Not too long ago I read Yuval Noah Haredi’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind because it was a hot item (actually a few years earlier, I was kinda late) and it’s a best seller and all that. The first third or so is what really stood out most to me and sparked some interest in what scientists are continuously learning about these beings that lived so long ago but looked remarkably like us. He talked about how evolution brought about our species, but in imaginative terms that really made you think about what it might have looked like being around these other almost humans, especially the eras where there were as many as six hominid (fancy word for the family that includes us and our ancestors) species around at the same time. Plus, we have proof that they all hooked up because a lot of humans today share DNA with Denisovans and Neanderthals. Wild. So many questions come to mind - how did they spend their time, how did they communicate, how did they work together, how did they compete? It almost makes me want some weird prehistoric dystopian fiction.
Sorry for the misdirection, but that’s not the book I want to talk about here. It was just a memorable point that sparked my interest in this topic. I can’t remember where I saw a recommendation for Almost Human, but learning some more about all of these different hominids without diving into academic papers and dry Wikipedia pages was just what I wanted. I would guess that to most people, saying it’s a book about some people going to find fossils in caves sounds really boring, but Lee Berger did such a great job writing an engrossing narrative behind his discoveries that really changed a lot of ideas and opened up new questions in the field of paleoanthropology.
What I really appreciated about this book was how exciting and engaging Berger wrote his story and taught the reader about how his field of study works and how they reach the conclusions they reach. I think you can always tell a good teacher from their writing and how much they care about their subject. Lee Berger truly loves what he does and is doing great scientific work. I realize it was written from his perspective, so of course he would want to make himself seem like the best guy, but his scientific principles about open research and sharing work and his willingness to say “I don’t know” are truly admirable and extremely important.
I’d highly recommend Almost Human as an introduction to learning more about evolution, how scientists go to find fossils, and how they interpret what they find. The time that they’ll spend studying something like a single fossilized bone and why it’s shaped how it is and why they think it’s from a certain period is so fascinating. By fascinating, I mean I’m very glad that they are willing to do that work and distill it down for people like me to appreciate and learn at least a little bit more about where we humans came from.