When I was studying for my doctorate, in the late 1960s, we budding anthropologists read a book called Ideas on Human Evolution, a collection of then-recent papers in the field. With typical graduate-student arrogance, I pronounced it “too many ideas chasing too little data.” Half a century and thousands of fossil finds later, we have a far more complete—and also more puzzling—view of the human past. The ever-growing fossil record fills in one missing link in the quest for evidence of protohumans, only to expose another. Meanwhile, no single line emerges to connect these antecedents to Homo sapiens, whose origins date back about 300,000 years. Instead, parallel and divergent lines reveal a variety of now-extinct hominids that display traits once considered distinctive to our lineage. For example, traces of little “Hobbits” found in Indonesia in 2003 show that they walked upright and made tools; less than four feet tall, with brains about a third the size of ours, they may have persisted until modern humans arrived in the area some 50,000 years ago.
As data pile up, so do surprises. Microscopic methods indicate that certain marks on 2.5-million-year-old bones were probably made by sharp stone tools; scientists had previously assumed that such tools came later. The dental tartar caked on the teeth of Neanderthals suggests that the brawny, thick-boned people (almost-humans on one of the parallel lines) probably ate cooked barley along with their meat; these famously carnivorous folks were really omnivores, like us. DNA from tiny fragments of bone—for instance, the tip of a pinkie many thousands of years old—has brought to light a whole new humanlike species that once interbred with us, as Neanderthals did. Charles Darwin drew evolution as a bush, not a tree, for a reason.
The study of human evolution is by now about much more than bones and stones. In 1965 a remarkable book—Irven DeVore’s collection Primate Behavior (which led me to study with DeVore)—made what then seemed a radical claim: We will never understand our origins without intensive study of the wild world of our nonhuman relatives. A handful of scientists, including Jane Goodall, set up tents in distant jungles and savannas. Following monkeys, apes, and other creatures in their habitats, these scientists turned their notes and observations into voluminous, quantitative data. DeVore and others devoted themselves just as rigorously to the remaining human hunter-gatherers, found on every habitable continent except Europe—our biological twins, living under conditions resembling the ones we evolved in.
The multifaceted effort was new and ambitious, but the idea was old. DeVore had hanging in his office an 1838 quote from Darwin’s notebook: “Origin of man now proved … He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” [Continue reading…]