by Lydia Pyne
reviewed by Christopher Klim
“The stories of these seven fossils speak, in no small way, to the fragility of fame and the contingency of celebrity.”
What does it take to be a rock star in the world of fossils? Must the find be significant, lucky, or have the support of the scientific community? Reaching back four million years, historian and anthropologist Lydia Pyne plots man’s time on Earth through seven famous skeletons that take on a life of their own and reveal more truth about humanity than what is contained within their bones.
Beginning in 1908 with The Old Man of La Chapelle, a seminal million-year-old Neanderthal discovery is unearthed near a small French village. Pyne walks us through the scene of the crime, so to speak, which includes a remarkable find that like others was lucky to be located at all. This was the cusp of the great expansion of the sciences. Disciplines were forming, and dreams of splitting the atom took shape. While human fossils had been discovered prior, the Old Man or homo neanderthalensis and the ensuing research therein helped to frame the science for the next century.
We then visit the Piltdown Man. In 1915, amateur anthropologist Charles Dawson “discovered” and, then later with the help of more prominent experts, presented the so-called “missing link.” Was it the illusive and highly coveted bridge between man and ape? For four decades, experts debated its authenticity while simultaneously adoring it. This may have been in part a case of people wanting it to be true. Veiled in secrecy, it was eventually exposed as a clever assembly of man and ape fragments, fooling even the great Charles Darwin. One can only imagine the parlor wages lost, as well as the reputations of avid supporters. Still, as the author documents, the Piltdown Man’s ascent to notoriety remains, albeit one of a grand hoax. Pyne shows that stumbles in science are often a combination of hubris, passion, and a present lack of analytical tools and skills. Every discovery must be built from the ground up, or it cannot be placed in the pantheon.
At the end of this chain of seven renown dead ancestors, Pyne discusses Karab, and it is the climatic story line. Discovered by a nine-year-old in South Africa while exploring his father’s dig site, it rose as the most significant find of our young century. This two-million-year-old partial skeleton is still under research. Australopithecus sediba is believed to fill in an evolutionary step of modern man and helps to fuel the greater debate until the next rock star find.
Trough Payne’s insightful narrative, the scientists of this realm and their personalities, as well as their friends and enemies, play a major role in many of the fossils’ fate. Most of the bones were unearthed in the pre-Internet days—a time of missives and well-honed connections to the anthropological community and the wealth that supported it. Some key skeletons were lost, remaining only in records. Yet as the letters, drawings, and publications cross the seas and academic halls, the author shows us that a skeleton’s discovery can be just as important as the debate it inspires and the resulting redirection of scientific thinking.
Some believe the overriding journey of science has been to explain God—to either explain Him away or to discover His truth. Regardless of your personal bent, the understanding of man’s emergence through time is at the very least vital to our understanding of the future. Our ancestors or the man-like cousins, whichever you prefer, went extinct by either circumstance or fundamental flaws, but they paved a path toward our existence today. One aspect is clear: Humans will either adapt or suffer a similar fate.
The book is at times a heavy read for the layman, but Pyne makes the effort to engage and enlighten by humanizing the subject matter. While this is not a new movement in nonfiction narrative, it is an increasingly prevalent mode for the scientific discussion of complex issues, and it appears to be an increasingly present tool of scientific women who execute it with aplomb, saliency, and passion. Place Pyne in that category. As our understanding races even further ahead of the common man’s grasp, Pyne keeps us in touch with both the people and facts of discovery within a lasting read.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review