Have you exhausted your “to-read” pandemic book list? Do you take an interest in the study of ancient humans and their predecessors? Would you like to read about scientists’ interpersonal spats mixed in with the dangers and frustrations of Ethiopian tribal warfare and government instability? Does a non-fiction book that at times reads as if it had to be made up ring your bell? If so, Fossil Men, The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind by Kermit Pattison (Willliam Morrow, 2020) might be a good pick.     

Early on, Pattison describes paleoanthropology: “Fossils, territory, and money were the raw materials of the discipline.” Following the 1974 discovery of “Lucy”, a 3.2-million-year-old pre-human skeleton in Ethiopia, teams of paleoanthropologists intensified their search for even older skeletons that could fill in and confirm or deny prevailing theories about the timing and pattern of human evolution. Lucy clarified that our ancestors first came out of the trees and walked upright, and then later they developed larger brains. But this information pushed farther back in time the questions of when and how. Older fossils would be enlightening.

Regarding territory, the Great Rift Valley slashes through Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The Rift is prime fossil-hunting territory. Africa is generally considered to be the home of pre-human forms, and this long valley provides ample opportunity for bones to get washed into the basin, buried, fossilized, and then possibly exposed millions of years later. Lucy was discovered in Ethiopia; and further south in Tanzania Mary Leakey and her team discovered fossilized footprints of a humanlike creature who walked upright, 500,000 years before Lucy. How long before that had ape-like creatures abandoned knuckle walking?

After these discoveries, the Great Rift Valley, and especially its portion in northern Ethiopia, was an obvious place to intensify the search for older fossils, but this was complicated by territorial conflicts of two sorts. Warring tribes ranged over the area and were wary, and at times overtly hostile, to one another and even more so to khaki-clad foreigners driving Jeeps.

The other conflict simmered in the government offices in Addis Ababa after the military overthrow of long-time Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The Ethiopians were justifiably proud of their country’s recognition as the location of Lucy’s discovery and her role in the story of human evolution. They were miffed, however, that the limelight focused on the foreign scientists and their inclinations to remove these world-heritage artefacts from their native land. These territorial issues were compounded further by changes in administrative leadership and some backscratching regarding allocation of territories for fossil-hunting rights to one team over another. Sometimes a team would sit in Addis Ababa for weeks waiting for authorizations to be signed. At times, the fossil fields were closed to exploration for years, perhaps on no more than a whim of a local official.

Regarding money, the expeditions, which were mostly from America, lasted four to five months and involved scores of scientists, grad students, camp workers, and guards. The fossil fields were a two-day drive from Addis Ababa and entirely remote; so electricity generation, water purification, and sanitation systems all required attention. Detailed casts were made of the recovered fossils that were not permitted to leave Ethiopia. Other fossils were smuggled out. At home, the investigators could study the material but needed salary support to do so. The National Science Foundation was instrumental in providing competitive grants, but some of the teams had sufficiently alienated one other regarding disputed claims that impartial reviewers of grant proposals were sparse to non-existent. Leaders in the field sometimes went unfunded and had to pare down their ambitions and also seek private support.

In addition to issues of fossils, territory, and funding, the involved paleoanthropologists seemed to have big egos, at least the ones who tended to make themselves known. Perhaps this is not surprising since they sweat for months with their noses pressed to the sand. They get excited when they discover even a solitary tooth, from which they claim, with some authority apparently, that they can identify the species of its owner.

Ardipithecus ramidus, courtesy T. Michael Keesey, Wikipedia

Infighting was further compounded by the fact that the team who identified a 4.2-million-year-old possible human predecessor, Ardipithecus ramidus, nicknamed Ardi. The discoverers announced their find but did not let other scientists examine the fossils, nor did they report their analysis in the peer-reviewed scientific literature for 15 years. In the meantime, however, the finders infuriated other paleoanthropologists at meetings and in publications by discounting competing teams’ findings based on their own, but unpublished, discoveries.

The book was meticulously researched over a decade and is based on interviews with many of the principle … um … characters. Photographs of the digs, the diggers, and their finds are enlightening. Sometimes the perseverations over the meaning of an individual groove or shape of a facet on a single hand or foot bone become tediously long, especially in a book for lay readers and when the details of interest were not illustrated. You can scan those machinations without missing the book’s gist. After you’ve read Fossil Men, let me know what you think.

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