The quest to find where and when the earliest human ancestors first appeared is one of the most exciting and challenging of all scientific pursuits. The First Human is the story of four international teams obsessed with solving the mystery of human evolution and of the intense rivalries that propel them.
An award-winning science writer, Ann Gibbons introduces the various maverick fossil hunters and describes their most significant discoveries in Africa. There is Tim White, the irreverent and brilliant Californian whose team discovered the partial skeleton of a primate that lived more than 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia. If White can prove that it was hominid, an ancestor of humans and not of chimpanzees or other great apes, he can lay claim to discovering the oldest known member of the human family. As White painstakingly prepares the bones, the French paleontologist Michel Brunet comes forth with another, even more startling find. Well known for his work in the most remote and hostile locations, Brunet and his team uncover a stunning skull in Chad that could set the date of the beginnings of humankind to almost seven million years ago.
Two other groups, one led by the zoologist Meave Leakey, the other by the British geologist Martin Pickford and his partner, Brigitte Senut, a French paleontologist, enter the race with landmark discoveries of other fossils vying for the status of the first human ancestor.
Through scrupulous research and vivid first-person reporting, The First Human takes listeners behind the scenes to reveal the intense challenges of fossil hunting on a grand competitive scale.
©2006 Ann Gibbons; (P)2006 Tantor Media Inc
"A deft account, part detective story, part adventure tale, of recent breakthroughs in the search for human origins." (Kirkus)
I'm interested in paleoanthropology, and the story of the discovery of the first hominids is a compelling one.
Unfortunately, Ann Gibbons doesn't tell the story all that well. There are a few too many characters in this story, and Gibbons seems to feel like she needs to give a mini-bio for everyone she introduces. This doesn't work because sometimes the profiles are longer than the part in the story the character plays. Very annoying. Gibbons also tries overly hard to bring the reader into the story, i.e. to take the reader there, with some pretty silly examples. This is not great science writing.
However, what's really bad is the narration. Rodman reads the book like she's reading a story to a Kindergarten class, complete with excitement in her voice at all the wrong parts. I would probably be able to recommend this book had the narration been better, but as it was I couldn't wait to finish with it because the reading was so grating.
Gibbons covers her topic thoroughly and weaves together the complete story so that it keeps the listener's attention throughout. I agree with Michael from Baltimore's review that the tensions among paleanthropologists is one of the fascinating aspects of the whole story.
However, be advised that the narration has problems. This production needed much better editorial oversight. Raudman's peculiar inflections frequently over-emphasize a word, disrupting the flow. She sometimes sounded as though she were reading a children's story. Raudman also mis-pronounces various words: Oligocene (ollie GOH seen?), Poitiers, and many other words throughout. The result for me was that at certain moments, I had to mentally replay sentences in order to repair the author's original meaning. The issue is actually not a problem of having a bad narrator. Rather, it shows that the producers of the audio program did not pay sufficient attention to editorial detail--certainly not to the level warranted by the author's effort to produce an excellent popular science narrative.
In four years of listening, I have never written a review on Audible. Experience listening has also taught me that I am almost never bothered by narrators in the way many folks are. But the narrator on this is just abysmal-- with few exceptions, she pronounces almost every, single scientific word incorrectly. Since I am an anthropologist myself, it grated so hard on the ears I gave up and just read the book. I’m mostly concerned about listeners interested in paleoanthropology with no formal educational background in it. I can just see Audible listeners dropping references to “Homo hab-i-lee” at their cocktail parties (the “s” on the end of Homo habilis is not silent, Ms. Raudman). Ugh.
Wow. Someone once said to me, “If you can’t do the job without being a jerk, then you can’t do the job.” Ann Gibbons clearly spells out for us, the uninitiated, this: there are some serious jerks in paleoanthropology. Without naming names, let's just say that the quality of the insulting hyperbolic nutty criticisms and analogies documented here is only slightly superior to what you might find exchanged among some affluent US middle school students. So, do jerks help or inhibit science? Or, how much of a jerk do you have to be to be a successful paleoanthropologist? How does being a jerk help you find hominid fossils? Surprisingly, answers to these apparently ridiculous questions begin to reveal themselves as you listen. In all seriousness, this is an exciting book about an exciting time that is happening right now. I did not want the book to end, but when it did, I realized that it ended exactly in the present, and I was in the thick of it. Now I feel like I am part of this exciting, unprecedented, lucky, agonizing, contentious, rush to find where we came from. It really is that good. MB
This is another case where the writer gets lost in her own ego, rather than delivering a science-based story. There are several other books in my library, such as "Why do Men Have Nipples" that discuss the politics of the scientists, nuances and discussion of who really holds the knowledge and not much about homo habilis or her friends.
Compare this book to, say, "Before the Dawn" which is more or less the same topic but goes to exquisite detail to explain the genetics, linguistics, and other sciences behind a great narrative of human evolution.
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