Title: Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils
Author: Lydia Pyne
Genre: Non-fiction (science, history)
“Over the last century, the search for human ancestors has spanned four continents and resulted in the discovery of hundreds of fossils. While most of these discoveries live quietly in museum collections, there are a few that have become world-renowned celebrity personas—ambassadors of science that speak to public audiences. In Seven Skeletons, historian of science Lydia Pyne explores how seven such famous fossils of our ancestors have the social cachet they enjoy today.
Drawing from archives, museums, and interviews, Pyne builds a cultural history for each celebrity fossil—from its discovery to its afterlife in museum exhibits to its legacy in popular culture. These seven include the three-foot tall “hobbit” from Flores, the Neanderthal of La Chapelle, the Taung Child, the Piltdown Man hoax, Peking Man, Australopithecus sediba, and Lucy—each embraced and celebrated by generations, and vivid examples of how discoveries of how our ancestors have been received, remembered, and immortalized.” (Penguin Random House)
After reading Christine Kenneally’s The Invisble History of the Human Race last year (my review), I’ve had an increasing interest in the history of humanity – both in terms of genetics and paleoanthropology. While Invisible History largely focused on the genetics side of things, it did touch briefly on paleoanthropology as well and how this area has contributed to our understanding of our genes. But although that book gave me enough information on human fossils to enable me to understand the rest of what I was reading, I wanted to know more.
Lydia Pyne’s Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils was just the book I needed. It covered many aspects of the study of fossils, all the way from when a specimen is first found, how it’s classified scientifically, how it fits into the grand scheme of things, and what it tells us about the evolution of humans. The whole book was pretty interesting, but there were a couple of stand outs for me:
- The Piltdown hoax – a fossil hoax that was basically allowed to continue for decades because no one seemed to want to disprove it (plus it was in the earlier years of paleoanthropology, so they didn’t have all the technology that might have been needed to prove it a hoax). This particular story serves as a reminder that we should never accept a thing as being true simply because it fits current thinking.
- The Taung Child – this one went the other way. It didn’t fit with the thinking of the time and so the scientific community didn’t want to accept it for what it was – evidence that humans originated from Africa. It wasn’t until the Piltdown fossil was shown to be a hoax that people began to take the Taung fossil seriously and now our understanding of where we come from begins with this fossil (although there is new evidence to suggest that humans may have evolved in Asia – if this is true it could completely alter everything we know about ourselves).
Seven Skeletons isn’t quite perfect. I did find it a little repetitive at points and it was in these moments that I thought the book could have benefited from a note at the start, outlining certain practices that were common to each case. An example of this would be how each fossil was given it’s official scientific name; rather than repeating it in every chapter, there could have been an explanation of how names were derived at the start of the book (neanderthals, for instance, take their name from the Neander Valley in Germany, in which the first specimen of them was discovered – the rest of the fossils are named in a similar fashion). The repetitiveness made me feel like I wasn’t reading one big book, instead it was more like I was reading smaller ones that had simply been collated – there wasn’t a lot of flow and it seemed as though each chapter was fulfilling a check list of sorts.
Despite this, I still found the book engaging and interesting – two things I never thought I’d say about a book on fossils. For a non-science minded person such as myself, I found it fairly easy to read (although there were some bits I had to reread to made sure it all sank in) and it gave me loads more background on Kenneally’s book, while also providing me with a good platform for any further reading I might want to do on the subject. Since finishing the book I’ve read three or four articles in the news involving fossils and geological strata, and they actually made sense to me – so I’ve definitely learned something.
If you have an interest in the history of humanity, you can’t go past this book. It’ll help fill in gaps, lay groundwork for more reading, and maybe change your mind about how interesting old bones can really be.