Welcome to the Ruthless, Cutthroat World of Paleoanthropology

The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind
By Kermit Pattison

My Lifelong Search for the Past
By Meave Leakey with Samira Leakey

Among the riot of species that have lived on Earth over the last four billion years, only we can ponder our own origins — and it often angers the blood. We’re long past any serious debate that humanity evolved from apes in Africa a few million years ago, but the scientists looking for ever older bones of our ancestors always seem to be squabbling. At least that’s their reputation. Stay away from paleoanthropology, I was told as a young student smitten with fossils, and study less controversial stuff instead, like dinosaurs.

A few pages into “Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind,” the journalist Kermit Pattison concurs. “Something about the pursuit of our own origins arouses great passions not seen in other disciplines,” he writes, in one of the least passion-fueled statements in his riveting account of the discovery of Ardipithecus, a sometimes climbing, sometimes walking proto-human that lived 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia. “In an ideal world, the task should be left to more dispassionate investigators but, since no other species has volunteered, the job is left to us imperfect humans.”

The “us” in Pattison’s story is the American and Ethiopian team, led by Tim White of the University of California, that found the Ardipithecus skeleton. For decades, these scientists have plucked petrified hominids from the Afar Depression, where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet. This is the northern tip of the Great Rift Valley, a scar stretching southward through Kenya and Tanzania that has been dropping as Africa slowly rips apart, accumulating sediments and fossils across the time span of human evolution.

White is the star of Pattison’s book. He’s portrayed as a brilliant antihero, Indiana Jones meets Tony Soprano. Obsessed with the tiniest bumps on ancient bones, and peeved at anyone who interprets those bumps differently, he’s ruthless in his quest to find new fossils, no matter what war zone or swarm of poisonous pests might be in the way. Often vulgar, but charming and funny, he commands an army of loyal friends against tides of intellectual enemies. The disagreements are far from academic; they are the fundamental questions of our genesis. What type of ape did we evolve from, and when? How did we acquire our two-legged stance, dexterous hands and inflated brains? What makes us human and not just another primate?

As Pattison follows White from the lab into the Ethiopian fossil fields, one word keeps cropping up: “Asshole.” It’s White’s signature phrase, bestowed on many of his colleagues — but on a sliding scale of bozo to bottom-feeder. You can probably imagine, then, what his fellow paleoanthropologists think of him. One of them, Meave Leakey, is quoted by Pattison calling White “defensive” and “nasty.”

In a field of celebrity scientists, nobody shines brighter than Meave Leakey. She was once the scion, and is now matriarch, of the Leakey dynasty, three generations of paleoanthropological royalty. Trained in marine biology, but told one too many times there were no quarters for women on the ocean research vessels she dreamed to sail, Meave found herself in Kenya studying primates with Louis Leakey. A decade earlier, Louis and his wife, Mary, rose to global fame by discovering the skeletons, footprints and tools of human precursors in Tanzania. Their son, Richard, expanded the family fossil enterprise to Kenya. Richard met Meave, the two married and raised a family while hunting fossils together. Meave assumed leadership of the digs when Richard transitioned to politics and she proceeded to net a bounty of new hominids, notably the flat-faced Kenyanthropus, a 3.3-million-year-old toolmaker. Now, Meave and Richard’s daughter Louise carries on the research.

Meave Leakey tells her extraordinary life story in “The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past.” Co-written with her youngest daughter, Samira, this inspirational autobiography stands among the finest scientist memoirs. Its genial tone contrasts with the grittier air of Pattison’s book, but the two complement each other beautifully — the way a tall glass of water refreshes after a double shot of whiskey.

In places, “Fossil Men” seems more reality television show than a work of popular science, as we follow an outrageous cast of White’s supporting characters. There’s Berhane Asfaw, who was hung upside down and tortured by communists, and then went on to lead the fossil lab at the National Museum of Ethiopia. We meet Owen Lovejoy, once a creationist, now an authority on human locomotion. And there’s Elema and Gadi, gun-toting Ethiopian tribesmen whom White trained as ace fossil finders. The story lines border on the insane: There are civil wars, gunfights, at least one grenade rolling around the feet of the scientists as they drive into the desert and, sadly, a violent death.

Despite ample opportunity, “Fossil Men” never devolves into gonzo journalism. This is a function of Pattison’s uncanny ability to write evocatively about science. In this, he is every bit as good as the best scientist-writers. He describes the intricacies of the human wrist and foot with the skill of a poet. He breezes through the biomechanics of how chimps clamber and humans walk. And to my amazement, he explains in clear and compelling prose how scientists build family trees of ancient species. This is my research specialty (albeit with dinosaurs), but one I struggle to explain to my undergraduates. Next year, they’ll be getting a photocopy of Pattison’s chapter.

If a practicing scientist wrote a book as laden with personality and adventure as “Fossil Men,” it would probably be a career killer. This surely explains why Leakey concentrates less on gossip, and more on the grand journey of human evolution. She expertly lays out how we went from ape to civilization, what animals we feared and ate along the way, and how changes in environment drove changes in our bodies, brains and behaviors. At times, I found myself hoping for more drama; Leakey’s single quote in Pattison’s book is juicier than anything she says about White in her own. Still, there is plenty of excitement. Richard loses his legs in a plane crash, which Meave hints might have been sabotage — retaliation for his crusade against ivory poachers? A hyena smashes a fossil skull. A cobra nearly slithers into Samira’s cot on a family field trip. Meave gives Richard one of her kidneys when, for the second time in his life, his fail.

The picture that emerges from both books — despite some remaining disagreements between White and Leakey — adds to our new and developing understanding of human origins. We did not evolve from an ape that looked like a chimp, any more than a cat evolved from a dog. Our ancestors started walking on two legs long before their brains got big, but the first bipedal sprinters were still capable climbers who could escape into the trees.

More than anything, human prehistory is not a tidy narrative of an ape evolving into White’s Ardipithecus, which begot Leakey’s proto-humans, which became us. It’s a far richer saga of a bushy family tree, of many extinct ancestors and cousins, often coexisting, and then getting pruned down to one, just a few tens of thousands of years ago. Leaving our species, Homo sapiens, alone, to contemplate where we came from.

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