The First Human, by Ann Gibbons (Doubleday, 2006; 306 pages) is a well-written, interesting review of the race (and, make no mistake, that’s how some of the participants regard it) to find evidence of the last common ancestor between humans and apes.
Gibbons outlines the march forward in time and backward in history from early discoveries of fossils of various human ancestors by pioneers like Louis S.B. Leakey and his wife, Mary in Olduvai Gorge; Eugene Dubois in Indonesia; Davidson Black in China and Raymond Dart and Robert Broom in South Africa to more recent discoveries that go back further in time by Richard Leakey and his wife, Meave (Louis and Mary’s son and daughter-in-law); Donald Johanson, Tim White and many others.
But Gibbons doesn’t just talk about the fossils. She also explores the personalities of the (mostly) men who look for the fossils, the arguments they get into over the interpretations of their finds and, sometimes, even the tactics some of them have stooped to, to make sure they and not their competitors get access to the best sites and the oldest fossils. She also looks at the controversial subject of determining the pace and direction of human evolution using DNA markers instead of, or in concert with, the fossils.
For someone like myself, who is fascinated by the history of paleoanthropology as well as the information that the study of human and prehuman fossils reveals, this book is a must-read by the head writer on human evolution for the journal Science. She has access to the people who have participated in the search for and study of the fossils, and she interviewed pretty much every actor in the drama who is still living. She tells the story of the past few decades of research with frankness but without an overabundance of finger-pointing, in a manner that is readable for those who already know something about paleoanthropology and for those who don’t know anything about the subject.
Gibbons’ book proves that while the fossils that have been found and studied might be dry and dead, the information they carry and the people who search for and analyze them are anything but.