Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00, 295 pages)
In the promotional materials, this promised to be a unique look at the first human beings, Cro-Magnons. It also was said to contain a look at the interactions between Cro-Magnons and their less evolved contemporaries and rivals, the Neanderthals. Sadly, this survey book fails to deliver on these promises.
The author, Brian Fagan, examines various views of early and pre-human history and then asks, “But what do we know?” The answer is – not much. He goes on to apply this answer to the question of when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals first discovered fire. And as to how and when Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interacted, Fagan offers only weak (quite weak) guesses.
On one key point the author has now been shown to be completely wrong. On the issue of whether Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals interbred he states, “Most experts think they did not.” But the latest research (“Evidence Suggests Early Humans Mated with Neanderthals”) indicates that they did in fact breed with each other, and a small but not insignificant percentage of human beings today – most of whom live in Europe/Eastern Europe - are their direct descendants.
A bigger flaw with this work is that Fagan never humanizes, in a very literal sense, these ancestral creatures. It is left to Donald Johanson and his exemplary “Lucy” series to make us feel the sense of connectedness lacking in Cro-Magnon. A major opportunity missed.
Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.
Take Away: If you’re interested in the beginnings of humankind, two essential books are Lucy: How Our Oldest Human Ancestor Was Discovered – And Who She Was by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster), and Lucy’s Child: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor by Donald Johanson and James Shreeve (Avon Books). Dr. Johanson more recently joined with Kate Wong to write Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, which was released in June of this year by Three Rivers Press.