Monday, 2 May 2016

The Real Planet of the Apes / David R. Begun

3 out of 5 stars
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 dexterous hands and larger brains. In this compelling and accessible book, David Begun, one of the world's leading paleoanthropologists, 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.

 I love the title of this volume, a text on paleoanthropology referencing the pop culture series, Planet of the Apes. Rather than looking forward to an apocalyptic future, Begun looks backward into the Miocene, when monkeys & apes were numerous and widespread.

Judging from several of his comments, he & I were undergrads at approximately the same time. I remember the state of fossil study from a couple of introductory anthropology courses that I took back in the early 80s and I’m somewhat jealous of his ability to continue on in this field. It was fascinating to study and I’m glad to get caught up on some of the more recent research.

I’m glad to see that more attention is being paid to fossils that are not thought to be in the direct line to humans, as well as the acknowledgement that there is a complicated path to human-ness that may be less direct than we could wish for. Just because species of apes are few in number today, we can’t assume that they have always been sparse.

Also interesting is the number of fossils being discovered in Europe and the Near East. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to be looking for apes in France, Spain, or Italy, and yet there they are! Begun introduces an interesting theory that some of the evolution towards humanity may have taken place in European environments and then been reintroduced to the African continent. Climate changes may indeed have moved populations back and forth between the two continents, making a more complicated evolutionary picture than we are used to.

It will be most interesting to see how future fossil discoveries fit into the jigsaw of human evolution.

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