The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution

Synopsis

Two discoveries of early human relatives, one in 1924 and one in 2003, radically changed scientific thinking about our origins. Dean Falk, a pioneer in the field of human brain evolution, offers this fast-paced insider's account of these discoveries, the behind-the-scenes politics embroiling the scientists who found and analyzed them, and the academic and religious controversies they generated. The first is the Taung child, a two-million-year-old skull from South Africa that led anatomist Raymond Dart to argue that this creature had walked upright and that Africa held the key to the fossil ancestry of our species. The second find consisted of the partial skeleton of a three-and-a-half-foot-tall woman, nicknamed Hobbit, from Flores Island, Indonesia. She is thought by scientists to belong to a new, recently extinct species of human, but her story is still unfolding. Falk, who has studied the brain casts of both Taung and Hobbit, reveals new evidence crucial to interpreting both discoveries and proposes surprising connections between this pair of extraordinary specimens.

Excerpt

No subject provokes as much curiosity, argument, and dogma as the origin of humans. From the child who asks, “Where did I come from?” to religious leaders who maintain traditional beliefs about creation and our role in the cosmos, human origins is a topic of keen concern. Most, if not all, cultures have origin stories. So do the scientists who study human evolution, which is one reason why our academic field, known as paleoanthropology, can be particularly acrimonious. This is nothing new. In the late nineteenth century, naturalists staunchly defended their particular theories about human origins, despite contradictory finds that were beginning to accumulate in the fossil record. In this book I focus on two pivotal and controversial discoveries that redefined how both the public and scientists viewed human evolution, one from the 1920s and another that was unearthed less than a decade ago. Each is analyzed within its contemporary milieu, including the state of scientific knowledge about human evolution, the social undercurrents related to religious fundamentalism, and the academic politics that pervade investigations of our past (paleopolitics). The two discoveries are compared with each other and interpreted within a wider framework that incorporates other finds, including the infamous Piltdown fraud. My aim is to portray the twists, turns, competitiveness, and passions . . .

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