ancient DNA

Book review – The Complete History of the Black Death (Second Edition)

11-minute read

Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published The World the Plague Made. Since I do not know all that much about the medieval plague pandemic known as the Black Death, I innocently said to myself: “let’s do some homework”. Coincidentally, Boydell Press recently published The Complete History of the Black Death by Norwegian emeritus professor of history Ole J. Benedictow, which is a substantially updated version of his 2004 book The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Just a little bit of homework… Little did I know that I would spend the next 38(!) days soldiering my way through this tome, which is an unprecedentedly long time for me. Did this exercise result in a deeper understanding of the plague? On many levels, yes, but with some caveats, and a note that this book is not light reading.

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Book review – The Process of Animal Domestication

7-minute read

It is tempting to call animal domestication humanity’s oldest and longest-running experiment, but professor of palaeobiology Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra would beg to differ. It is worth opening with a quote from The Process of Animal Domestication to set the tone: “domestication is actually pretty poor as experiments go; there are too many variables involved with little control, and no records of how things started” (p. 206). The excellent structure prevents it from becoming an overwhelming infodump, making this a valuable synthesis of data across a large number of disciplines that will interest a wide range of researchers.

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Book review – Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us

7-minute read

We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today’s inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

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Book review – Mammalian Paleoecology: Using the Past to Study the Present

7-minute read

Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)

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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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Book review – Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined – and Redefined – Nature

7-minute read

Books can be like buses: nothing is written on a topic for ages and then two books appear in quick succession. The subtitle of Life as We Made It resembles that of the recently-reviewed Life Changing. Both books indeed cover the same topic: how humans have shaped the genetics and evolution of plants and animals around them. Despite some inevitable overlap, Beth Shapiro draws on two decades of her career as a geneticist to make Life as We Made It a beast all of its own. I found myself both thoroughly enjoying her fantastic science communication while disagreeing with her outlook.

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Book review – The Sediments of Time: My Lifelong Search for the Past

6-minute read

In the field of palaeoanthropology, one name keeps turning up: the Leakey dynasty. Since Louis Leakey’s first excavations in 1926, three generations of this family have been involved in anthropological research in East Africa. In this captivating memoir, Meave, a second-generation Leakey, reflects on a lifetime of fieldwork and research and provides an inspirational blueprint for what women can achieve in science.

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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.

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Book review – Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human

7-minute read

Where do humanity’s evolutionary roots lie? The answer has long been “in Africa”, but this idea is being challenged from various sides. I previously reviewed Begun’s The Real Planet of the Apes as a warming-up exercise before delving into this book. My conclusion was that its discussion of archaic ape evolution, although proposing that species moved back and forth between Africa and Eurasia, ultimately did not really challenge the Out of Africa hypothesis. Not so Ancient Bones. German palaeontologist Madeleine Böhme, With the help of two co-authors, journalists Rüdiger Braun and Florian Breier, firmly challenges the established narrative in an intriguing book that is as outspoken as it is readable.

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