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
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.
"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