A behind-the-scenes account of the shocking discovery of the skeleton of “Ardi,” a human ancestor far older than Lucy—a find that shook the world of paleoanthropology and radically altered our understanding of human evolution. FOSSIL MEN is popular science at its best, and a must read for fans of Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Edward O. Wilson.
The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind
by Kermit Pattison
William Morrow/HarperCollins, June 2020
In 1994, a team led by fossil-hunting legend Tim White—”the Steve Jobs of paleoanthropology”—uncovered the bones of a human ancestor in Ethiopia’s Afar region. Radiometric dating of nearby rocks indicated the skeleton, classified as Ardipithecus ramidus, was 4.4 million years old, more than a million years older than “Lucy,” then the oldest known human ancestor. The findings challenged many assumptions about human evolution—how we started walking upright, how we evolved our nimble hands, and, most significantly, whether we were descended from an ancestor that resembled today’s chimpanzee—and repudiated a half-century of paleoanthropological orthodoxy. FOSSIL MEN is the first full-length exploration of Ardi, the fossil men who found her, and her impact on what we know about the origins of the human species. It is a scientific detective story played out in anatomy and the natural history of the human body. Kermit Pattison brings into focus a cast of eccentric, obsessive scientists, including one of the world’s greatest fossil hunters, Tim White—an exacting and unforgiving fossil hunter whose virtuoso skills in the field were matched only by his propensity for making enemies; Gen Suwa, a Japanese savant who sometimes didn’t bother going home at night to devote more hours to science; Owen Lovejoy, a onetime creationist-turned-paleoanthropologist; Berhane Asfaw, who survived imprisonment and torture to become Ethiopia’s most senior paleoanthropologist and who fought for African scientists to gain equal footing in the study of human origins; and the Leakeys, for decades the most famous family in paleoanthropology.
“An entertaining update on a process as ‘red in tooth and claw’ as nature itself… Pattison delivers a gripping and reasonably balanced account… Big personalities, simmering turmoil, and fascinating popular science.” —Kirkus, starred review
Kermit Pattison is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Fast Company, and Inc., among many other publications. He spent more a decade doing research for FOSSIL MEN, a large portion of which was spent in the field in Ethiopia with the team that discovered Ardi. This is his first book. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.