Excellent Survey for the General Reader


April 21, 2013

Masters of the Planet

by Ian Tattersall

Palgrave MacMillan 2012

266 pp., illistrations, $17.64 from Amazon

Reviewed by Jay Greene

This modest book is ideal for the general reader new to the subject of paleoanthropology, as well as for someone who wants to brush up. The author is a leading scholar in this field, widely respected for the soundness of his views and his ability to rise above the all too frequent controversies.

Tattersall opens with a review of the apes of the middle and late Miocene and what their anatomy can tell us about bipedality, the mode of locomotion that distinguishes us from our primate cousins. He then reviews in detail many of the taxa shown on The Human Lineage Through Time, the timeline found on the HOME page of this website.

The clarity of the presentation is illustrated in the author's discussion of "Marine isotope stages" (MIS), often a confusing topic, on pp. 149 ff.  The author says "… the favorite approach has been to measure the ratios of lighter and heavier isotopes of oxygen in the layers of the accumulating ice itself or in the shells of marine organisms…" Isotopic oxygen (16O and 18O) enable scientists to differentiate between cooler, drier periods and warmer, wetter periods in the past and to give each such period, called a stage, a number.  A clear table of these stages is provided.

The author is an acknowledged expert on Neanderthals and examines the timing and extent of contact between small bands of Homo neanderthalensis, scattered across their broad range from Spain to Central Asia, and bands of Homo sapiens entering Eurasia from Africa around 40,000 years ago. Tattersall believes the Neanderthals had not developed intelligent speech to the level of complexity possessed by the Africans. Further, more than proxies for intelligent speech, the evidence for heat treatment of stone to improve its edge keeping quality and cave paintings such as those found at Lascaux and Alta Mira are evidence for the development of intelligence speech exclusively in our species.