Archaeologist Peter Bellwood’s academic odyssey wended from England to teaching posts halfway around the world, first in New Zealand and then in Australia. For more than 50 years, he has studied how humans settled islands from Southeast Asia to Polynesia.
So it’s fitting that his new book, a plain-English summary of what’s known and what’s not about the evolution of humans and our ancestors, emphasizes movement. In The Five-Million-Year Odyssey, Bellwood examines a parade of species in the human evolutionary family — he collectively refers to them as hominins, whereas some others (including Science News) use the term hominids — and tracks their migrations across land and sea. He marshals evidence indicating that hominids in motion continually shifted the direction of biological and cultural evolution.
Throughout his tour, Bellwood presents his own take on contested topics. But when available evidence leaves a debate unresolved, he says so. Consider the earliest hominids. Species from at least 4.4 million years ago or more whose hominid status is controversial, such as Ardipithecus ramidus, get a brief mention. Bellwood renders no verdict on whether those finds come from early hominids or ancient apes. He focuses instead on African australopithecines, a set of upright but partly apelike species thought to have included populations that evolved into members of our own genus, Homo, around 2.5 million to 3 million years ago. Bellwood hammers home the point that stone-tool making by the last australopithecines, the first Homo groups or both contributed to the evolution of bigger brains in our ancestors. [Continue reading…]