Chris Stringer's The Origin of Our
Species (Allen Lane, 2011) first appeared in Literary Review, August 2011.
more significant researchers than significant specimens,
and the question is what has made us human, the scholarly knives are
sharper than knapped flints. Palaeoanthropology is a highly strung
discipline in which strength of conviction makes up for a shortage of
raw material and cherished hypotheses are constantly vulnerable to
unexpected new discoveries. It makes an exciting spectator sport,
notwithstanding the frustrating tendency of factions to draw opposite
conclusions from the same weathered fragments of ancient bone.
leader of human origins research at the Natural History
Museum, occupies a fascinating position in the volatile study of our
own natural history. Over forty years he has become a world
authority, the go-to expert without a quote from whom no media report
on new discoveries is complete, and a leading partisan in the
controversies over how modern humans emerged. Stringer has leaned
heavily towards the view that we are all descended from a single
small African population which replaced older populations rather than
mingling with them. This model was boosted immensely by early
findings from DNA analysis, which has turned living humans into
evolutionary specimens. Stringer’s theory came to prevail over its
rival, which saw modern human evolution as a networking process that
shared genes across populations in different regions.
Stringer’s comments have come to sound
increasingly ecumenical. This is an effect not merely of seniority,
which may sometimes encourage a statesmanlike tone, but of new
evidence impinging on an open mind. Stringer’s imagination is
piqued by surprises, which is just as well, for the fossil record
seems to have developed a sense of mischief in recent years.
Ninety-nine years ago, the Piltdown hoax – a modern skull and an
ape jaw planted in a Sussex gravel pit – offered its victims
evidence that supported their favoured story of human evolution. The
‘Hobbit’ found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003–4 did
just the opposite, presenting palaeoanthropologists with a genuine
find that could not have confounded the standard story – it was
about 5,000 miles and more than two million years out of place –
more impudently if it had been planted there. Even the boring
explanation, that the skeleton is the remains of a very small modern
human with a pathologically small brain, is deeply improbable.
Stringer is inclined to accept the find as a genuine, utterly
unexpected addition to the variety of hominins (upright apes,
proto-humans, archaic humans and ourselves).
soft spot for imaginative hypotheses, such as the suggestion
that the massive brow ridges that dominated the faces of Neanderthal
males may have evolved to intensify the impact of intimidatory
glares. They weren’t robust enough to protect skulls in combat, but
they may have been impressive enough to prevent hostilities from
breaking out. Nowadays brow ridges are doing their bit to reduce
conflicts among palaeoanthropologists. They are the characteristic
features of archaic faces, and the persistence of such features into
times when anatomically modern humans were on the scene is one of the
factors that has induced Stringer to qualify his view of human
evolution. He now suggests that a network of gene exchange may have
operated in Africa, making the story there one of give-and-take
rather than straightforward replacement.
boundaries between modern and archaic humans are looking
blurred too. The fossil record is still as fragmentary as the bones
themselves, but the game has changed now that fragments can yield
DNA. A previously unsuspected human stock was recently identified by
extracting DNA threads from a finger bone and a tooth found in
Siberia. The Neanderthals have a genome project dedicated to them: it
suggests that they have left their mark in 1 to 4 per cent of the DNA
of living people whose ancestry lies in Europe or Asia. Stringer’s
grand ‘Out of Africa’ narrative still stands, but the plot
details have got more complicated and intriguing.
The Origin of Our Species the right book by the
author at the right time. It highlights just how many tantalising
discoveries and analytical advances have enriched the field in recent
years, and folds them into an appropriately comprehensive, generous
and nuanced reflection. In doing so, however, it smoothes over one or
two jagged edges that onlookers would do well to mark.
becoming human in the fullest sense of the term may not be
easy or inevitable. As Stringer notes, early signs of modern humanity
– including jewellery and a marked preference for red pigment –
flicker intermittently like candles and then disappear for thousands
of years. Large brains aren’t enough: if they were, Neanderthals
now would be recovering DNA from fossils of small-browed,
round-headed humans like us. Stringer has a sympathetic word for the
ideas of the radical anthropologist Chris Knight, who sees the red
ochre as the remains of rituals that inaugurated symbolic culture.
But Stringer doesn’t engage with Knight’s contention that without
the trust that ritual engendered, language could not have evolved.
Becoming human must have been a tricky business. It may or may not be
significant that Neanderthals preferred black.
is that of diversity. However vehemently the word ‘race’
is rejected, the question of cognitive differences between human
groups haunts all accounts of modern human evolution. In On the
Origin of Species, Darwin gingerly tucked his one brief,
explosive reference to humans into his closing remarks. Stringer
adopts the same ploy, observing edgily on his way out that ‘it is
likely that selection has favoured different behaviours and cognitive
abilities as modern humans have diversified in different environments
and social complexities’. The tone varies, according to whether the
matter unsettles authors or affirms their prejudices, but that
subtext never really gets written out.