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Book Review


Ian Tatersall. The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. ix + 143. $19.95 (paper)


     The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is the first in the Oxford New World History series intended to present a chronological history of humanity in short volumes. With lucid and insightful prose, Tatersall presents the story of human evolution in 143 pages divided into seven chapters. The first summarizes the history of our understanding of evolutionary processes. Central to this chapter is how in recent decades the concept of a slow process of gradual change, the so-called "evolutionary synthesis," has given way to an appreciation of just how speciation can take place in short bursts followed by long periods of relatively little change. Another key point the author makes is that the idea of a single linear progressive evolution of humans has been replaced by "a dynamic saga in which multiple hominid species have originated, done battle in the ecological arena, and, more often than not, gone extinct" (p. 17).

     A second chapter provides an excellent discussion of how researchers have learned to date and analyze fossils introducing concepts such as potassium/argon technique, electron spin resonance and paleomagnetism. The next chapter explains how the search for human origins has shifted from an emphasis on the development of big brains to bipedalism, and how our earliest ancestors have been located further back in time. This is followed by a discussion of the emergence of our genus Homo and its tool-making capacities. The fifth chapter focuses primarily on Homo heidelbegensis and Homo neanderthalensis, both relatively recent and brainy hominids, the former being the most likely candidate for the immediate predecessor of our own species. Then, in perhaps the most interesting part of the book, Tatersall provides an elegant and sophisticated account of the emergence of behaviorally modern humans. The author seems to support the neurological-change thesis to explain the radical departure in technology and behavior that appeared around 75,000 years ago. Perhaps unconsciously following in the long tradition of assigning a special place for ourselves in creation, he emphasizes the uniqueness of the modern sapient mind. That uniqueness, he explains, is found in the enormous gap between the symbolic cognitive capacity of modern humans and the non-symbolic cognitive states of our immediate predecessors including the hominids that coexisted with modern humans until relatively recently.

     The last chapter surveys the Neolithic period to the eve of urban, literate society in fifteen and a half pages. While a good summary, it has a hurried quality in contrast to the elegantly presented analyses that characterizes the earlier chapters; it will no doubt strike most teachers who use it as inadequate for covering the extraordinary important changes that took place during this time. It might have been better to devote separate volume to his period. There is a short but useful list of select readings at the end of the volume that contains a number of highly readable books by leading scholars and science writers.

     The World from the Beginnings to 4,000 BCE is an excellent introduction to a part of history that most historians skip over due to its remoteness in time, the complexity and the changing nature of the evidence, and the difficulty of the science it takes to understand it. No doubt, new discoveries and further innovations in research methods will necessitate substantial revisions of the topics it covers before too long, but the book will still be useful as an extremely well presented and at times engaging, history of the exploration of our evolutionary origins.

Michael Seth is an associate professor of history at James Madison University. He can be contacted at


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