The Fossil Trail

Much of the historical territory covered by Ian Tattersall in THE FOSSIL TRAIL has been covered in more detail and in more gripping prose by Erik Trinkhaus and Pat Shipman in THE NEANDERTALS (1993). Where Trinkhaus and Shipman focus on the shifting scientific opinion regarding humankind’s nearer and more recent relative, however, Tattersall examines the whole, very ancient hominid family and the coloring of human evolutionary theory by persistent anthropocentrism. Head of the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History, Tattersall does not attempt to play down the unparalleled sophistication of the human species. He does throw light on the bias exercised in the study of human origins.

THE FOSSIL TRAIL is not simply a historical overview, however; it is a valuable assessment of the fossil record as it stands in the 1990’s. Tattersall discusses an impressive number of the more significant discoveries. He touches only lightly on Trinkhaus’ specialty except to dismiss some of his colleague’s more controversial assertions. The Leakeys are roundly criticized for forcing their most important finds to fit preconceived and stubbornly held theories, and multiregionalist Milford Wolpoff comes in for a pounding. Tattersall offers his own view, organizing the known hominid fossils into three genera (australopithicus, paranthropus, and homo) and twelve species, but he emphasizes the need to leave these twigs and branches widely spaced. All the bones so far collected represent an estimated 3 percent of all primate species.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, an abundance of fossils were recovered that have yet to be classified. It is the nature of Tattersall’s book to become quickly dated, but a footnote discussing the import of Tim White’s then-unannounced discovery of 4.4 million-year-old A. ramidus has extended its shelf life. It may prove a valuable a long-lived guide to the fossil trail.