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In his new book The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, human paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall argues that a long tradition of "human exceptionalism" in paleoanthropology has distorted the picture of human evolution. Drawing partly on his own career—from young scientist in awe of his elders to crotchety elder statesman—Tattersall offers an idiosyncratic look at the competitive world of paleoanthropology, beginning with Charles Darwin 150 years ago, and continuing through the Leakey dynasty in Africa, and concluding with the latest astonishing findings in the Caucasus.
The book's title refers to the 1856 discovery of a clearly very old skull cap in Germany's Neander Valley. The possessor had a brain as large as a modern human, but a heavy low braincase with a prominent brow ridge. Scientists tried hard to explain away the inconvenient possibility that this was not actually our direct relative. One extreme interpretation suggested that the preserved leg bones were curved by both rickets, and by a life on horseback. The pain of the unfortunate individual's affliction had caused him to chronically furrow his brow in agony, leading to the excessive development of bone above the eye sockets.
The subsequent history of human evolutionary studies is full of similarly fanciful interpretations. With tact and humor, Tattersall concludes that we are not the perfected products of natural processes, but instead the result of substantial doses of random happenstance.
IAN TATTERSALL is Curator Emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The author of many books, including the widely praised Masters of the Planet, he is often interviewed about human evolution in the media and speaks around the world. He is the winner of numerous awards, and lives in Greenwich Village.
Prologue: Lemurs and the Delights of Fieldwork
Chapter 1: Humankind's Place in Nature
Chapter 2: People Get a Fossil Record
Chapter 3: Neanderthals and Man-Apes
Chapter 4: The Synthesis and Handy Man
Chapter 5: Evolutionary Refinements
Chapter 6: The Gilded Age
Chapter 7: Meanwhile, Back at the Museum . . .
Chapter 8: Turkana, the Afar, and Dmanisi
Chapter 9: Molecules and Midgets
Chapter 10: Neanderthals, DNA, and Creativity
Epilogue: Why Does It Matter How We Evolved?
Notes and Bibliography