Book Review: The Origin of Humankind, by Richard Leaky

1994, 171 pp. Perseus Book Group

Review by Wm Olkowski, PhD

When I saw this book among the list produced by E.R. Hamilton Book Sellers I knew it would be good because I knew the name of Leakey as being a family of archeologists who had made pioneering discoveries of fossil humans.  This small, inexpensive book (ca. $5.) is special because it explains how archeologists think about their discoveries of skeletons, tools, drawings, etc. and what they tell us about the history and development of Homo sapiens.  Leaky has the great ability to tell the story without losing the interest of the reader, even though the subject is complex.  His enthusiasm for his subject is contagious.

One of the great things about this book is opposite the credit page – a diagram that synopsizes the main events in the origin story starting in Africa at 10 to 5 million years back.  I wish I had this drawing when reading the books by Fagan about early human archeology, e.g., Cro-Magnon).  Between 10-5 mya was a time when we became bipedal.  Bipedalism was a response to the change in Africa that went from almost total forest to savannah.  Bipedalism means a greater home range as a two-legged animal can run faster and longer than a four-legged animal.  This was a necessary step in leaving Africa.

The synoptic diagram covers up to the current time, which is labeled as the “technological revolution”.  The evidence as we progress through the different species and toolmakers is presented to the reader for examination.  The story starts as what maybe the earliest known fossil primate/Homo sp?, called Australopithecus afarensis, on the line to H. sapiens.  (But see the book “The Link”, which carries the story much further back to about 70 million years ago.)  Leakey’s story is about how we became who we are, particularly as toolmakers, artists and organisms that speak, and evolve social civilizations.

Even though this book is over 15 years old, Leakey’s presentation brings a clarity because it has maps, diagrams of skulls and skeletons for comparisons, family trees, photographs of tools, special bones with the signs of butchery, but above all, his clarity of thought.  He is presenting scientific ideas the reader can judge for himself or herself, based on the evidence, which Leaky presents.

What seems so odd is that so many people today do not know this story and seem to work hard to avoid learning about where they came from.  Will further evolution of humans lead to a variety of humans who do not think rationally; and then a new species of irrationals? Or has that always been the case?  But as more and more humans learn more and more will this mounting irrationality finally stop?  Maybe it’s not just the amount of learning but the type of learning.  Let’s hope the latter is the case as we are now in a race to catch up to an environment we have created that threatens our existence.  Big changes ahead no matter what future awaits.

Leave a Reply