Tag Archives: evolution

Neanderthal Man

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. 

Joseph Arellano

 

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A Small Furry Prayer

A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler (Bloomsbury; $25.00; 320 pages)

Animal lovers of each and every type will love A Small Furry Prayer.   I’m a cat person and yet this story got me to thinking about the joys of living with a dog.   Note that I deliberately did not use the phrase “owning a dog,” as Kotler makes clear that every canine retains a measure of independence.

“My home was now an environment where some level of danger and unpredictability – two of the defining characteristics of wildness – were part of the basic package.”

This tale of a dog rescuing fortyish couple starts in Los Angeles before moving to the comparative wilds of New Mexico.   They begin by serving as emergency foster parents to one dog, then two before winding up living in a dilapidated farm-house in Chimayo, New Mexico – with 20 dogs!   (They later lose count of the total when it exceeds 20.)  

Steven Kotler and his wife Joy (known to the locals as el angel de los perros) wind up being less foster parents than the providers of a wooly home for abandoned dogs.   Because six or so of the dogs are Chihuahuas their abode comes to be known as Rancho de Chihuahua.

The Kotlers don’t have a lot of money in 2008 but nevertheless they must purchase $500 worth of good quality dog food each week (sickly dogs require good nutrition) and spend their savings on expensive life-saving operations for their wards.   Kotler is sceptical that he’s going to get much payback from this situation other than having kept his commitment to following Joy’s number one rule in life:  “Love me, love my dogs.”

Eventually, of course, Kotler gets his reciprocation in the form of love and acceptance from the rescued dogs, some of whom had been feral and mistrusting of humans.   And there’s the instance in which one of the dogs saves the author’s life when a mountain climbing expedition goes bad.   The dogs, in a sense, demonstrate that love and affection is always paid back in full.

As a former newspaper and magazine writer, Kotler is used to doing extensive research and in this book he includes many fascinating summaries of research performed with animals.   Much of the research verifies the benefits – mental and physical – that dogs and other animals bring to our existence.   Kotler also makes a convincing case for the notion that the modern dog is just as smart as (but perhaps shrewder than) his wolf ancestors.

At the end of Prayer, the reader will likely come to accept the positive message that our lives on this planet are meant to be shared with furry creatures; creatures that are never owned but which reward us with their unique and special presence.   Part of the truth about what it really means to be human can be expressed in the phrase, “Love me, love my animals.”

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Small Furry Prayer will be released by Bloomsbury USA on Tuesday, September 28, 2010.

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A Sneak Peek

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00)

Four dots move along a riverbank in a black and gray Ice Age landscape of 40,000 years ago, the only sign of life on a cold, late autumn day.   Dense morning mist swirls gently over the slow-moving water, stirring fitfully in an icy breeze.   Pine trees crowd on the riverbank, close to a large clearing where aurochs and bison paw through the snow for fodder.   The fur-clad family move slowly — a hunter with a handful of spears, his wife carrying a leather bag of dried meat, a son and daughter.   The five-year-old boy dashes to and fro brandishing a small spear.   His older sister stays by her mother, also carrying a skin bag.   A sudden gust lifts the clinging gloom on the far side of the stream.  

Suddenly, the boy shouts and points, then runs in terror to his mother.   The children burst into tears and cling to her.   A weathered, hirsute face with heavy brows stares out quietly from the undergrowth on the other bank.   Expressionless, yet watchful, its owner stands motionless, seemingly oblivious to the cold.   The father looks across, waves his spear and shrugs.   The face vanished as silently as it had appeared.

As light snow falls, the family resume their journey, the father as always watchful, eyes never still.   During the climb to the rock shelter, he tells his children about their elusive, quiet neighbors, rarely seen and almost never encountered face to face.   There had been more of them in his father’s and grandfather’s day, when he had seen them for the first time.   Now sightings are unusual, especially in the cold months.   They are people different from us, he explains.   They do not speak like we do; we cannot understand them, but they never do us any harm.   We just ignore them…

Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals:  this most classic of historical confrontations, sometimes couched in terms of brutish savagery versus human sophistication, has fascinated archaeologists for generations.   On the side stand primordial humans, endowed with great strength and courage, possessed of the simplest of clothing and weaponry, seemingly incapable of fluent speech, with only limited intellectual powers.   On the other are the Cro-Magnons, the first anatomically modern Europeans, with articulate speech, innovation, and all the impressive cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens.   They harvest game large and small effortlessly with highly efficient weapons and enjoy a complex, sophisticated relationship with their environment, their prey, and the forces of the supernatural world.   We know that the confrontation ended with the extinction of the Neanderthals, perhaps about 30,000 years ago.   But how it unfolded remains one of the most challenging and fascinating of all Ice Age mysteries.

This is an excerpt from the book Cro-Magnon, released by Bloomsbury Press on March 2, 2010.   Very recent research on ancient DNA samples suggests that some Neanderthals may have interbred with modern humans (Cro- Magnons); a fascinating concept meaning that modern human beings are composed of both the winners and losers of this evolutionary battle of rival creatures.   We expect to post a review of Cro-Magnon on this site in the future. 

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The Wolf in the Parlor

The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs by Jon Franklin

Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer Jon Franklin delivers a thoughtful account of his search for the nexus of human and dog.   His exploration begins with two events.   First, Franklin sees a photograph depicting an ancient grave at an archaeological dig.   A man’s skeleton reaches out to the skeleton of a small creature, perhaps a puppy.   Secondly, Franklin proposes to his girlfriend, Lynn, who upon hearing it asks, “Does this mean I can get a puppy?”

Lynn accepts Franklin’s proposal after he accepts her counter-proposal.   Charlie, a black standard poodle, becomes the third member of their new family.   Soon, Charlie works his way into Franklin’s life.   Their relationship triggers a decades-long academic and emotional search for how and when wolves became dogs – man/woman’s best friend.

Over many years Charlie and Franklin go for long daily walks in the Oregon woods exploring nature via Charlie’s nose, eyes and ears.   All the while the image of the ancient man and his small companion lurks in the back of Franklin’s mind.   As a science writer he has access to the best and the brightest, and makes very good use of this access through interviews with top-notch academics.   He learns that, “While humans may be unique in some respects, we can’t afford to set ourselves apart from other animals.   If we do, we’ll never understand ourselves, or what happened to make us what we are.”   This lesson and others add texture and meaning to our otherwise everyday lives.

Rating:  Four paws and a wagging tail!

Henry Holt, $25.00, 272 pages

Reviewed by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

  

 

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The World in Six Songs

The world in six (lg.)Music has played a decisive role in the evolution of the human brain and in the creation of civilization, and psychology has also played a prominent role.   Grasping these concepts could be challenging, but not with the best type of teacher – one who’s quite cool and connected to the subject – a role that author and McGill University professor Daniel J. Levitin fits to a T.   His career path included music production (resulting in his receiving several gold records) and music performances before he settled into academia.   Levitin earlier authored This is Your Brain On Music.   The World in Six Songs is his second book, an enlightening and entertaining work in which he combines his meaningful life experiences with music to illustrate each of the six songs (friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love).     

The songs he has selected as examples represent a wide array of musical genres.   Also quite interesting are the included discussions between Levitin and singer/songwriters/performers that he counts as friends/co-workers within the music industry – most notably Joni Mitchell and Sting.   These elements have the combined effect of giving the reader a front-row seat in a well-orchestated learning session.  

Be prepared to pay close attention while consuming this book.   The payoff you will receive for this is certainly worth the extra bit of added effort.

Plume, $16.00, 358 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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