After a long day of foraging in the Olduvai Gorge of up-state Tanzania, Lucy turned to her beau and said, “Baby, I think we’re ready. Let’s start a species.” And that’s how we began. More or less.
Of course, it didn’t happen all at once – Lucy and her dude (the whole clan, in fact) were only Australopithecines – but they got the ball rolling and, as evidenced by the facts that I am here using a Chromebook tool, typing a language, consisting of tiny pieces of abstract reasoning, while eating donuts – – Lucy and Dude did indeed ultimately succeed in starting a slightly more advanced species: homo sapiens. That’s us. And it all began in Africa.
Here are books about how we got started; these are our origin stories. Some of these books range far outside the continent, but the point is our story begins there. You can’t talk about the rest of the world and humanity without beginning in Africa.
The Cradle of Humanity: How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made Us So Smart by Mark Maslin – This new book answers the question: Why did our ancestors appear in Africa instead of other places with hominids, like Europe or Asia? It explores geology, environment, human intelligence and other grainy details that somehow combined into the impossible cocktail that produced us.
Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet and Human Origins from Peter S. Ungar is a brand new book about very old things: our teeth. Turns out, teeth are pretty damn sturdy; they’re almost permanent records of their ancient uses. By studying those of our forebears, we can learn not only about their diets but about their evolution and the environments in which they lived.
Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships from Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá – Monkeys gettin’ busy. Come on, now: do you really need a reason to read this one? This is the origins and evolution of our libido and is self-evidently essential for any study of our origins. The basic theory is that monogamy only developed as humanity settled into agricultural communities. Before then, sexual practices were… let’s just say less organized. A controversial point of view, but certainly an interesting way to look at early hunter-gatherer societies. [cue soundtrack]
The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional by Augustin Fuentes – Our ability to operate (and co-operate) in the abstract of ideas and symbols is essential to what makes us human. Have you considered how such familiar neolithic clichés as cave painting and fuzzy-elephant-hunting are connected through creativity? “Wait wait wait – I have an idea, Gorg. You take your guys and stand over there behind that tree, Me and Flark will stand over behind this tree. The sabertooth can’t bite in two directions at once.” And they all thought Spak he was crazy – until his idea worked. Compare/contrast this scene:
“Targ, I am going to smear this red paste on the wall of the cave.”
“I will make the shape of a fuzzy elephant.”
“… I, uh… I don’t know. I just have to do this.”
Any creative person understands the impulse. These imaginative leaps and abstract manipulations are what make us unique as a species.
Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi and the Discovery that Changed Our Human Story by Lee Berger and John Hawks – Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic Lee Berger finds what appears to be a previously unknown hominid species in a cave in South Africa. Who were these 2 million year old hominids? Where do they fit in the human family tree? Why were they in this difficult to reach cave? This is a very recent discovery, and a lot more work needs to be done – but it’s a massive find.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari – This is a combo of history and science and starts with our ability to think. Lucy and Dude’s progeny included a few other versions of us – yes, we are not an Only Child – and Dr. Harari theorizes how our capacity for group cooperation and imagination gave us an advantage over our siblings. This one follows our story all the way up to the scientific revolution.
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal by Jared Diamond – Look, if you haven’t read Guns, Germs and Steel, why not? This older book focuses less on environmental factors, like in GG&S, and more on anthropological factors, such as sexuality and language, but is laying the groundwork for his later Pulitzer Prize winner.
Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils by Lydia Pine – This is a survey of the usual suspects, the most well-known hominid remains, from the so-called “Hobbit” skeleton to the notorious Piltdown Man to our own dear Lucy. It’s both the science and the history of discovery and how they each have become part of popular culture. For example, when I started this post off with Lucy deciding to start a species, you kinda sorta knew what I was talking about. If I had started off with Jerry the Ring-Tailed Lemur or maybe Skull 455a, it would have made a lot less sense. That’s because Lucy has probably been on The Simpsons and was maybe referred to in an X-Files episode or was on the cover or your high school science book or whatever. These are the super star skeletons and their stories.
I’ve been to Africa – Kenya, specifically – and standing on the red, iron-rich dirt, looking up at the impossibly tall trees, it did kinda feel familiar. Maybe that feeling came from years of watching documentaries or reading National Geographic. Still, it’s a place that makes you want to stand on your own two feet and make something of yourself.