In his new book The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, human palaeoanthropologist Ian Tattersall argues that a long tradition of "human exceptionalism" in palaeoanthropology has distorted the picture of human evolution. Drawing partly on his own career – from young scientist in awe of his elders to crotchety elder statesman – Tattersall offers an idiosyncratic look at the competitive world of palaeoanthropology, beginning with Charles Darwin 150 years ago, and continuing through the Leakey dynasty in Africa, and concluding with the latest astonishing findings in the Caucasus.
The book's title refers to the 1856 discovery of a clearly very old skull cap in Germany's Neander Valley. The possessor had a brain as large as a modern human, but a heavy low braincase with a prominent brow ridge. Scientists tried hard to explain away the inconvenient possibility that this was not actually our direct relative. One extreme interpretation suggested that the preserved leg bones were curved by both rickets, and by a life on horseback. The pain of the unfortunate individual's affliction had caused him to chronically furrow his brow in agony, leading to the excessive development of bone above the eye sockets.
The subsequent history of human evolutionary studies is full of similarly fanciful interpretations. With tact and humour, Tattersall concludes that we are not the perfected products of natural processes, but instead the result of substantial doses of random happenstance.
Ian Tattersall is Curator Emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The author of many books, including the widely praised Masters of the Planet, he is often interviewed about human evolution in the media and speaks around the world. He is the winner of numerous awards, and lives in Greenwich Village.
"An opinionated, authoritative, and delightfully provocative account of efforts to make sense of human fossil discoveries."
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Though "a very personal account", this is superb science history."
– Booklist (starred review)
"Highlights the controversial ideas and colorful personalities that have shaped paleoanthropology and given rise to our current understanding of how we became human."
– Scientific American
"Outlines the history of thought on human evolution clearly and insightfully [...] an interesting critical evaluation of how palaeoanthropology has developed."
"Traces the contingencies, false starts, and diversity of opinions that have characterized the intellectual history of paleoanthropology from Darwin to today [...] History, Tattersall reminds us, defines who we think we are."