In “Fossil Men: [The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind,” Kermit] Pattison weaves the multiple intrigues of science, politics, and personalities into a masterly structured tale. It’s no easy task to write compellingly of the sort of minute details that absorb those who study, say, the same tiny foot bone for years on end.
Yet Pattison’s reporting and prose bring the readers into the excitement of scenes that turn on these details, such as when [paleoanthropologist Tim] White and his colleagues realize that all human species, new and old, seem to have a facet in their cuboid foot bone.
This bit of anatomical trivia, in the context of their work, opens up new possibilities of how humans evolved. Perhaps humans did not evolve from apes, White’s team begins to reason. Perhaps apes actually evolved from human ancestors; or perhaps they were separate lines from a creature further removed. Through Pattison’s skillful rendering, readers get a sense of being in on the investigation.
By the end, the book leaves readers with a new sense of wonder at the origins of humankind. It certainly disrupts the outdated, simplistic view of humans evolving from apes, turning those diagrams of gorillas to knuckle-walkers to upright homo sapiens into vintage imagery from a less scientifically sophisticated past.