Book review – Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind

6-minute read

When thinking of human ancestors, the name “Lucy” will likely come to mind. But a dedicated team of scientists spent decades labouring on the discovery of a species more than a million years older still, at 4.4 million years of age. Nicknamed “Ardi” and classified as Ardipithecus ramidus, it was finally revealed to the world in 2009. For a full decade, journalist Kermit Pattison immersed himself in the story of Ardi’s discovery to bring to life both the science and the scientists. The resulting Fossil Men is an incredibly well-researched book that tells the definitive insider’s story of how one of the most divisive fossils in palaeoanthropology was discovered by one of its most divisive characters: Tim White.

Fossil Men slanted

Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind, written by Kermit Pattison, published by William Morrow & Co. in December 2020 (hardback, 534 pages)

Fossil Men stands out for its brutally honest portrayal of the main protagonist, Tim White, something for which Pattison has had the full cooperation of White, his co-workers, and his many adversaries. From the very first pages, he is unsparingly described as a relentless perfectionist with “a razor intellect, hair-trigger bullshit detector, short temper, long list of discoveries, and longer list of enemies” (p. 2). He will take as long as he darn well needs to make sure his findings are beyond bulletproof. And while many loathe being at the receiving end of his withering criticism—”enemies not only resented him; they fucking hated him” (p. 71)—many also admit that he excels at what he does: “Tim White is brutal. He’s a real scientist. His literature will stay forever” (p. 4).

Pattison follows White’s story of fossil discovery in Ethiopia from its start in 1981. Against a backdrop of bureaucracy, corruption, and civil wars, White organised annual expeditions that “he micromanaged without apology“, while fellow anthropologist Bruce Latimer marvels that he is “without question the best field worker there is […] His science, logistics, and efficiency are phenomenal” (p. 127). What stands out, and endeared him to this reader, is how he insists on local capacity building, employing and training numerous Ethiopians, and only rarely recruiting foreigners, the Japanese Gen Suwa being one of these notable exceptions.

As a journalist who has published in the New York Times, GQ, and other outlets, it comes as no surprise that Pattison engagingly portrays the human interest story. He has extensively interviewed the people around White, including Ethiopian collaborators such as Berhane Asfaw, Alemu Ademassu, and Yohannes Haile-Selassie, or the creationist-turned-palaeoanthropologist Owen Lovejoy. But he also speaks to White’s many adversaries, including Ian Tattersall, Lucy team members Jon Kalb and the celebrity-loving Don Johanson, as well as members of the world-famous Leakey dynasty.

Fossil Men stands out for its brutally honest portrayal of the main protagonist, Tim White”

What positively surprised me, however, was how thoroughly and accurately Pattison delves into the biological details. Whether it is related species such as Ardipithecus kadabba, the anatomy of the foot and spine, or the genetical wonderland of ancient DNA, evolutionary developmental biology, or comparative genomics—he puts to good use the more than 500 pages that have been crammed into Fossil Men. White’s obsessive attention to detail seems to have rubbed off on Pattison, and in the acknowledgements he admits the enormity of writing this book: “Nobody in their right mind takes on a project like this” (p. 423). The bibliography reveals just how deeply he has ventured: next to books and peer-reviewed papers, Pattison has consulted unpublished manuscripts, interviews, grant proposals, video material, oral histories, court files, and archives of private correspondence.

Over the years, White’s team unearths fragmentary remains and puzzles together the creature that will become known as Ardi. However, much to the frustration of peers and grant agencies, White refuses to go public until he has every detail nailed down. This is not a popular strategy and the briefly-featured Michel Brunet was similarly scolded in Ancient Bones for holding back important material. After an initial 1994 announcement in Nature, White and collaborators labour for a full 15 years in strict secrecy. Pattison here exclusively reports the many twists, turns, and realisations during this long period.

The crescendo of Fossil Men comes with the big reveal of Ardi in a 2009 special issue of Science. As expected, the popular press laps it up while the academic establishment is initially more resistant. Pattison again excels at showcasing the range of opinions. Reading the objections it is easy to see how White’s arguments go against the grain. Specifically, A. ramidus was initially considered to be the most chimp-like ancestor known so far. However, the more White’s team looked at the anatomy of the feet, pelvis, skull, and other body parts, the more they argued that human ancestors never went through a stage resembling modern apes. The long-held paradigm that modern apes are good models of our human ancestors was declared dead. Instead, compared to Ardi, humans are the ones retaining primitive anatomical aspects, while modern African apes are considered evolutionarily more derived. It would require several instances of convergent evolution amongst apes for this to happen, and is thus considered less parsimonious by evolutionary biologists, but that does not mean it is impossible.

“Ardi, it seems, has everyone flummoxed, proving to be “a simian-human combination that nobody had predicted“”

Ardi, it seems, has everyone flummoxed, proving to be “a simian-human combination that nobody had predicted” (p. 353). Refreshingly, some opponents have come around to White’s arguments after they have been given the opportunity to inspect the fossils for themselves. Another supporter is David Begun who dedicated a section to A. ramidus in The Real Planet of the Apes, discussing the configuration of the big toe. He agrees with White that “meticulous collection of data should come before interpretation“, and highlights how the assumption that hominin ancestors by definition cannot have a grasping big toe imposes restrictions on how to interpret new and contradictory evidence such as Ardi.

Arguments over Ardi’s status continue unabated. While writing this review, New Scientist reported on a study in Science Advances that analysed Ardi’s hands, arguing that they are more chimp-like and adapted for swinging from branches (suspensory locomotion). Unsurprisingly, White has responded to this in his usual gruff fashion: “This is another failed resurrection of the antiquated notion that living chimpanzees are good models for our ancestors“.

I admit that I was initially mildly concerned that the publisher was overselling Fossil Men by calling it a scientific detective story. However, it did not take long for me to become completely engrossed by Pattison’s portrayal of these scientists, and to be in awe of the skill with which he tackles numerous complex biological topics. This is a chunky book, but it is a page-turner that you will not regret.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Fossil Men

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:





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