Book review: Lydia Pyne’s Seven Skeletons takes a look at celebrity fossils’ legacy

Some fossils of our ancestors are famous - now a new work shows how each discovery has reshaped our thinking about the human family tree.
Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils

Lydia Pyne

Viking

Dh100
Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils Lydia Pyne Viking Dh100

The fossil record, as Lydia Pyne makes clear in her terrific new book Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, is a constantly changing thing, and the stories it tells shifts with almost every new discovery.

Take, for example, the recent find in Sharjah that uncovered a large cache of palaeolithic tools whose dating seems likely to rewrite the story of early mankind’s emergence from Africa millennia ago. Since our knowledge of the distant past is constantly growing, as Pyne writes: “The future is still being written.”

From the vast trove of scientific discoveries, Pyne has selected seven famous specimens from the last century to illustrate not only the wide spectrum of human archaeology stretching from 1912 to 2008 but also the strange and unpredictable afterlife such archaeological finds have long after they’ve left the ground.

The roster of her stars begins with the so-called “Old Man of La Chapelle”, which archaeologists Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie discovered with Louis Bardon in 1908 in a mudstone cave in the Dordogne region of south-central France. They knew almost at once that their find was an example of Homo neanderthalensis, a Neanderthal, a species of human that had been unearthed in Germany half a century earlier, but never before had such an intact skeleton been found. The Old Man became a sensation; as Pyne notes, “the fossil has shaped, directed, and influenced scientific research as well as public perceptions of Neanderthals for over one hundred years”.

[For most of those hundred years, that] perception has been of “savage, shuffling troglodyte bumbling his way across glaciated Europe” – and this picture of the Old Man’s species was so pleasing to the popular idea of Homo sapiens being the most advanced hominid (and hence the only one to survive) that even now, a century later, it remains firmly embedded in the popular imagination, despite subsequent evidence that Neanderthals were an advanced species, not the shaggy cavemen of earlier imaginings.

That sense of subsequent history, the unexpected post-discovery narrative of these fossils, is nowhere better exemplified than in another of Pyne’s subjects, Peking Man, a group of Homo erectus fossils discovered throughout the 1920s and ‘30s in Zhoukoudian, China. The fossils are of many individuals, and the collective portrait they paint of hominid life in the Pleistocene is virtually unique in the archaeological record, and yet their importance is overshadowed by the Byzantine twists of their post-discovery story, what Pyne refers to as “paleo-noir”. The original Peking Man fossils disappeared in transit during the Second World War in 1941 and have never resurfaced – a cold case in the history of science, as Pyne calls it.

Probably the best-known humanoid fossil in the world is that of an Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and dubbed “Lucy”. Lucy was an upright, walking ape dating from millions of years earlier than the earliest expert estimate of when such upright apes first appeared on Earth – her discovery fundamentally reshaped the standard narrative of human palaeontology, a significance that can hardly be overestimated, as Pyne notes: “If we measure units of knowledge in Libraries of Congress, then we measure the scientific significance and cultural importance of fossils in units of Lucy”.

More to the point of this book, Lucy also became a celebrity. She was the first new hominid species to be discovered in 14 years, and once her story (and iconic photo) became commonly known, she exploded into a cultural popularity. Here, in one easy visual, bones arranged on a black background, was something that had clearly been neither ape nor human but still very much like both. The visuals and the catchy name quickly made Lucy the star of documentaries, museums displays, and textbooks all over the world.

The ideological counterbalance to Lucy is also the subject of the book’s single most entertaining chapter: Piltdown Man. This specimen of “Eoanthropus dawsoni” was discovered in 1912 by a man named Charles Dawson in Sussex, England – the remains were photographed, measured, studied, and celebrated from one end of the scientific community to the other. And as readers of the late Stephen Jay Gould will instantly recall, Piltdown Man was an elaborate fake. The alleged fossil had been chemically treated to simulate great age, and the world fell for it – the ruse wasn’t exposed until 1953, making Piltdown Man, as Pyne points out, still the record-holder for the longest amount of time it took a scientific fraud to be discovered. The Piltdown hoax is well known, of course, but Pyne does an insightful job of showing how that notoriety fits into the ongoing story of human palaeontology – a self-correcting story in which every discovery prompts a re-thinking of every other discovery.

Seven Skeletons is a fascinating and often funny specimen-specific story about the always-changing shape of the human family tree. And as Lydia Pyne reminds us, the story is far from over.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly and a regular contributor to The Review.

Published: September 8, 2016 04:00 AM

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