Chances are you don’t come to the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System blog looking for book reviews, but here’s one.
We are here to recommend A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens (The Experiment, 2019) by Silvana Condemi and Francois Savatier.
It’s bright, tight, easy-to-follow and full of colorful illustrations—all in a brisk 144 pages start to finish. And it catches us up on some recent discoveries by all those hard-working scientists out there who are working hard to understand how human beings appear the way we do today.
The co-authors are impressive. Condemi is a paleoanthropologist. She’s also research director of the National Center for Scientific Research in France (Aix-Marseille University). Savatier is a journalist for the magazine Pour la Science (the French edition of Scientific American).
Somehow these two heavyweights have found a way to take a very complex topic and they have reduced it to the key elements—based in large part on the extraction and sequencing of fossilized DNA.
“Though we have discovered so much about Homo sapiens over the years, there are still many unanswered questions about what caused us to become uniquely human,” they write. “Was it climate change that propelled our supposed arboreal ancestors from the forests onto the ground in the savannas, setting in motion a series of complex anatomical changes? Was it bipedalism, which freed up our hands for other tasks? The use of tools? Our large brains? Did we become human because we were capable of empathy and cooperation?”
Great question. Well, questions.
A Pocket History focuses on the “progressive stages of hominization, the evolutionary transformation of prehumen forms into Homo (including the cultural aspect of becoming human.”
Culture, argue Condemi and Savatier, is key. Culture modified biology, which in turn led to more culture. Child-rearing changed because our physiology changed. The new approach to raising infants required cooperation (because human babies are so helpless for such a long time, say, compared to a foal at birth). Hunting required cooperation, too. Bipedalism liberated our hands and led to us shedding our fur (when we started to run on two feet). Bipedalism freed our hands from the “locomotive process.”
Hunting involved communication (signals at first). Hunting aroused senses we would need for survival.
Anatomy is at the heart of many of the evolutionary developments. But Condemi and Savatier keep the prose at a level that is easily grasped. Here’s a sample from a brief paragraph that describes the “vast anatomical transformation,” including the ability to run on two feet, that accompanied the switch to bipedalism.
“When we run, the head cannot bob, as that would be harmful. This requires strong neck and shoulder muscles for support, elongating the silhouette of the upper torso, which is quite different from that of the apes. Have you noticed how their heads seem to sit directly on their shoulders? The human body, too, must remain upright and stable, which the extraordinary development of gluteal muscles (buttocks) has made possible. And our foot has also been entirely reshaped to store elastic energy in the plantar arch for running.”
A Pocket History tracks migrations out of Africa, follows the first Homo sapiens, and watches the species blossom onto the Arabian Peninsula and norther parts of Eurasia. The final chapters focus on the spread of Homo sapiens across the planet, “The Emergence of the Tribe,” and (finally) “War and the State.”
We’re in the Anthropocene today. We have overrun nature. It is estimated 1 billion of us live poorly today, in slums, the authors note. But the authors predicts we will shed our “Neolithic mentality” and move toward “a new type of psyche.”
The next time you’re in line at the grocery store, or watching a football game, or out for a jog—you may ask yourself, as David Byrne once did, “how did I get here?”
A Pocket History of Human Evolution gives you a clear picture of the road behind us and makes it clear we’re all still moving, together, on this same journey.