A Human Evolution Summer Reading List

As you plan for summer vacation, don’t forget to pack one of these reads on Neanderthals, human origins, new fossils or the first people in the New World

What's going on in this guy's head? Read How to Think Like a Neanderthal to find out.
What's going on in this guy's head? Read How to Think Like a Neanderthal to find out. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

Summer is just around the corner, and it’s the perfect time to start thinking about what books to bring to the beach. If you’re looking for something more cerebral than the latest romance novel or courtroom thriller, consider one of the latest books covering human evolution. Here are a few picks.

Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth. Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London has been one of the biggest proponents of a theory of modern human origins called Out of Africa, which suggests that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago, left the continent and then completely replaced all other hominids without any interbreeding. Recent findings—such as the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the discovery of Neanderthal-human matings—have shown that the story of our species’ origin and dispersal around the world was more complicated than Stringer had realized. In Lone Survivors, he discusses the latest fossil and genetic evidence and provides an updated look at  how our species came to be. (If you’re looking for an abridged version, Stringer discusses his new thinking at Edge.)

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins. If you’re looking for a broader survey of human evolution, try Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet. Tattersall, a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, covers the last seven million years of hominid history, starting with the cast of contenders for earliest hominid. He ends by discussing how our superior brains and capacity for symbolic thinking and language allowed us to become masters of the planet, so to speak.

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution. Two of my favorite subjects in human evolution—the Hobbit (a.k.a. Homo floresiensis) and the Taung Child—are the subject of Dean Falk’s The Fossil Chronicles. On the face of it, the two don’t have much in common. But Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University who studies brain evolution, argues that both fossils changed the course of human evolution studies. She recounts the history of the discoveries and traces how they changed scientific thinking: The Hobbit showed that humans shared the world with other hominids until very recently, while the Taung Child forced anthropologists to realize Africa was the birthplace of our lineage.

How to Think Like a Neanderthal. One of the most enduring debates in human evolution centers on Neanderthal intellect. Were they smart, or were they dumb? In How to Think Like a Neanderthal, anthropologist Thomas Wynn and psychologist Frederick Coolidge, both of the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, try and get into the Neanderthal mind by examining the genetic, fossil and archaeological records.

Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture. Everyone supposedly knows how people came to the New World. About 12,000 years ago, the ancestors of the first Americans left Asia and walked across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. But archaeologists Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter in England provide a controversial alternative scenario in Across Atlantic Ice. They argue that Europeans aboard boats may have gotten here first, about 18,000 years ago, by following the edges of an ancient ice sheet across the Atlantic.

An oldie but a goodie, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Lucy is not new, but it’s still a great read that offers an insider’s view on how paleoanthropology works. Written by Lucy’s discoverer, Don Johanson, in 1981, the book gives readers a firsthand look at how the iconic fossil was discovered and how researchers went about studying her. If you want a more contemporary look at Lucy, try Johanson’s 2010 book, Lucy’s Legacy.

Another classic, In the Shadow of Man. Now I’ve broken two rules. In the Shadow of Man is not new nor is it really about human evolution. It’s Jane Goodall’s first book. Written in the early 1970s, it chronicles the beginning of Goodall’s decades-long study of the chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Tanzania and highlights some of her early discoveries, including the chimps’ use of tools. If you’re a wildlife fan, this is a great treat.

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