Who knows the origin of our species?

25 July 2011

If anyone knows the origin of our species, Homo sapiens, it's likely to be Professor Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum scientist and author of a new book The Origin of Our Species, which was published last month and features in the Sunday Times bestseller book list.

Cover of Chris Stringer's book The Origin of Our Species, published 30 June 2011

Cover of Chris Stringer's book The Origin of Our Species, published 30 June 2011.

The Museum's research leader in human origins and Britain’s foremost expert on the subject, Stringer has spent the last 40 years investigating human evolution through the study of fossils, known as palaeoanthropology.

He has seen amazing developments over the years as more human fossils are found and leaps in technology are taken.

These range from the discovery of modern human fossils in Ethiopia in 1967 that are now dated to nearly 200,000 years ago, a time thought to be when the earliest modern humans appeared, to technological advances that have revealed the Neanderthal genetic code and a new group of humans called Denisovans, both of which have left behind a genetic trace in some people living today.

Stringer’s own research has included the discoveries of the earliest human skull-cups found in the UK, and the first known human settlement in northern Europe, part of the AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) project, which Stringer directs.

Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum

Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum

As one of the architects of the Out of Africa theory (or Recent African Origin theory), which explains how all humans living today share a recent African origin, Stringer is certainly well-qualified to write such a book.

'It took me 2 years to write the book, and I'm glad it did,' says Stringer, 'for in the last year that I was writing it there were a host of new discoveries, including evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans. So I was able to incorporate these new findings and keep the book right up-to-date.'

The Origin of Our Species book

In the book, Stringer sets out to answer all the big questions in the ongoing debate about our origins. Such as:

  • How can we recognise our beginnings in the fossil record? 
  • What do genetic data really tell us? 
  • Were our origins solely in Africa?
  • Are modern humans a species distinct from ancient people such as the Neanderthals? 
  • What was the ‘Hobbit’ of the island of Flores and how was it related to us?
  • How did our species spread over the globe? 
  • How did regional features evolve, and how significant are they? 
  • Has evolution stopped or are we still evolving? 
  • What can we expect from future research on our origins?

The book title refers to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which was published over 150 years ago and details Darwin’s ideas on evolution by natural selection. These ideas are now widely accepted, but those about our own origins are not. Stringer’s The Origin of Our Species is easy to read and will give you a complete and up-to-date picture of this fascinating topic of human evolution.

  • by Yvonne Da Silva
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