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Academic & Professional Books  Palaeontology  Palaeoclimatology

The Cradle of Humanity How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made Us so Smart

By: Mark A Maslin(Author), Richard E Leakey(Foreword By)
228 pages, ~20 b/w illustrations
The Cradle of Humanity is a superbly written, cogent book that shows how happenstance geological and climatological factors in East Africa shaped human evolution.
The Cradle of Humanity
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  • The Cradle of Humanity ISBN: 9780198704539 Paperback Jan 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • The Cradle of Humanity ISBN: 9780198704522 Hardback Jan 2017 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Humans are rather weak when compared with many other animals. We are not particular fast and have no natural weapons. Yet Homo sapiens currently number nearly 7.5 billion and are set to rise to nearly 10 billion by the middle of this century. We have influenced almost every part of the Earth system and as a consequence are changing the global environmental and evolutionary trajectory of the Earth. So how did we become the worlds apex predator and take over the planet?

Fundamental to our success is our intelligence, not only individually but more importantly collectively. But why did evolution favour the brainy ape? Given the calorific cost of running our large brains, not to mention the difficulties posed for childbirth, this bizarre adaptation must have given our ancestors a considerable advantage. In The Cradle of Humanity Mark Maslin brings together the latest insights from hominin fossils and combines them with evidence of the changing landscape of the East African Rift Valley to show how all these factors led to selection pressures that favoured our ultrasocial brains. Astronomy, geology, climate, and landscape all had a part to play in making East Africa the cradle of humanity and allowing us to dominate the planet.


1: In the Beginning
2: Early Human Evolution
3: Tectonic and Climate
4: Cradle of Humanity
5: Global Climate Change
6: Celestial Mechanics
7: African Climate Pulses
8: The Social Brain
9: Future of Humanity
10: The story so far

Further Reading

Customer Reviews (1)

  • How happenstance conditions shaped our evolution
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 21 Dec 2018 Written for Paperback

    The story of human evolution is constantly being refined with new findings and there is a glut of accessible books that cover this topic from various angles. Yet, with The Cradle of Humanity, geography professor Mark Maslin manages to provide an interesting and novel take on the subject, showing the reader how a happy combination of larger factors conspired to influence and steer our evolutionary trajectory. It could have ended up so differently...

    From the above, it is immediately clear that Maslin subscribes to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of contingency laid out in Wonderful Life. To the question posed by a book such as Improbable Destinies, Maslin's answer is “not very”. If you could rewind and replay the proverbial tape of life, you would not get the same outcome.

    Maslin starts off with an excellent primer on early human evolution that quickly outlines all the currently known hominin genera, such as Paranthropus, Australopithecus, and, of course, Homo. New fossil finds constantly update and refine that story, so you can expect that a book like Our Human Story (an updated version of its 2007 predecessor) will need to be updated again in the future. Elsewhere I have already discussed the insights that we are gaining from the analysis of ancient DNA (see my review of the highly recommended Who We Are and How We Got Here). It is pleasing to see Neanderthals making a return later in the book. Other than the fact that we crossbred with them (see Neanderthal Man), their story is being rewritten by new findings. Far from primitive brutes, these close cousins of ours used tools, buried their dead, adorned themselves – in short, were far more sophisticated beings than we used to give them credit for (see The Neanderthals Rediscovered and the upcoming The Smart Neanderthal for more).

    After this warm-up, Maslin launches into his main argument. What were these large factors that influenced our evolution? Obviously, you need a habitable planet with just the right conditions. Rather than retread the general overview put forward in books such as How to Build a Habitable Planet and The Goldilocks Planet, Maslin effectively says “let’s take that starting point for granted”, and zooms in on East Africa and the last few million years. Why East Africa? Because this is where many fossils are found and our story as humans seems to have started.

    In short, well-illustrated chapters Maslin discusses the influence of astronomy and geology on the planet’s climate. First, there is the combination of several wobbles in the planet’s orbit and axis of rotation (technically speaking eccentricity, obliquity, and precession, but Maslin does a far better job than I do here explaining them). Each of these has their own periodicity and they can neutralise or amplify each other, affecting how much sunlight the planet, or parts of it, receive. This planetary pulse (technically known as Milankovitch cycles) is the driving factor behind the cyclical pattern of ice ages over the last few million years.

    Maslin also introduces the geological history of the East Africa Rift System, which has formed at the boundary of several continental plates meeting in East Africa. Geology, specifically plate tectonics, influences ocean circulation and weather patterns. Elsewhere (see my reviews of The Oceans and Brave New Arctic) I have already highlighted that the coming together of various mechanisms results in fiendishly complex climate patterns that are very hard to predict and sometimes have counterintuitive effects. Maslin, however, excels at explaining phenomena such as monsoons, the El-Niño Southern Oscillation and the influence of land bridges and mountain building episodes.

    The theory that Maslin and others have developed is that pulses of climate variability interrupting longer periods of stability were the driving force behind the evolution of new hominin species. It is an attractive model, though it is not the only one out there and Maslin is perfectly at ease arguing that his and other models might all be equally valid explanations.

    There are two other topics that Maslin shortly tackles in the last two chapters. The first is our large brain. Why? Why such a large brain? It is energetically expensive and makes childbirth (quite literally) a pain. Here, too, there are many explanations, but Maslin sides with the camp that argues that larger brains helped us navigate living in large social groups. Language is, of course, an important part in this, and he shortly explores the various ideas that have been floated to explain its evolution. Similarly interesting is the idea of self-domestication: changing skull morphology during our evolution – away from heavy-browed skulls to lighter and flatter skulls – suggests a drop in testosterone levels, which would result in less violent behaviour and more social tolerance (this will be explored more in Wrangham’s upcoming book The Goodness Paradox).

    The other topic is the Anthropocene, on which Maslin has written more extensively in The Human Planet. By now, you will no doubt have come across the idea that humanity is altering the planet at such a scale that ours can be considered a new geological epoch (see The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit). Maslin very briefly surveys our impact on climate (see also Plows, Plagues, Petroleum), the biosphere (see also Harvesting the Biosphere), and biodiversity (see also The Sixth Extinction).

    In a book of this brevity, topics are necessarily treated in a cursory fashion only, and each section could function as a springboard from which to explore further, as I have tried to show throughout this review. Luckily, I was taken by Maslin’s style. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is very to the point, wasting little space on fluff. His clear explanations are combined with over 50 helpful illustrations and diagrams that clarify geological, climatological, and evolutionary facts and processes. This is something I rate very highly in a book, and it is something many publishers, unfortunately, pay too little attention to in my opinion. The result is a superb and highly recommended book that convincingly argues how the happenstance conditions in East Africa shaped us and our forebears.
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Mark Maslin (FRGS, FRSA) is a Professor of Climatology and Environmental Sciences at University College London, and is currently a Royal Society Industrial Fellow. He was the former Director of the UCL Environment Institute and Head of the Department of Geography, and in recent years has presented over 45 public talks, at the UK Space conference, Oxford, Cambridge, Tate Modern, Royal Society of Medicine, British Museum, Natural History Museum, Freshfields, Goldman Sachs and both the Norwegian and UK Government. He has been published in multiple journals, and is the author of Climate: A Very Short Introduction (2013), and Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction (2014), now in its third editon.

By: Mark A Maslin(Author), Richard E Leakey(Foreword By)
228 pages, ~20 b/w illustrations
The Cradle of Humanity is a superbly written, cogent book that shows how happenstance geological and climatological factors in East Africa shaped human evolution.
Media reviews

"As we confront rapid, major changes in the earths climate today, it is imperative we understand how past climate change made us who we are. This fast-paced book vividly tells the story of how and why shifting environments have been driving human evolution ever since our earliest beginnings in Africa, and why those changes matter."
– Daniel E Lieberman, Harvard University, author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease

"Palaeoclimatologist Mark Maslin delves into deep time to trace humanity's rise to geological hegemony. Examining early hominin finds in East Africa, he spotlights three stages (bipedalism in Australophithecus, a jump in brain size in Homo erectus and Homo sapiens' arrival some 195,000 years ago) and the roles of climate change, celestial mechanics and plate tectonics in their emergence. Ultimately, he theorizes that 'climate pulses' in the Rift Valley, in which hyper-arid conditions alternated with the formation of vast lakes, helped to drive the evolution of the big hominin brain."
Nature, Jan 2017

"Impressively in-depth and well-explained mix of encyclopaedic information [...] There is an amazing amount of information packed into this surprisingly slim book."
– Chris Fitch, Geographical

"Anyone who reads The Cradle of Humanity will certainly be enlightened about this awe-inspiring journey."
– Andrew Robinson, Current World Archaeology

"this book offers far more than a palaeoanthropological cocktail with a twist [...] In synthesising the most recent research in palaeoanthropology and giving the ecology of our ancestors a climatological twist, Maslin has produced a book that is fascinating, humbling and informative."
– Adrian Barnett, New Scientist

"Understanding the emergence of our species from the unique landscapes of East Africa is one of the great scientific challenges. Mark Maslin takes us on an exhilarating intellectual journey, encompassing geology, astronomy, climate science and evolutionary biology, to argue that the unique landscape and ever-changing climate of the East African Rift Valley were instrumental in catalysing the emergence of a civilisation on our planet. I'm left with a dizzying feeling of our good fortune to be here at all, and a powerful sense of our responsibility, as Maslin notes, to earn our species name: "Wise"."
– Professor Brian Cox

"A powerful, gripping account of how the dynamic earth shaped human evolution [...] With impressive ease, Maslin packs a tremendous amount of knowledge into a flowing narraitve, making the point that special conditions for a number of species of tropical apes on the African continent eventually turned out to be luck [...] A tour de force through Earth's history and a timely reminder of just how lucky we are to be here at all."
– Peter C. Kjærgaard, Director and Professor, Natural History Museum of Denmark

"In this tale of mountains, monsoons, and meteorites, climate and ocean currents, Maslin masterfully puts human evolution into context, and shows how the earth and its environments have shaped us."
– Professor Alice Roberts, anthropologist, author, and broadcaster

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