The Origin Of Our Species,, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Chris Stringer's bestselling The Origin of our Species tackles the big questions in the ongoing debate about the beginnings of human life on earth.

Do all humans originate from Africa? How did we spread across the globe? Are we separate from Neanderthals, or do some of us actually have their genes?

When did humans become 'modern' - are traits such as art, technology, language, ritual and belief unique to us?

Has human evolution stopped, or are we still evolving?

Chris Stringer has been involved in much of the crucial research into the origins of humanity, and here he draws on a wealth of evidence - from fossils and archaeology to Charles Darwin's theories and the mysteries of ancient DNA - to reveal the definitive story of where we came from, how we lived, how we got here and who we are. 'A new way of defining us and our place in history' Sunday Times 'When it comes to human evolution Chris Stringer is as close to the horse's mouth as it gets ...The Origin of Our Species should be the one-stop source on the subject.

Read it now' BBC Focus 'Britain's foremost expert on human evolution need a primer to make sense of the story so far. Here is that book' Guardian 'Combines anecdote and speculation with crisp explanation of the latest science in the study of the first humans engaging read' New Scientist Chris Stringer is Britain's foremost expert on human origins and works in the Department of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum.

He also currently directs the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, aimed at reconstructing the first detailed history of how and when Britain was occupied by early humans.

His previous books include African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity, The Complete World of Human Evolution and most recently, Homo Britannicus, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book of the Year in 2007.


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My mind finds it so hard to deal with the colossal timescales involved in palaeontology – even more so in the case of books like this, where the story being pieced together on this Brobdingnagian canvas is so crucial and so awe-inspiring. You're considering vast, Cthulhu-like stretches of time in which human societies grew up, discovered modernity in the form of complex tools and ritualised behaviour, held out for a while against the environment, and then disappeared. One after another, flashes of human civilisation blinking in and out of existence in the archaeological record.Seventy-two thousand years ago, at what's now Still Bay in South Africa, there was a human society that lasted for hundreds of centuries before vanishing; five millennia later, not far away at Howieson's Poort, a different and apparently unrelated civilisation thrived for a while before also being abruptly cut off. These people used compound tools and painted themselves with red ochre, buried their dead and wore jewelry made of tick shells; they must have had their own detailed rituals and legends and mythologies and social conventions that we can never now recover. In many cases they were succeeded by communities of much less advanced humans that did not understand their technology.All of this is an excellent illustration of the crucial point that evolution is not teleology, that ‘progress’ is not necessarily selected for, and that civilisational modernity has come about through random fits and starts and not through some kind of natural incrementation. The fortuitous anomaly of the last two-to-three thousand years has made it hard to appreciate this basic fact, which often strikes you when reading history but which is even more forceful and awe-inspiring when it comes to prehistory and palaeontology.Nowhere more so than in the case of ‘archaic humans’, i.e. other members of the <i>Homo</i> genus of which we are the last surviving species. <i>Homo erectus</i>, for instance, had already spread out from Africa to cover most of Europe and Asia, and it was once thought that <i>erectus</i> simply evolved into modern humans wherever it existed, so that different bands of humans suddenly popped into existence 100,000 years ago all around the Old World. This ‘multiregionalist’ hypothesis has now been largely replaced by a narrative whereby <i>Homo sapiens</i> evolved once, somewhere in eastern or southern Africa, and – after tens of thousands of years – finally expanded to colonise Eurasia and the rest of the world, in the process replacing whatever archaic hominins happened still to be in the area when they arrived.In Europe, that meant Neanderthals. If you have any imagination at all, it's impossible not to feel a rush of excitement at the idea of early humans suddenly encountering groups of these manlike people – a bit like how Portuguese sailors must have felt when they found strange men living in the Americas, only much, much more so: instead of a separation time of 30,000 years or so, this was on the order of 140,000 years. Neanderthals died out pretty much as modern humans arrived in Europe, suggesting that <i>neanderthalis</i> was out-competed for resources or even perhaps the victim of inter-species violence. Then again – still thinking of the New World comparison – perhaps new diseases had something to do with it. (I wish more serious novelists would address themselves to this story. The only good example I know of is William Golding's <i>The Inheritors</i>.)In any case, there was of course sex as well as violence involved. The idea that humans were boffing Neanderthals, at least occasionally, has been dramatically supported by genetic analysis: it transpires that if you're (genetically) European then around two percent of your DNA is inherited from them. Beyond Europe, it wasn't generally thought that there were any hominids left by the time that modern humans arrived – but this assumption has recently collapsed in a rather exciting way, thanks to new fossil discoveries as well as DNA studies. The most dramatic example is the so-called ‘hobbit’, <i>Homo floresiensis</i>, discovered on an Indonesian island, which seems to represent a descendant of <i>Homo erectus</i> that somehow survived on Flores until as recently as 12,000 years ago – in other words tens of millennia after modern humans were in the region. Moreover, the latest genetic evidence suggests that humans interbred with non-<i>sapiens</i> species even before leaving Africa.So the ‘Out of Africa’ narrative is complicated a bit by increasing evidence of hybridisation and other complexities. Chris Stringer has been a key player in all this since the 70s, and he tells the story well, though the wealth of material tempts him to drift away from the point on occasion. He brings in a lot of very interesting cultural discussions about religion, language and other kinds of behavioural modernity. The writing style is confident and jovial, like listening to a kindly schoolteacher – he even attempts a few jokes (typically signalled by some hearty exclamation marks), which don't usually come off but you appreciate the effort.For me this book was the primer in recent developments that I've been looking for – even if the answer to a lot of basic questions is still a cautious ‘we're not yet sure’. Chris Stringer is too conscientious a scientist to gloss over this basic uncertainty, and if you're looking for black-and-white answers rather than the tangle of scientific exploration then this book may frustrate you. Otherwise it should prove a fascinating and mind-expanding read.

Review by

Chris Stringer certainly knows his stuff. He almost knows too much, and it seemed he didn't quite know the right place to start with writing a book about everything he's learned over a career. Like many expert authors of non-fiction books, he first went into overview mode, including different was of classifying fossils, disclaimers that we're not really sure about this and that, in blocks of information that I wished had been in bullet-point/diagrammatic form rather than solid walls of text.<br/><br/>However, after ploughing through the first few chapters I became fascinated with the subject matter and by the last chapter I wanted him to write more, especially on his ideas about the future of human evolution. With the disclaimer that he doesn't really like to speculate on that, his educated guesses are still fascinating. I won't look uncritically again at science fiction illustrations of large-headed humans. We're more likely to shrink, as we have been doing. Shorties around the world unite. You are the future, it seems.<br/><br/>Readers with a highly specialised interest in human evolution will probably get a lot more out of this book than I did, because I feel like I've absorbed very little compared to all the information offered. Still, I certainly have a broader view of current thinking. It will be exciting to see what is uncovered over the next few years, as many more complete human genomes are sequenced. And who knows, maybe even a few more fossils will turn up!<br/><br/>*goes outside to dig in the garden*