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The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution

Popular Science

By: Dean Falk(Author)

259 pages, 23 b/w photos, 7 b/w illustrations

University of California Press

Paperback | Aug 2012 | #198817 | ISBN-13: 9780520274464
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £20.99 $28/€23 approx
Hardback | Aug 2011 | #192046 | ISBN-13: 9780520266704
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £45.99 $60/€51 approx

About this book

Two discoveries of early human relatives, one in 1924 and one in 2003, radically changed scientific thinking about our origins. Dean Falk, a pioneer in the field of human brain evolution, offers this fast-paced insider's account of these discoveries, the behind-the-scenes politics embroiling the scientists who found and analyzed them, and the academic and religious controversies they generated.

The first is the Taung child, a two-million-year-old skull from South Africa that led anatomist Raymond Dart to argue that this creature had walked upright and that Africa held the key to the fossil ancestry of our species. The second find consisted of the partial skeleton of a three-and-a-half-foot-tall woman, nicknamed Hobbit, from Flores Island, Indonesia. She is thought by scientists to belong to a new, recently extinct species of human, but her story is still unfolding.

Falk, who has studied the brain casts of both Taung and Hobbit, reveals new evidence crucial to interpreting both discoveries and proposes surprising connections between this pair of extraordinary specimens.

"Infectious [...] If a fossil could speak, [certain] chapters come across as almost autobiographical [...] This book provides a powerful reminder that fossils should hold value to those beyond sometimes argumentative paleoanthropologists."
– Kristian J. Carlson, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Quarterly Review Of Biology

"Engaging and compelling [...] Effective and affecting." – Andrew Kramer Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"A fast paced, highly enjoyable read, and apart from the knowledge that Falk brings to the non-anthropological aware reader, the exposition of the workings of academic, institutionalised science may help reduce the bitter rivalry and advance the understanding of our origins."
– Leonardo Reviews

"If you like good dustups involving scientists, I recommend that you roll up your sleeves and dive into this anthropological melee of a book."
– Washington Independent Review of Books

"The book is part historical drama, part neurological crash course and part autobiography [...] The combination is refreshing. There are plenty of books about finding fossil humans and about the neurological basis for 'what makes us human.' But Ms. Falk has brought the subjects together with a personal touch, producing an appealing narrative that compares an old debate (the Taung child) with a newer one (hobbits) to gauge how much – or how little – paleoanthropology has changed in the past century."
– Wall Street Journal

"Brilliant [...] Sparkles with scholarship and wit."
– Nature

"Vividly captures the excitement of uncovering new knowledge and the passion scientists bring to their work [...] [E]nlightening in its treatment of the personal politics and rivalries that accompany the scientific process, the internecine quarrels over the specifics of evolution even among scientists who agree on the theory's broad outlines, and how 'scientists' can be as emotionally invested in their explanations of human origins as religious fundamentalists are in theirs. After all, the topic literally entails matters of life and death.'"
– Publishers Weekly

"If you like good dustups involving scientists, I recommend that you roll up your sleeves and dive into this anthropological melee of a book."
Washington Independent Review of Books

"With wit and authority, Falk tells the parallel stories of two fossil discoveries that surprised the world, revealing the larger significance of these finds. Her lively recounting combines new historical research with her first-hand involvement in controversial interpretations."
– Pat Shipman, author of The Animal Connection and The Man Who Found the Missing Link

"An absorbing and engagingly personal account, by a leading participant, of two of the major "brain wars" that have raged along the path to our current understanding of human evolution."
– Ian Tattersall, author of The Fossil Trail and Human Origins

"In The Fossil Chronicles, Falk engages us with a 'tale of two brains'. While navigating the surfaces of these ancient brains, she reveals the convolutions of scientific controversies and how personalities and paleopolitics shape the ways we think about human evolution."
– Nina G. Jablonski, author of Skin: A Natural History


List of Illustrations


1. Of Paleopolitics and Missing Links
2. Taung: A Fossil to Rival Piltdown
3. Taung’s Checkered Past
4. Sulcal Skirmishes
5. Once upon a Hobbit
6. Flo’s Little Brain
7. Sick Hobbits, Quarrelsome Scientists
8. Whence Homo floresiensis?
9. Bones to Pick


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Dean Falk is a Senior Scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her previous books include Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origin of Language and Braindance, Revised and Expanded Edition: New Discoveries about Human Origins and Brain Evolution.

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