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Reviews October 2010

The Incredible Human Journey

Alice Roberts
Published by: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1-4088-0288-5
Publication date: April, 2010
List price: £9.99
376 pp

RobertsDr Alice Roberts is quite well known for her TV work in connection with Coast and for her own series Don’t Die Young, which drew on her expertise as medical doctor and anatomist based at Bristol University. In The Incredible Human Journey, which was shown on the BBC in 2009, she turns her attention to palaeoanthropology and attempts to tell the story of how Homo sapiens has colonised Earth during the past 200,000 years. Although accompanying a big budget TV series, the book is unlike many of its natural history contemporaries in that it has shunned the formulaic approach of filling its pages with a catalogue of beautiful glossy photographs. But don’t let that put you off. It may be true that a picture tells a thousand words, but Roberts’s story – and that is just what this is, a good story – does a perfectly good job on its own.

The story begins with our origins in Africa and traces the radiation of Homo sapiens around the coast of the Middle East to SE Asia and Australasia, then to the west and into Europe, before finally making landfall in the Americas. Each chapter provides not only a detailed account of the fossil, archaeological and genetic evidence that has enabled researchers to reconstruct how, why and when each stage of the journey took place, but also a tale of human endeavour and resourcefulness told chiefly through the developments of tool kits, survival in adverse climactic conditions and the spread of agriculture. But it is not all anatomy, genetics and carbon dating, as Roberts counterpoints the anthropological narrative with her own journey to many of the places featured in the book. This is also an account of her own experiences with primitive peoples, her own thoughts on the characters who made many of the key discoveries, and her own wonder at being able to tread the same ground as our ancient ancestors. Her agreeably light-hearted style and natural talent for teaching make both the science and her journey hugely accessible.

All in all, Roberts takes us on a fascinating tour of the world and human pre-history; part travelogue, part detective mystery, always compelling. However, not all the questions raised during the telling are solved convincingly, while others remain completely unresolved. But far from being a frustrating outcome this actually enables the reader to participate in the debate. For me the hook that first snared was the realisation that Neanderthals were already living quite happily in Europe when H. sapiens arrived, a fact that is all the more puzzling by their seemingly inexplicable demise, leaving “us” to multiply without competition. But there are numerous other conundrums. Why do Peking Man tool kits appear so primitive? Did climate change stimulate the spread of agriculture? Is it really possible that pre-Clovis culture reached America by crossing the Atlantic?

This enthralling field of natural history is inextricably linked to the ancestry of each of us. We should all be dipping into The Incredible Human Journey to find out more, if only to have a much better appreciation of who we are, and where we have come from.

Sean Mulshaw
Wokingham, Berkshire

Introducing Geology: A guide to the world of rocks (Second Edition)

Graham Park
Published by: Dunedin Academic Press
Publication date: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-906716-21-9
List price: £9.99
134 pp

ParkThis book is well written in an easy to read and interesting style, with many good photographs and informative, well-drawn diagrams. It is suited to anyone starting out in geology, including GCSE students and those on A or AS Level courses. It is also particularly valuable to someone who has not practised their geology for a while and who wants a refresher, or to a non-specialist interested in things they read about in the press, such as gemstones, plate tectonics or the age of the Earth.

The text encourages people to look at the landscapes around them, the rocks in the landscapes and to try and understand how they developed. It has a logical structure, progressing from gemstones to igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks, to fossils, earthquakes and folding and faulting. It then discusses continental drift, sea floor spreading, plate tectonics and why certain rocks ended up in certain places. Of particular interest to the general reader, I expect, will be the sections on mountain building, metamorphism, hotspots, earthquakes, the main groups of fossils and mass extinctions.

The book also discusses the history of the Earth from the Hadean to the Cenozoic. It makes the observation that there is much speculation about the existence and extent of human-induced global warming, and that it is hard to judge this against the extremes of climatic variation observed through geological time. The author then points out that what is worrying and easier to measure and predict is the mass extinction that is presently under way as a result of human exploitation.

Finally the author explores the relationship between geology and industry. Everyone – certainly all readers of this magazine – will be familiar with the role that geology has played in the location and extraction of the highly valuable reserves of oil and gas that underpin our civilisation. The various modes of formation of valuable ore deposits (e.g. hydrothermal and residual deposits) are also discussed, together with their detection by both traditional and modern prospecting methods, including geophysical and geochemical techniques. The book also discusses extractive industries (coal, building stone, cement and aggregate) that have been central to energy production and the construction industry for hundreds of years.

The book includes a comprehensive glossary. It is well bound and the print quality is excellent, making it very good value at £9.99.

Steve Rowlatt
Bishop’s Stortford