Book Review

Weanée Kimblewood

G. J. Sawyer, Viktor Deak, Esteban Sarmiento & Richard Milner:
The Last Human. A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (June 28, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0300100477
ISBN-13: 978-0300100471
Price: 30.00 EUR

The Last Human is disappointing - A Routine Job

Our prehistoric ancestors are rewarding subjects for every ambitious author of specialised books. Just take a bony superstar like Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old lady from Awash Valley, Ethiopia, garnish the pages with showy pictures, advertise the opus extensively before publication and you’ll get a moneyspinner that sells itself (no matter what its actual value is).

To write a real classic on human genesis, however, takes more. A few authors have managed it all the same, including Lucy’s discoverer Donald Johanson and his brilliant opus Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (published in 1981), one of the best books on paleoanthropology ever written, and the fantastic illustrated book From Lucy to Language (2006), also edited by Johanson (with co-author Blake Edgar and ingenious photographer David Brill). The generally unknown Neandertal: Die Ge­schichte geht weiter, published in 2002 by the German archaeologists Ralf Schmitz und Jürgen Thissen, is another brilliant example (available only in German to date, it tells the nearly incredible story of the rediscovery of “Neanderthal 1”, the first specimen of Homo neanderthalensis, found in August 1856).

However, such brilliant books are rare exceptions.

Another attempt to create a classic

The Last Human makes an attempt to enter this exclusive club. Edited by and with a foreword from renowned experts such as Ian Tattersall, Meave Leakey and the omnipresent Donald Johanson, the book assembles and introduces 22 prehistoric hominid species including Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis and Homo neanderthalensis.

According to the editors, the intention was to create a hominid family photo album, filled with life-sized reconstructions of our extinct human ancestors that were created by a multidisciplinary collaboration of experts (take an anatomist, a sculptor, a paleoanthropologist, a makeup artist, a forensic scientist, a painter and a draftsman […] then add vivid imagination and burning obsession). To build 3D models of the 22 prehistoric heads, sophisticated methods of forensic anatomical reconstruction were used (but, sadly, no examples were given).

The book’s somewhat sci-fi title refers to the fact that present-day Homo sapiens finds himself alone on Earth, being the only surviving hominid, while for most of its history of development the world was populated with coexisting prehumans and humans. It addresses itself to a scientifically literate general audience but not to experts.

Has The Last Human the potential to become an classic? Probably not, for several reasons. First of all, this “photo album” ironically contains only very few ima­ges (mostly one or two for each species). While a few of the reconstructed sapient faces have a fascinatingly authentic appearance, others come across poorly; some are blurred (such as A. garhi, page 90, and Ardipithecus ramidus, page 42/43) and cloudy (the A. afarensis on page 70). In addition, the authors passed up the obvious chance to display the skulls and the reconstructed faces on an impressive double page (instead of that there are only small pictures of the underlying skulls and in some cases none at all).

A list of uninspiring facts

To add another disappointment, the accompanying text by Esteban Sarmiento is a mere list of uninspiring facts, such as information on the species’ emergence, geographical range, classification, physiology, lifestyle and possible reasons for extinction – and therefore provides an unemotional read. The, unfortunately short, prefaces by Donaldson and Tattersall are more inspiring.

A pity! The editors did a routine job, combined a few fascinating images with a boring text, and thus blew their unique opportunity to produce a timeless classic.

Letzte Änderungen: 16.07.2013