Books, Reading, Review
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Book Review – ‘Seven Skeletons’

SevenSkeletonsTitle: Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils
Author: Lydia Pyne
Genre: Non-fiction (science, history)
Rating: ★★★★

“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.

Many thanks to Penguin Viking and NetGalley for providing me with a review copy of this book.

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18 Comments

  1. I have become increasingly interested in reading science books. I think I’ll take your advice and start with The Invisible History of the Human Race first though.

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    • The Invisible History is definitely a good place to start. It was the first book I’ve read on this sort of topic and I found it all reasonably easy to comprehend.
      Someone recommended another book to me the other day – ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari. I saw another of his books the other day that looks really interesting too. It’s called ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’. I haven’t read any of his books so I’m not sure on how easy they are to read, but they have pretty high ratings on Goodreads so I think they’d be worth some investigation.

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  2. This sounds interesting – one of my areas of interest (there are many, it seems)!
    The fact that there is new evidence makes me think that there will always be new evidence, and that we won’t ever know for sure where and how it all got started. I want to know!

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  3. This looks really interesting! I shamefully get confused about all the different discoveries that led to our understanding of human evolution so perhaps this will help! Bronte

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    • This would definitely help. It doesn’t explain *everything*, a teensy bit of prior knowledge would be useful, but not a necessity. I can highly recommend ‘The Invisible History of the Human Race’ to read beforehand, as it kind of provides the bones (no pun intended) for reading about human fossils, then ‘Seven Skeletons’ is like the flesh.

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  4. I saw you recommended this one to me on Goodreads, and after reading your review I’m definitely more excited to check it out! I worry that I’d tire of that “checklist” aspect that you noted, but maybe I could power through it for the really interesting stuff. 🙂 Do you have any new books on your list after reading this and Kenneally’s?

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    • Someone on Litsy recommended a book to me called Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari which looks pretty great, so I’ll be checking that one out in the nearish future. I also really want to read The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which I’ve seen mixed reviews on but I’d still like to give it a try.

      I have been wondering since finishing Seven Skeletons whether it might have been edited a little to get rid of the checklisty feel. I had an ARC, so what I read may not have been the final book. But it was still really interesting and I think you’d definitely get something out of it. I’ll definitely be investing in a hardcopy of it.

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  5. I took a physical anthropology class in college — one of those big survey ones with two hundred people in the class — and I was surprised how much I learned from it and enjoyed it. I need to read some more books in this area! I have one checked out now that’s not about fossils so much as it’s about, like, the way the scientific/museum establishment in the late 1800s early 1900s treated human remains. Which is also super interesting!

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    • Ooooh, that sounds awesome – what’s it called?

      Someone on Litsy recommended Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and it sounds excellent. It kind of sounds like the Christine Kenneally book I mentioned, but I still wouldn’t mind reading it to compare the two, especially as Kenneally’s book had a lot of focus on Australia (which is fine because that’s where I live, but it’d be interesting to see it all from a different perspective.

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  6. I really have to get a hold of this. I have done lots of reading about genetics (and hoping that this book won’t be too much like studying!) but the stuff about evolution and how we learn from skeletons is fascinating.

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    • No it didn’t feel like studying at all. Pyne has a pretty good narrative voice – you can tell that she’s enthusiastic about this sort of stuff and it really comes through in her writing. As I said, I found it a little repetitive after a while, but that didn’t detract from how interesting it all was.

      Someone also recommended a book called Sapiens to me. It’s by Yuval Noah Harari and it looks really good as well (it’s had 26,191 ratings on Goodreads and has an average rating of 4.31 stars out of 5 – so that’s a good indicator I think). Have you read The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee? That’s next on my hit list.

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      • Haven’t read The Gene but have seen it – I have dozens of books that are similar (popular science about genetics) so will await glowing reviews before I add another to the pile!

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        • Well I plan on picking it up in a couple of weeks (because I’ve been thinking about it for ages and I need it), so I’ll try and get to it soon and let you know my thoughts 🙂

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        • Will look forward to your review. Most of the popular genetics books I’ve read are by Matt Ridley, although another caught my eye this year – it’s title is something about ‘Hemingway’s Cats’ and the author is Arney (??).

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  7. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) thoughts // 2 September, 2016 | Bits & Books

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