This year will probably go down in history as the one we would all rather forget. Fortunately, there were many amazing books being published to take your mind off things for a moment. As I expected, this was a somewhat less productive year, where I read and reviewed 74 books.
For those who do not feel like trawling through that many reviews, here is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful, and most thought-provoking books I read during 2020.
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.
One appropriate way to start this review would be with “once upon a time…”. Europasaurus uses the unusual medium of a graphic novel to tell the story of Europe’s very own dwarf sauropod dinosaur that roamed the continent some 154 million years ago. The brainchild of palaeontologist Oliver Wings and palaeoartist Joschua Knüppe, this beautifully illustrated bilingual book is the perfect gift for the younger dinosaur enthusiast. The realistic tone of the story and the addition of a more serious factual section at the end, however, make this book attractive for a mature audience as well.
We tend to think of forests as static. Trees, after all, do not move. But that is a perspective foisted upon us by our limbed existence. Science reporter Zach St. George unmasks this illusion in plain terms: when trees die or new ones sprout, the forest has moved a bit. “The migration of a forest is just many trees sprouting in the same direction.” (p. 2)
There is no shortage of books on trees, but this sounded like such an unusual take on the subject that I was utterly stoked when I learned of The Journeys of Trees. A journalist who delves into the palaeontological record to consider the slow-motion of movement of forests over deep time? Get in here!
When it comes to modern palaeoartists, Mark Witton has become a leading light in my opinion. Next to bringing a background as a professional palaeontologist to his artwork, he also wrote The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, which is a unique resource for this field as far as I can tell. Who could be better suited to produce a homage and sequel to one of the most iconic palaeoart books of all times: Knight’s Life through the Ages?
If you ever visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. sometime before 2015 and visited their fossil hall, you will have come face to face with a series of six large murals by palaeoartist Jay Matternes, showing different stages in the evolution of mammals. For nearly five decades, these were part of various exhibits until they were dismantled in 2014-2015. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to visit the museum. But, luckily for me, Smithsonian Books has now published Visions of Lost Worlds, a beautifully produced love letter to Matternes’s palaeoart. Written by the museum’s Curator of Dinosauria Matthew T. Carano and director Kirk R. Johnson, in close collaboration with Matternes himself, this large-format art book offers an unparalleled look at these murals and the artistic process of making them.
If you are interested in dinosaurs, the last two years have seen a slew of great books published, and there is more in the pipeline. The latest I am reviewing here is The Dinosaurs Rediscovered from the well-known British Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology Michael J. Benton. With a huge number of possible topics you could write about, and an already saturated book market, Benton has set himself a very specific aim: to show how the science of palaeobiology has moved from a descriptive, speculative scientific discipline, to a hard, testable, rigorous one. In other words, given that palaeontologists nowadays regularly make some pretty amazing and precise claims about creatures long extinct, how, exactly, do they know that?
Not so long ago, the idea that giant reptiles once roamed the earth was novel, unbelievable to some, but their reign represents only one part of deep time. Go back further in time, to the Carboniferous (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago), and you will find a world of giants as bizarre and otherworldly as the dinosaurs must have once seemed to us. A world where clubmoss trees grew up to 50 metres tall, with scorpions as large as dogs and flying insects the size of seagulls. With Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction, palaeobiologist George McGhee, Jr. presents a scholarly but fascinating overview of the rise and fall of this lost world, and why it still matters to us.
Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothings says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.
Given that dinosaurs are no longer around, everything you think you know about what they look like comes from illustrations, models, movies, and merchandise. But how much of this is actually accurate, and how much of it is rather geared towards appealing to our sensibilities? Mark Witton is a man with a mission: to elevate the genre of palaeoartistry to one depicting scientifically accurate renditions, based on informed speculation and careful study of fossils and anatomy. Rather than a book that shows you how to draw a dinosaur, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is a fantastically useful primer for both aficionados and budding artists into what actually can and should go into making good palaeoart.