards for discoveries – foundation grants, academic tenure, awards, prizes and public acclaim – have escalated since Donald Johanson's celebrated discovery of Australopithecus afarensis, a 3.1 million-year-old hominid popularly known as "Lucy," in 1974. Lucy's reign as the oldest known human ancestor lasted for nearly 20 years. Then in 1992 a team including White and Japanese paleoanthropologist Gen Suwa discovered Ardipithecus ramidus, which has been dated at 4.4 million years old, and a string of other discoveries followed over the next decade. The latest of them, by Michel Brunet in Chad in 2002, potentially pushes back known human ancestry to 6 or 7 million years ago. Nothing that old is in good shape, of course. We're not talking about complete skeletons but about teeth, the occasional jawbone or skull or thighbone, sometimes on the verge of crumbling into chalky dust. But in every case there's just enough to convince researchers, and their peers that review their research, that a hominid, and not an ancestor of an ape, has been found. But usually there's also little enough to provoke ongoing controversy. Which is why the layperson asks, as a journalist did at a symposium that brought together some of the eminent discoverers: "Why do you scientists always argue about your fossils? Why don't you share the fossils?" Gibbons points out that one reason is that the fossils don't belong to the researchers, they're "the priceless property of the nations where they were found." But she also explains that consensus would be hard to reach even if the hominid scraps were gathered in one place. "Together, the fossils collected in the 1990s and early 2000s would cover a large desk and would represent a few dozen individuals at least," she notes. But too many pieces are still missing from the puzzle – including fossils of the ancestors of our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas – to allow for a clear picture of the evolutionary lineage. So in the end, "The First Human" is a bit like a detective story without a conclusion, or like a detective story that puts Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, V.I. Warshawski, Easy Rawlins and Gil Grissom all in the same room, gives them a handful of clues, and lets them argue endlessly about the solution. The characters in Gibbons' book are almost as colorful and cantankerous as those fictional sleuths. Science writing is rarely this entertaining.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Susan Ferguson

    Paleoanthropologists began searching in earnest for early ancestors - looking desperately for the ancestor that was qualified as 'hominid', especially since the discovery of 'Lucy' by Louis Leakey and his wife. The discoveries keep shifting further back in time and the searchers are squabbling over search areas and analysis. There have been new discoveries of ways to date fossils, although many are based on the fossils of known animals that are now extinct and found in the same strata and areas Paleoanthropologists began searching in earnest for early ancestors - looking desperately for the ancestor that was qualified as 'hominid', especially since the discovery of 'Lucy' by Louis Leakey and his wife. The discoveries keep shifting further back in time and the searchers are squabbling over search areas and analysis. There have been new discoveries of ways to date fossils, although many are based on the fossils of known animals that are now extinct and found in the same strata and areas as the fossil being dated and a knowledge of when those animals flourished. There are also technicalities fo argon-argon dating (I don't remember exactly). Very little has been found of those fossils - mostly teeth and some jaws, the occasional skeleton and very rarely arm or leg bones. There is still no sure proof of when apes and humans diverged or even if hominids came from any of the found fossil lines. There is not enough evidence to draw a family tree. But there sure is a lot of squabbling and in-fighting and jealousy. And the searchers each want to have found the oldest possible hominid fossil, even though they don't entirely agree on the proof. Very interesting tale of the trials and troubles of paleoanthropologists and paleontologists and geologists, who are all involved in the search, dating of fossils, and research. There is serious and time-consuming search and effort put in to all of this, which adds to our knowledge of the ancient past - but no conclusive findings as yet. Still, it's all quite interesting.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Carol Smith

    Equal parts fun-with-fossils and paleontological cat fighting, and it's a winning combination. Try as we might, the human element can never be fully removed from scientific endeavors and paleontology has the full panoply - competition, rivalry, backstabbing, subterfuge, public attacks, politics, politics, and more politics. But that's not cause for despair. The author says it best in her acknowledgements:I found it impossible, however,to "separate the human story of the quest from the scientific Equal parts fun-with-fossils and paleontological cat fighting, and it's a winning combination. Try as we might, the human element can never be fully removed from scientific endeavors and paleontology has the full panoply - competition, rivalry, backstabbing, subterfuge, public attacks, politics, politics, and more politics. But that's not cause for despair. The author says it best in her acknowledgements:I found it impossible, however,to "separate the human story of the quest from the scientific results; science is a social endeavor and the personal politics influence not only who gets access to data, in the form of fossils and fossil sites, but even how researchers interpret the fossils and formulate hypotheses. In the end, I decided to include personal details where they influenced the science or revealed the motivations of the scientists. My intent was to show the triumphs of the science of paleoanthropology and Darwinian evolution in the past century, despite personal battles and intense rivalries, false starts and mistakes. The science lurches forward despite the foibles of the individual scientists.Enjoyed this more than Chris Stringer's Lone Survivor. Better writing, better organized, more entertaining and equally informative. But they each adopt a different focus (Stringer emphasizes the "Big Questions" in the field right now), and both are worth reading.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nola Redd

    This is definitely not a beach read. It's a compelling tale of the search for human origins, and the author does an excellent job of bringing it together in narrative form. There are a lot of names to keep up with, which can get confusing, especially when you also have to balance the politics. Still, despite it being outside my field, I think the author did a good job of taking what could have been a list of discoveries and molding it into a story. That said, while I get that it is ongoing, the This is definitely not a beach read. It's a compelling tale of the search for human origins, and the author does an excellent job of bringing it together in narrative form. There are a lot of names to keep up with, which can get confusing, especially when you also have to balance the politics. Still, despite it being outside my field, I think the author did a good job of taking what could have been a list of discoveries and molding it into a story. That said, while I get that it is ongoing, the conclusion felt a bit abrupt.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Claire

    I loved learning about the drama of discovering hominid bones. The contention between schools of thought and specific scientists was surprising, but why should I have been surprised? The notoriety attached to discovering new fossils is alluring. I am amazed with Michel Brunet and his team.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    An excellent journalistic account. Both engaging as a human story and informative enough to be a reference book on the shelves of the paleoanthro nerds among us.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Brad

    This book was really fun. Who could have suspected the politics at play in the race to find the earliest hominid?

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ryan O'B

    As far as dense science goes, this is pretty palatable. It's more of a historical review of paleoanthropology as it relates to the various discoveries of our hominid (depending on whose evidence you believe) ancestors and the various personalities of the scientists themselves. Interesting and probably a good introduction as required reading for anthropology majors. As far as dense science goes, this is pretty palatable. It's more of a historical review of paleoanthropology as it relates to the various discoveries of our hominid (depending on whose evidence you believe) ancestors and the various personalities of the scientists themselves. Interesting and probably a good introduction as required reading for anthropology majors.

  17. 5 out of 5

    David Tee

    If you want a book to help you refute evolution, this is it. That conclusion was an unintentional aspect on the part of the author but as I went through it I found page after page where she undermines the evolutionary argument and makes a better case for the falseness of that theory than she does for its historical accuracy.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Miles

    Good, concise book illustrating the for and against arguments for who gets the title as first bipedal hominin. Can be a bit confusing at times if you're not already familiar with some of the species, but definitely worth your time. Good, concise book illustrating the for and against arguments for who gets the title as first bipedal hominin. Can be a bit confusing at times if you're not already familiar with some of the species, but definitely worth your time.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Leon O'Flynn

    I like to read at least one science book a year. In places, this was a little heavy going, as it has many technical terms. However its worth a read as it provides a good narrative of the key issues and the key people.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Cathy

    Interesting story of the discovery of the first human ancestors, especially entertaining for archeologist wanna-bees. I did find it a little difficult to follow all of the characters and all of the bones.Probably easier to follow a "real" book than on audio. Interesting story of the discovery of the first human ancestors, especially entertaining for archeologist wanna-bees. I did find it a little difficult to follow all of the characters and all of the bones.Probably easier to follow a "real" book than on audio.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Guy Lenk

    Great book on the quest for fossil hominids and the personalities involved!

  22. 4 out of 5

    Klaudia

    Had to stop at the 50% mark. Started off really great–fresh writing and original concept. But the halt starts at about the 30% mark and never quite picks up again.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Camille Plemmons

    This is a very interesting synopsis of the progression of scientific thought surrounding human evolution, guided by discoveries of ancient human remains. It’s a really complicated story with a ton of paleoanthropologists that can be hard to keep straight - and lots of events that occur at the same time, so the timeline gets messy. For about the first quarter of the book I almost wished I wouldn’t have to read so much about the squabbles between the scientists, but by the end I was actually enjoy This is a very interesting synopsis of the progression of scientific thought surrounding human evolution, guided by discoveries of ancient human remains. It’s a really complicated story with a ton of paleoanthropologists that can be hard to keep straight - and lots of events that occur at the same time, so the timeline gets messy. For about the first quarter of the book I almost wished I wouldn’t have to read so much about the squabbles between the scientists, but by the end I was actually enjoying the drama (one guy wrote a whole book calling out a fellow paleoanthropologist. The pettiness! I love it.) I found it hard to follow at times, but overall I learned a lot and will be excited to learn more as new discoveries are made.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    The book itself, what Ann Gibbons wrote, I recommend highly, and give that 4 stars. However, I did not like the reader for the audible.com version much. I did like one line that she read, but on the whole, her delivery was far, far too 'cheerful' for my taste. I am not saying that the book should have been read with a dolorous inflection. But it needed a book reader with an delivery more in keeping with a non-fiction book with a fair degree of controversy and human frailty in it. In only one lin The book itself, what Ann Gibbons wrote, I recommend highly, and give that 4 stars. However, I did not like the reader for the audible.com version much. I did like one line that she read, but on the whole, her delivery was far, far too 'cheerful' for my taste. I am not saying that the book should have been read with a dolorous inflection. But it needed a book reader with an delivery more in keeping with a non-fiction book with a fair degree of controversy and human frailty in it. In only one line, mentioned above, did she convey the deep mystery of human origins. She talks about Lucy, the fossil proto-human discovered in the 1970's, whose evolution towards upright walking being largely complete, in a way that revealed the deep mystery of time. I cannot get closer to it in writing. When a book is about a topic such as this, where time wraps everything in deep mystery, the reader's elocution must reflect this. This is no dig on the book reader herself. Indeed, I hope that her skills improve and that she does well in her future projects. Of the book itself, there is a good deal of useful information about the burgeoning of fossils and information about human evolution. But this is also a very powerful book about the practice of science, which would be messy anyway, and in this case is made enormously more difficult by the great clash of egos portrayed. Being an academic myself, I am no stranger to academic battles. However, the battles outlined here are epic in scale. This is perhaps not surprising given the topic. Whether one is a Abrahamic fundamentalist (Islamic, Jewish, or Christian) or is not religious, the question of human origins is guaranteed to create acrimony. Not being hugely religious, I believe the science. After all, even if God did inspire the writers of the Bible, how could He have told them the truth? Could they have even been able to comprehend the deep time of the universe? I doubt it. The Bible expresses the cognitive limits of its writers. In the thousands of years since then, humanity has grown, and we are finding out answers for ourselves. This is not unlike individual humans, who themselves grow from infants who need everything done for them to adults who are expected to fend for themselves. I would not then be surprised that God all along had intended this. We are not perhaps adults, but we are no longer infants.

  25. 5 out of 5

    AJ Payne

    Audiobook. Jun found this book for me at the library, and it should have been great - one of the topics I love! But, it just didn't really keep my interest. Perhaps because it was just far enough away from one of my favorite topics that it couldn't keep me listening very closely. It was much more about the paleontologists/anthropologists that search for fossils, and all their infighting/squabbling/claim jumping and a lot less about the history of human evolution. I should have guessed that by the Audiobook. Jun found this book for me at the library, and it should have been great - one of the topics I love! But, it just didn't really keep my interest. Perhaps because it was just far enough away from one of my favorite topics that it couldn't keep me listening very closely. It was much more about the paleontologists/anthropologists that search for fossils, and all their infighting/squabbling/claim jumping and a lot less about the history of human evolution. I should have guessed that by the title, but I guess I wasn't expecting it quite so much. So, since I'm not one who gives much of a hoot about the people who find the fossils, other than a passing interest that could be explained in a page or two, this book just wasn't for me. The parts that dealt with human evolution, and the implications of each major discovery were fine - but were separated by enough paleo drama that it was hard to get through. Finally, and this has nothing to do with the writing, the person who read the book constantly mispronounced African words - and not even hard ones! A select list of mispronounced words: Zaire, Malawi, matatu, Jomo Kenyatta, sahel. It just disappointed me that the reader obviously took the time to learn how to pronounce all the French scientists names, all the latin/greek/etc genus and species names for the hominids, and yet couldn't be bothered to pronounce even African country names properly. Ugh. Just a personal pet peeve of people knowing next to nothing about Africa :) Anyway, if you like paleo drama and learning about the personalities of some of the major hominid fossil hunters this book is for you. If not... then not so much.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Alisia

    A very interesting look at some of the most important hominid fossil discoveries of the last 15 years, and the paleoanthropologists who discovered them. Ann Gibbons is a correspondent for Science magazine, and has covered human evolution for more than a decade. She does a fantastic job in this book of writing about evolution in a highly accurate, easy-to-read manner, without overly simplifying the topic for a mainstream audience. It is rare for an evolution book to go into detail about the turmoi A very interesting look at some of the most important hominid fossil discoveries of the last 15 years, and the paleoanthropologists who discovered them. Ann Gibbons is a correspondent for Science magazine, and has covered human evolution for more than a decade. She does a fantastic job in this book of writing about evolution in a highly accurate, easy-to-read manner, without overly simplifying the topic for a mainstream audience. It is rare for an evolution book to go into detail about the turmoil amongst scientists, and Gibbons does so in an even handed way. We get to hear about the dangers involved in the hunt for the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, in regions subject to days-long sandstorms, bandits, and civil war. You also see how basic human emotions (ambition! jealousy!) and politics can interfere with the progression of science, especially in such a sensitive scientific topic. In fact, we almost hear more about the tensions in the field than the actual fossils themselves, which would be my only major complaint.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Frank Roberts

    ‎"A wonderful, balanced, and accurate account of the search for the oldest human ancestors...Gibbons provides a window into the house of horrors that can be human origins research" That's the cover review from Science, which also happens to be her main employer. A fun, quick overview of the "battles" to find early ancestors. But is it really "Balanced"? Not exactly - she seems to get a little humid in the undies when writing about Richard Leakey or Tim White, painting either of them as dashing pa ‎"A wonderful, balanced, and accurate account of the search for the oldest human ancestors...Gibbons provides a window into the house of horrors that can be human origins research" That's the cover review from Science, which also happens to be her main employer. A fun, quick overview of the "battles" to find early ancestors. But is it really "Balanced"? Not exactly - she seems to get a little humid in the undies when writing about Richard Leakey or Tim White, painting either of them as dashing paleo-studs holding the vanguard of East African evolution research. What makes this one worth reading, if you're into the history of paleoanthropology, is that it offers up some coverage of the discoveries of Sahelanthropus tchadensis (Toumai), Orrorin tugenensis and Ardipithecus kadabba - all of which have relatively low coverage in popular books.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Wendy

    Fantastic book. It's really well-written and even though it conveys a lot of scientific information to the reader it is still very readable for someone who doesn't know much about the field. Having recently visited Olduvai gorge and the site where some of the fossils described in the book were resting for millions of years, reading this book gave me have a new appreciation and understanding of the Olduvai and its fossils' significance. This book is not only about the science of discovery but the Fantastic book. It's really well-written and even though it conveys a lot of scientific information to the reader it is still very readable for someone who doesn't know much about the field. Having recently visited Olduvai gorge and the site where some of the fossils described in the book were resting for millions of years, reading this book gave me have a new appreciation and understanding of the Olduvai and its fossils' significance. This book is not only about the science of discovery but the social aspects as well. The description of the social and political hurdles the researchers endure is a message that many people can relate to, "scientists" or not. I look forward to reading a part two of the book, to be written in 20 years, describing the fossil discoveries to come.

  29. 4 out of 5

    David Bird

    Interesting, if highly journalistic in its approach. Going through this as an audiobook had some particular challenges--maps and photos would have helped. The audio publisher needs to get its readers to take the time to look up unfamiliar names and words, and if there are repeated foreign words, it would be a bonus to get someone who can pronounce the language in question. And when we're talking about paleontology it is not necessary to put a "that's incredible"-tone, at every single occurrence, Interesting, if highly journalistic in its approach. Going through this as an audiobook had some particular challenges--maps and photos would have helped. The audio publisher needs to get its readers to take the time to look up unfamiliar names and words, and if there are repeated foreign words, it would be a bonus to get someone who can pronounce the language in question. And when we're talking about paleontology it is not necessary to put a "that's incredible"-tone, at every single occurrence, on the word 'million.'

  30. 4 out of 5

    Cary Baird

    This book was a fascinating look at the decades-long quest to understand our human and pre-human ancestors. Gibbons not only told a compelling story of human curiosity and perseverance to build scientific understanding, but also offered insight into human evolution. This book caused me to ponder the route our species has taken to dominance over all other creatures. I hope to visit a few of the places where fossil artifacts are exhibited and see where our early ancestors first lived. I recommend This book was a fascinating look at the decades-long quest to understand our human and pre-human ancestors. Gibbons not only told a compelling story of human curiosity and perseverance to build scientific understanding, but also offered insight into human evolution. This book caused me to ponder the route our species has taken to dominance over all other creatures. I hope to visit a few of the places where fossil artifacts are exhibited and see where our early ancestors first lived. I recommend this book to anyone interested in anthropology and science.

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