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.
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.
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.