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Academic & Professional Books  Evolutionary Biology  Human Evolution

The Real Planet of the Apes A New Story of Human Origins

By: David R Begun(Author)
262 pages, 16 plates with colour photos; 18 b/w photos, 14 b/w illustrations, 2 b/w maps, 2 tables
Not nearly as controversial as some make it out to be, The Real Planet of the Apes is a clear and incredibly engaging account of early primate evolution.
The Real Planet of the Apes
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  • The Real Planet of the Apes ISBN: 9780691182803 Paperback Dec 2018 Out of stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • The Real Planet of the Apes ISBN: 9780691149240 Hardback Nov 2015 Out of Print #224382
Selected version: £17.99
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About this book

Was Darwin wrong when he traced our origins to Africa? The Real Planet of the Apes makes the explosive claim that it was in Europe, not Africa, where apes evolved the most important hallmarks of our human lineage – such as bipedalism, dexterous hands, and larger brains. In this compelling and accessible book, David Begun, one of the world's leading palaeoanthropologists, transports readers to an epoch in the remote past when the Earth was home to many migratory populations of ape species.

Drawing on the latest astonishing discoveries in the fossil record as well as his own experiences conducting field expeditions across Europe and Asia, Begun provides a sweeping evolutionary history of great apes and humans. He tells the story of how one of the earliest members of our evolutionary group – a new kind of primate called Proconsul – evolved from lemur-like monkeys in the primeval forests of Africa. Begun vividly describes how, over the next 10 million years, these hominoids expanded into Europe and Asia and evolved climbing and hanging adaptations, longer maturation times, and larger brains, setting the stage for the emergence of humans. As the climate deteriorated in Europe around 10 million years ago, these apes either died out or migrated south, reinvading the African continent and giving rise to the lineages of the gorilla, chimpanzee, and, ultimately, the human.

Presenting startling new insights about our fossil ape ancestors, The Real Planet of the Apes is a book that fundamentally alters our understanding of human origins.


Preface vii
Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The Early Years 27
Chapter 2 Out Of Africa: Afropithecus And Friends 62
Chapter 3 Out In The World: Early Apes Spread In Europe 73
Chapter 4 Home Again: The New Afro-european Apes 97
Chapter 5 The Big East-west Divide 118
Chapter 6 East Side Story: Our Cousins Sivapithecus And The Orangutans 123
Chapter 7 West Side Story: The African Apes Of Europe 147
Chapter 8 The Descendants Of Dryopithecus 162
Chapter 9 Back To Africa Again 187

Postscript 227
Acknowledgments 231
Notes 233
References 237
Index 239

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Clear and incredibly engaging
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 28 Dec 2020 Written for Paperback

    The history of human evolution has become firmly wedded to the Out of Africa hypothesis: the idea that we evolved in Africa and from there spread around the world. Back in 2015, palaeoanthropologist David R. Begun gave the proverbial tree of life a firm shake with The Real Planet of the Apes, making the case that the picture is a bit more complicated than that. Providing an incredibly well-written overview of the deep evolutionary history of great apes and humans, an interesting picture emerges of species moving into and out of Africa over time. Some reviewers hailed it as provocative – but is it really?

    With this book, Begun takes the long view, surveying the deep evolutionary past of the ancestors of great apes and humans, i.e. the period from approximately 35 to 7 million years ago (mya). The executive summary of his archaic ape evolution scenario could be: out of Africa, into Europe, and then back into Africa.

    A bird’s-eye-view version of his argument starts with the great diversity of catarrhine primates flourishing in Africa from the Oligocene into the early Miocene (~33 to 17 mya), including Aegyptopithecus (a "not-quite-ape"), Kamoyapithecus ("possibly the first ape?"), and the intermediate monkey-ape genera Proconsul and Ekembo. Then, by 17 mya, Afropithecus and the closely related Heliopithecus show up in East Africa and expand their range into Eurasia. While Asia sees its own flourishing of species in what is by now the middle Miocene, Europe is the epicentre of the overall story and sees the evolution of Griphopithecus and Dryopithecus around 15-13 mya. Four descendants of Dryopithecus (Hispanopithecus, Rudapithecus, Ouranopithecus, and Oreopithecus) are discussed here in particular.

    Meanwhile, the fossil record in Africa seems to dry up. Are we yet to find crucial fossils from this period? Possibly, but Begun points out we have plenty of other fossil mammals from these areas and the environment back then would have been suitable for apes. There are some questionable African fossils from this period discussed here, but nothing convincing. By ~10 mya, climatic changes forced the Eurasian great apes to reinvade Africa where the first hominins appear by ~7 mya; Sahelantropus tchadensis is mentioned in particular.

    Now, in case you think that this makes for a neat linear story, let me stop you there. For the sake of brevity, I have skipped over many side branches and dead ends that Begun discusses here. Evolution resembles a tangle more than a tree. Although his ideas are not accepted by everyone, are his ideas really this much at odds with the established Out of Africa story? Let me offer three observations.

    First, definitions matter. Casual use of the phrase "Out of Africa" in the popular press often fails to mention the when. Some researchers use it to talk about Pleistocene migrations into Europe by hominins such as Homo erectus, though it more commonly refers to the spread of anatomically modern humans from Africa between 300,000 to 200,000 years ago. Begun ends his story some 7 mya, which is when many popular accounts start theirs. Although I do not know if Mark Maslin agrees with Begun’s thesis, the scenario laid out in his book The Cradle of Humanity is perfectly congruent with it. Maslin’s starts around 5 mya and Begun agrees that the fossil record situates early hominins in Africa by this time. My thoughts after reading this book are that your narrative depends on what period you take as your starting point and what groups you consider, which can make the whole Out of Africa narrative sound a bit arbitrary. Even Begun's ideas could be cast as an Out of Africa scenario.

    Second, the ancient DNA revolution has splendidly revealed how populations have constantly moved and mixed. Though this technology only allows us to look back hundreds of thousands of years, there is no reason to think the pattern differed drastically before that. Especially as pretty much all palaeoanthropologists agree that climatic changes are an important driver of migration: Begun does so here, Maslin does, even the Leakeys – focused as they are on human evolution in Africa – do.

    Third, Begun’s claims might be provocative, but his delivery is not. Instead, his account is tempered and reasonable, clearly indicating where and why his ideas diverge. He might not always agree with others but nevertheless goes on record here to praise their track record. The most severe criticism he expresses (and that is putting it strongly) is that he follows a philosophical approach of putting evidence before process (e.g. the Out of Africa hypothesis). In his opinion, others lean towards putting process before evidence, ignoring or downplaying evidence that does not fit. He thinks that most of the research community has mischaracterised the European branch of the ape family during the middle to late Miocene as little more than an exotic sideshow. But he also repeats throughout how he is open to changing his mind with future fossil finds. Basically, I see someone of intellectual integrity here.

    And there is much else to like here. Begun clearly, and if necessary repeatedly, clarifies terminology, whether it is cladistics or skeletal morphology. He also offers excellent explanations of how we reconstruct past climates. How the rules around taxonomical nomenclature work. How plate tectonics influenced biogeography, specifically how, as the Tethys Sea was closing up, rising and falling sea levels revealed and sundered land bridges, opening or closing migratory routes in the Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula. And how, with modern technology (and often a lot of hard work) we can extract unbelievable detail from fossil teeth, which are frequently the only remains we find. Additionally, he spices up his writing with introductions to the typical fauna of the different periods, short excursions into the history of palaeoanthropology, and personal anecdotes of old-guard researchers he met or worked with.

    Seeing the book’s age, it is relevant to ask what has happened since publication to change or reinforce this idea. When I contacted Begun, he confirmed that there have been no major finds to overthrow his ideas, with new work adding further support. I will next turn to the 12-million-year-old finds recently described in Ancient Bones. Also of interest is the story of the 4.4 million-year-old Ardipithecus, one of the last species Begun mentions, which is told in more detail in the recently published Fossil Men.

    I was not all that familiar with the earliest chapters of primate evolution, so, all in all, I found The Real Planet of the Apes an incredibly engaging and useful account.
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David R. Begun is professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. His books include A Companion to Paleoanthropology and The Evolution of Thought: Evolutionary Origins of Great Ape Intelligence. He lives in Toronto.

By: David R Begun(Author)
262 pages, 16 plates with colour photos; 18 b/w photos, 14 b/w illustrations, 2 b/w maps, 2 tables
Not nearly as controversial as some make it out to be, The Real Planet of the Apes is a clear and incredibly engaging account of early primate evolution.
Media reviews

"[The Real Planet of the Apes] is enthralling, making accessible an absolutely critical period of human evolution and scientific debates surrounding the interpretation of its evidence – including [Begun's] own controversial thesis."
– Steven Mithen, New York Review of Books

"Begun's overarching goal is to promote his hypothesis that the ancestor of the African apes and humans may actually have evolved in Europe instead of Africa. He builds a strong case for this not-yet-mainstream idea while making it abundantly clear that he is open to data that would prove him wrong. Begun's passion is evident in both his writing and his science."
Publishers Weekly

"The questions of where, when, and how our species evolved are fascinating."

"This provocative, engaging, and beautifully written book is a must-read for anyone interested in how and why apes – including humans – got to be the way they are. Begun not only summarizes with clarity the complex evolutionary history of apes, but also challenges us to think differently about ape and human origins."
– Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease and The Evolution of the Human Head

"This is a masterful book by a leading scholar that provides an authoritative and engaging introduction to the evolution of apes – including humans. The Real Planet of the Apes is punctuated with wonderful bits of paleontological history and anecdotes about Begun's own experiences in the field. No other book covers the topic in such a coherent and comprehensive way."
– John G. Fleagle, author of Primate Adaptation and Evolution

"This book tackles what is perhaps the most timely question in paleoanthropology, and also one of the thorniest – our ape origins and what that tells us about ourselves. There is no more knowledgeable, careful, or thorough a scholar of ape evolution than David Begun. This is a story that needs to be told."
– Carol V. Ward, University of Missouri

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