I like old things. I also like learning new things. So, one can imagine my fondness for learning new things about old things. While I’ve always seemed to have a partiality for a certain vintage aesthetic (oh, hello tiny hats with attached mesh veils), the old things of which I speak are bones, or fossils, I won’t be picky.
Archaeology can be quite literally translated as “the study of old things” (more often these things are classified as “history” or “culture”). But there is another branch of study that reaches past the record of human existence and into the deeper past, namely, paleontology. Neil Shubin’s recent book, Your Inner Fish, is an excellent foray into paleontology for both the academic and the layman. A paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, Neil Shubin and his team discovered Tiktaalik , a 375 million year old fish, found in the northern reaches of Nunavut, whose fossil remains showed evidence of shoulders, wrists and the beginnings of what appear to be fingers. In his book, Shubin addresses the elements of the human body that can be traced back through various organisms and highlights the fascinating similarities of human anatomy with other mammal, reptile, and aquatic life (including cellular similarities between humans and sponges!).
The wonderful peculiarity of the science behind the human body can also be found in the latest book from nonfiction writer Sam Kean, The Violinists Thumb. Instead of dissecting human bodies or uncovering paleontological fossils, Kean dissects the history and composition of the human genetic code. Alien-like depictions of Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt, the connection between John F. Kennedy’s natural bronze glow and his back brace, a man who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs in 1945, and a certain mid-20th century scientist’s dream of a human-chimp hybrid all find a place in this book that is chock full bizarre stories that make up the history of the scientific discovery and decoding of human DNA.
For further reading on human genetics and evolution one can turn to the unstoppable force that is the world renowned biologist, Richard Dawkins. For a change of pace, the film The Incredible Human Journey follows the path of our early human ancestors. In The Human Family Tree a team of National Geographic Scientists compare DNA swabs of 200 random New Yorkers to find out more about common heritage.
Turning back to paleontology, Shelley Emling’s The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World follows the life of Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) who discovered numerous dinosaur and fish fossils along the coast of Dorset, England (including a four-foot Ichthyosaur by age 12). Anning’s discoveries were all the more important because of the still widely held belief in creationism prevalent in 19th century Britain. Her life would be plagued by poverty, and exclusion from the boys club of British geologists with credit for her findings and analysis often given to the male scientists with whom she shared her discoveries. If all this non-fiction is starting to look tiresome, Joan Thomas’ novel, Curiosity: a love story is based on Mary Anning, as is Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures.
For more on the archaeologist’s experience whilst uncovering the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens see The First Human: the race to discover our earliest ancestors by Ann Gibbons.
For further reading on the shared evolutionary past of humans and chimpanzees take a look at Last Ape Standing: the seven-million year story of how and why we survived by Chip Walter, Jonathan Marks’ What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, and Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. And, of course, one could not forget the bastion of human evolutionary theory, The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
The history of the human body is a fascinating topic. Whether it is the enigma of old stones and bones or the extraordinary history coded into our genetic make-up, the study of old things has never seemed so enthralling.