Fifty-thousand years ago, we were not the only species of human in the world. There were at least four others, including the Neanderthals, who occupied Europe, the Near East and parts of Eurasia; the enigmatic Homo floresiensis, or 'Hobbits', from the island of Flores in Indonesia; and Homo luzonesis, found in the Philippines, and less than four feet high. And then there are the elusive Denisovans, discovered thanks to cutting-edge science in a cave in Siberia in 2010.
At the forefront of this groundbreaking discovery was Oxford Professor Tom Higham. In The World Before Us he follows the scientific and technological advancements – in radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA, for example – that allowed these discoveries to be made and enabled us to better predict not just how long ago these other humans lived, but how they lived. Could they make art, recall their dreams, or joke? Did they play music, or use medicine? What might Homo sapiens have learned from them?
It is likely that we will find even more species of these other humans, and thanks to recent scientific advances, we might not even need to find a skeleton. We interbred and their DNA lives on in us, so we know which human groups today share which ancestors' genes and the impact this has: from Denisovan genes helping people cope better with living at high altitude to Neanderthal genes increasing the risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms. The implications of these – and future – discoveries for us today are profound.
We have always thought of ourselves as unique, but in evolutionary time, our uniqueness did not exist until yesterday – and yet now it is only us. What happened? Was it a given that we'd conquer the world, or might, under different circumstances, a Denisovan or Neanderthal population be the only ones left? This is the story of us, told for the first time with its full cast of characters.
Tom Higham is Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. He has worked on the remains of Richard III, The Elephant Man and Egyptian pharaohs. Since 2010 he has been at the forefront of research on a new species of human, the Denisovans. This is his first trade book.
"The application of new genetic science to pre-history is analogous to how the telescope transformed astronomy. Tom Higham, one of the world's leading scientists in the field, brings us to the frontier of recent discoveries with a book that is both gripping and fun. And the results are astonishing. It matters: understanding our evolutionary origins reveals our innate strengths as a species"
– Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion
"A brilliant exposition of the way in which archaeology and science are completely changing our understanding of early humans. This is a fast-moving story written with verve and enthusiasm by one of the scientists deeply involved in tracking down the evidence. Essential reading for all interested in our early ancestors and the sheer excitement of their discovery"
– Barry Cunliffe, author of The Scythians
"A brilliant distillation of the ideas and discoveries revolutionising our understanding of human evolution. Tom Higham, one of the leaders of the revolution and the cutting-edge science on which it is based, introduces us to a complex world of many human species, whose genes and deeds live on in us today"
– Chris Gosden, author of The History of Magic
"From lab bench to trench, The World Before Us offers a personal tour of the newest science in palaeoanthropology. Higham's three decades working on some of the most important and remarkable fossils ever found imbues his account with fascinating detail"
– Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred
"Tom Higham has been at the pulsating centre of the close collaboration between archaeologists and geneticists that in the last few years discovered our previously unknown cousins – the Denisovans – and revealed the lost world in which they, Neanderthals and modern humans interacted and interbed. His thrilling book gives us a court-side view of this scientific revolution"
– David Reich, author of Who We Are and How We Got Here
"A bang-up-to-date insider's review of a critical period in the emergence of modern humans. It also provides fascinating, intelligible and authoritative glimpses into a wide variety of new technologies"
– Ian Tattersall, co-author of The Accidental Homo sapiens: Genetics, Behavior, and Free Will
"Tom Higham introduces us to the Denisovans and their contemporaries in a beautifully written introduction to the world of today's palaeoanthropology. The World Before Us ventures far beyond fossils and archaeology into the realm of today's multidisciplinary science. Higham paints a vivid portrait of Neanderthal contemporaries in a far more diverse world than we imagined even a generation ago. This brilliant book on our forebears – and, indeed, our own world – makes cutting-edge science easily understandable and is profoundly entertaining at the same time. This is a magnificent tour de force by a leading expert written for you and I"
– Brian Fagan, author of World Prehistory
"Our knowledge of where humanity came from has been revolutionized in the last ten years, and Tom Higham has been in the front lines for many of the biggest breakthroughs. The World Before Us is a fascinating and entertaining account, which tells us not only of how we began, but also where we might be going. If you read one book on human origins, this should be it"
– Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules – For Now
"Opening up entirely new perspectives on the early history of humanity, this exciting book shows that we now have a revolutionary new tool for reconstructing the human past: DNA from minute pieces of tooth and bone, and even from the dirt on the floor of caves. Everyone studying history should be taking a course in DNA"
– David Abulafia, author of The Boundless Sea
"The who, what, where, when and how of human evolution, from one of the world's experts on the dating of prehistoric fossils. Tom Higham blends evidence from archaeology, palaeontology and genetics to reveal a rich family album of our closest relatives, a cast of characters including cave-dwelling Neanderthals, mountain-adapted wanderers and island-living Hobbits, which thrived before Homo sapiens took over the world"
– Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs