A behind-the-scenes account of the shocking discovery of the skeleton of "Ardi", a human ancestor far older than Lucy – a find that shook the world of palaeoanthropology and radically altered our understanding of human evolution.
In 1994, a team led by fossil-hunting legend Tim White – "the Steve Jobs of palaeoanthropology" – uncovered the bones of a human ancestor in Ethiopia's Afar region. Radiometric dating of nearby rocks indicated the skeleton, classified as Ardipithecus ramidus, was 4.4 million years old, more than a million years older than "Lucy", then the oldest known human ancestor. The findings challenged many assumptions about human evolution – how we started walking upright, how we evolved our nimble hands, and, most significantly, whether we were descended from an ancestor that resembled today's chimpanzee – and repudiated a half-century of palaeoanthropological orthodoxy.
Fossil Men is the first full-length exploration of Ardi, the fossil men who found her, and her impact on what we know about the origins of the human species. It is a scientific detective story played out in anatomy and the natural history of the human body. Kermit Pattison brings into focus a cast of eccentric, obsessive scientists, including one of the world's greatest fossil hunters, Tim White – an exacting and unforgiving fossil hunter whose virtuoso skills in the field were matched only by his propensity for making enemies; Gen Suwa, a Japanese savant who sometimes didn't bother going home at night to devote more hours to science; Owen Lovejoy, a onetime creationist-turned-palaeoanthropologist; Berhane Asfaw, who survived imprisonment and torture to become Ethiopia's most senior palaeoanthropologist and who fought for African scientists to gain equal footing in the study of human origins; and the Leakeys, for decades the most famous family in palaeoanthropology.
An intriguing tale of scientific discovery, obsession and rivalry that moves from the sun-baked desert of Africa and a nation caught in a brutal civil war, to modern high-tech labs and academic lecture halls, Fossil Men is popular science at its best, and a must read for fans of Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Edward O. Wilson.
Kermit Pattison is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Fast Company, Runners World, and Time, among many other publications. He spent more than half a decade doing research for Fossil Men, a large portion of which was spent in the field in Ethiopia with Tim White's team. This is his first book. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"[A] riveting account. [...] In places, Fossil Men seems more reality television show than a work of popular science, as we follow an outrageous cast. [...] The story lines border on the insane: There are civil wars, gunfights, at least one grenade rolling around the feet of scientists as they drive into the desert. [...] Pattison [...] is every bit as good as the best scientist-writers. He describes the intricacies of the human wrist and foot with the skill of a poet [...] [and] explains in clear and compelling prose how scientists build family trees of ancient species."
– New York Times Book Review
"Entertaining. [...] Satisfying. [...] Gripping. [...] Big personalities, simmering turmoil, and fascinating popular science."
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"At the core of Kermit Pattison's rip-roaring tale is the prickly, obsessive, brilliant American paleonaut, Tim White, who braves revolutions, tribal warfare, and bitter scientific rivals to unearth ancient bones, without which there would be no pre-history, no civilization, no humanity."
– Peter Nichols, New York Times bestselling author of The Rocks and Evolution's Captain
"Brilliant. [...] A work of staggering depth. [...] Pattison deftly weaves strands of science, sociology and political science into a compelling tale that stretches over decades. [...] His prose is lively and accessible. [...] An ambitious work that fully justifies the extraordinary effort that went into it, both by the fossil men and by the writer who chronicled their work."
– Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Fossil Men is a wonderful mix of history, science and politics, full of pathos and insight in equal measure. I found it difficult to put down, and I didn't want it to end [...] This book should be required reading for all those who care about how science may help answer the question of who we are as humans. A monumental achievement!"
– Hasok Chang, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge
"An exciting book, full of colorful personalities, momentous discoveries, and new ideas that challenge us to reconsider everything we believed about the evolution of humankind."
"Compelling science. [...] Perfect for National Geographic readers who want to dig deep into the human evolutionary tree."
– Library Journal
"A riveting story of academic, political, and personal intrigue."
– Christian Science Monitor (best books of November 2020 roundup)
"A dazzling journey into deep geological time. [...] Pattison combines his meticulously researched examination of the science of ancient humans with a visceral and penetrating tale of [...] intrigue, academic rivalry, pathological jealousy and intellectual inertia. He uses his first-hand experience of being on site in Ethiopia to detail the art, science, joys and challenges of fossil-hunting. [...] Fascinating. [...] Unexpected and revelatory."
– The Spectator (London)
"Equal parts biography and adventure novel, Pattison illustrates the colorful characters – flaws and all – whose research has shaped our origin story as we know it today."
– Discover magazine
"[A] lively debut. [...] Pattison ably combines the adventure yarn with scientific minutiae. [...] Those interested in human origins should check out this vivid and thorough study."
– Publishers Weekly
"Blends science and drama to tell the story of a major paleoanthropology find. [...] For anyone interested in fossil hunting, evolutionary science and a hominid skeleton like no other, this book delivers."
– Science News
"Pattison weaves the multiple intrigues of science, politics, and personalities into a masterly structured tale [...] . Leaves readers with a new sense of wonder at the origins of humankind."
– Christian Science Monitor
"Fascinating. [...] Exciting."
– Twin Cities Pioneer Press
"Any science-minded person [...] will truly enjoy Fossil Men."
– Danville Commercial-News
"Perceptive and revealing. [...] Pattison has a commendable and enviable grasp of a wide range of difficult methods and concepts, and he does a fine job of presenting and explaining the many scientific developments that have enriched the way we interpret the hominin fossil record."
– Journal of Human Evolution