Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind by Kermit Pattison: A review

 

I got this book as a sort of companion to another book that I read earlier this year, The Sediments of Time by Meave and Samira Leakey. The books cover basically the same territory, literally, the Great Rift Valley of East Africa where the search for fossil human ancestors has been most intense. And they reference many of the same personalities, several of what we might term the rock stars of the fossil search. Meave's book is a memoir that, of course, focuses mainly on her family, the Leakeys, who are the First Family of the paleoanthropology world, but it also gives credit to the work of such people as Don Johanson of Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) fame and Tim White who was also present at the Lucy find and at the 1994 find of what is, for now, the oldest known possible human ancestor at 4.4 billion years, nicknamed Ardi (Ardipithecus ramidus). Kermit Pattison's book focuses primarily on White and the Ardi find.

Tim White actually began his fossil-hunting career in Africa working with Richard Leakey. But soon enough his relationship with Leakey ruptured as both White and Leakey were intolerant of anyone who disagreed with them about the interpretation of their finds. When they disagreed with each other, that was the end of that! That is a recurring theme in Pattison's book. White, it seems, eventually falls out with almost everyone in the paleoanthropology world. One of the reviews that I saw of the book memorably describes White as Indiana Jones meets Tony Soprano. It is not an inapt description.

After his work with Leakey, White went on to work with Donald Johanson at the site in Hadar, Ethiopia where the famous Lucy was found in 1974. But eventually that relationship, too, ended in a Big Bang that in Pattison's telling left the two men virtually hating each other and seeking to undermine each other's work throughout the years.

One of the main takeaways from Pattison's book is the size of the egos of the men who spend their lives hunting fossils. And they are all men, "Fossil Men." Very few women make appearances in this book, although Mary and Meave Leakey do get a mention at least. It seems almost a prerequisite for the job that the paleoanthropologist be absolutely convinced of the rightness and righteousness of his position, his interpretation of events. Once he settles on a narrative, he leaves no room for dissension. We see this again and again as we follow the career of Tim White. He is a prickly personality that is completely ruthless in his search for new fossils. He is undeterred by war and pestilence and a whole army of intellectual enemies. The years that he spent in Ethiopia looking for ancient fossils were years when that country was ripped by civil war and conflict with neighbors and it was not uncommon for the exploration team to find itself in the middle of gunfights between the Issa and Afar tribesmen. The team actually lost some of its members to that conflict. 

On the other hand, the personality that generated so many enemies also spawned an army of loyal friends. And when Tim White was your friend, he was your friend all the way. He was unusual among many of the scientists who worked in the region in that he was dedicated to training Ethiopians to be fossil hunters and to care about and protect the unique heritage of their region. Over the years, he trained many of the people who are now leaders of the profession in Ethiopia and who are heads of the museums where the fossils have been stored. Ethiopia has also tightened many of its laws in order to protect these precious fossils from exploitation. It's unlikely that any of those fragile fossils would now be allowed to undertake a six-year tour that Lucy did from 2007 to 2013. Today such tours employ casts of the fossils. 

Kermit Pattison is a journalist and he is particularly good at explaining in an understandable way how the scientists are able to interpret the bones that they find and how they painstakingly build a picture of how ancient species are interrelated and how one may have evolved into another. That's often been represented as a tree, but current knowledge seems to run more to an image of a bush with very many branches, some of which never intersect. His ability to explicate all of this, especially when he explains why one little bump on the foot of Ardi led scientists to conclude that she was upright and bipedal at least for part of the time, is just fascinating and easy enough for a layperson to follow. Very seldom does he allow himself to get lost in the weeds of minutiae of his subject. The narrative flows, the characters are memorable, and the story is nothing less than the story of the history of our species. What more could one ask of a book?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Comments

  1. great review! my field is Geology so this was right down my alley even tho i haven't heard of White. The scientists i've known haven't been much like him, more even minded perhaps, and eager to examine all evidence regardless of its import... scientists normally don't crave recognition... well, i guess some do, obviously, but it seems like a counter-productive pov... there's still controversy re the tree/bush thing in the evolution field ; i've liked the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould pretty well, about punctuated equilibrium, but it's an ongoing story that constantly fosters new concepts...

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    1. Maybe it is the field of paleoanthropology specifically that attracts such personalities. Steven Jay Gould gets some ink in this book. Pattison mentions his theories on a couple of occasions. I remember enjoying his essays in "Nature" magazine years ago. He left us much too young.

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  2. This is a fascinating subject, and it doesn't hurt that so many of the fossil hunters and archaeologists of the day were such larger -than-life personalities. It's amazing to me that we are still learning so much even today...so much ground still to cover. When I worked in the Sahara, we would drive around the desert after the really strong sand storms to see what we could spot, and on more than one occasion came across the remains of old campfires cluttered with tiny arrowheads and pieces of ostrich eggs that had little holes drilled in them from when the eggs were used to carry water in the desert. It was always a reminder to me of the fragility of life.

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    1. That is an intriguing story, Sam. As well as a reminder of the fragility of life, those sites might also be a reminder of the persistence of life and the stubborn will to survive even in less than ideal environments.

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  3. This book sounds utterly fascinating! I also love that it's easy to understand as I don't know a lot about this subject! Great review!

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    1. I know a little bit about the subject as it was an obsession of mine for many years. I was familiar, for example, with the names that Pattison was writing about and the sites that he referenced, but I think anyone who had no previous knowledge of the subject would still be able to understand and appreciate the narrative. It reads almost like a novel.

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  4. My husband is fascinated with these people. I will share this wonderful review with him. I'd love to share it on our Texas Master Naturalist monthly newsletter. I know that lots of others in our group would be interested.

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    1. I'd be happy for you to share it with anyone who might be interested! It is a fascinating book for anyone who is interested in this subject.

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    2. I will send you an email and talk to you a little more about my idea.

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  5. Wow, Fossil Men sounds like a great read!! Thanks for sharing your thorough review of Fossil Men with your readers. I will be adding this book to my ever growing reading wishlist. Fossil Men also sounds very accessible read for the layperson, I wouldn't want an overly academic read, as that would put me to sleep for sure!

    Why is it that famous men have such HUGE egos?? Tim White sounds like quite a character!

    P. S. I like the new layout of your blog.

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    1. Famous men and their gigantic (but delicate!) egos is a mystery that has rarely, if ever, been solved by any woman, I think.

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  6. I love archaeology and my husband and I once found arrowheads and broken pottery at a site that was being bulldozed. The Leakey's and their discoveries are fascinating. This sounds so good!

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    1. I grew up near Native American mounds and it was not unusual to find arrowheads nearby. It was always exciting to find one. I can only imagine the emotions of these fossil hunters when they make a big find.

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  7. It sounds like a fun read. I read the Lucy book in college for Anthropology class ... and ended up talking to Tim White on the phone for a paper I was writing in the mid-80s. He was onboard with Johanson at the time and against the Leakeys. In regards to their hominid family tree he said: "as far as I can tell the Leakeys don't believe in evolution." Hmm. I'm sure that didn't go over well with the Leakeys. It was a thrill to visit the Olduvai Gorge Museum in Tanzania ... terrific hominid fossils!

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    1. My impression of White is that if he's with you it's 100% and if he's against you, it's 100%. Nothing exists in between.

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