Brilliant from the beginning (whenever that was)

The Origin of Humankind

By Richard Leakey

You would be forgiven for raising an eyebrow to the idea that a book with this scope contains no more than 160 pages (not counting the index and preface). And yet Leakey manages to pull that eyebrow back down – all the while explaining how you came to have a brow in the first place.

The Origin of Humankind is a story of eons. Its first few chapters discuss our rather sloppy view of ancient humans. This covers our interpretations of the oldest hominid fossils. But you can find that elsewhere. Leakey includes a unique running commentary as to how the squabbles between anthropologists and archaeologists mean that we’ve done more inferring than proving when it comes to ancient man. Leakey occasionally takes his own view, but has written this book in such a way that it introduces its reader to countless theories and explains how they interpret the scattered facts we’ve collected, and that’s it. This is a useful tactic: it keeps the book short and does not get too bogged down in detail – perfect for the layman. In that sense, Leakey’s wisdom shines through not what is included here, but what is omitted.

Furthermore, the book’s title is cleverer than at first glance. Although it may seem like a rather generic and obvious title for a book about, well, the origin of humankind, you would be wrong to think that it centres on the moments Homo erectus became Homo sapiens. Equally, this is not a book that is only a description of the fossil record. The ‘humankind’ of Leakey’s title is a much broader concept. So much so that he questions from the opening paragraphs onwards what we mean when we talk of ‘humans’. This question underpins every more scientific observation described here: Leakey points out that there remains a lack of consensus on for just how long the Homo line was connected to the Australopithecine line. Any question to this conundrum has an implication on the greater wonderment of when we became ‘human’. Leakey takes this question further, by expanding into the development of art, language and ultimately, the mind.

He shows, therefore, that the origin of humankind was not a spark, but a gradual flowering. It is an exhilarating journey in such a short read.

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