WASHINGTON (March 4, 2010)—In an engrossing exploration of our species’ evolutionary history, a new book from National Geographic traces the remarkable milestones that resulted in our becoming human.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN? (National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0606-1; March 16, 2010; $24.95 softcover) is the official companion book to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which opens March 17, 2010, on the 100th anniversary of the museum. The book is by paleoanthropologist Richard Potts, who directs the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program at the National Museum of Natural History, and Christopher Sloan, senior editor at National Geographic magazine and the magazine’s director of mission projects.
The generously illustrated volume takes us on the epic journey of the human species and explains how the characteristics that define human beings of today evolved over millions of years. The multitude of physical traits and behaviors that make us unique and different from all other apes, primates and mammals took 6 million years to accumulate as our human ancestors faced many different challenges to their survival in a dramatically changing world with enormous climatic instability.
The first major milestone was the one that occurred 6 million years ago, when the first members of the human lineage began walking upright on two short legs. By 2.6 million years ago, our ancestors were making tools and eating meat from large animals. Longer legs, which developed about 1.8 million years ago, increased mobility and enabled travel to new regions. Rapid increase in brain size and a longer period of nurturing youngsters through childhood and adolescence took place by 500,000 years ago. Other important milestones in human evolution were the use of symbols for communication, by 250,000 years ago; the fashioning of tools for capturing fast and dangerous prey, by 100,000 years ago; and the domestication of plants and animals, by 10,500 years ago. No single milestone reveals what it means to be human — the answer lies in the remarkable synergy among all these developments.
For much of the 6 million years of human evolution, more than one hominin species lived on Earth. Homo sapiens, the only one surviving today, appeared around 200,000 years ago and lived at the same time as several other species, such as Homo neanderthalensis, which died out around 70,000 years ago, and Homo florensiensis, which went extinct about 17,000 years ago.
Each species in our family tree faced the survival challenges of its time. Climatic changes, shrinking habitat, injury, disease and competition with other species were just some of the life-threatening difficulties they confronted and had to adapt to. Some of our ancestors endured for millions of years, evidence of the flexibility and adaptability that has become the hallmark of humanity.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN? provides a clear, reader-friendly presentation of the latest scientific research on human origins, with an emphasis on the survival challenges inherent in our evolutionary history.
Up-to-date and packed with information, this book is also a visual delight, featuring many of the objects in the Smithsonian exhibition and numerous stunning images from National Geographic.
The question posed by this book and the exhibition invites readers and visitors to see themselves and their humanity in a new way and offers new perspectives on our relationship to the natural world.
About the Authors
Richard Potts, author of numerous research articles and books, leads excavations that investigate the ecological aspects of human evolution, focused on sites in the east African Rift Valley and China. His ideas about how human evolution was a response to environmental instability have stimulated wide attention and new research in several scientific fields.
Christopher Sloan specializes in developing stories for National Geographic magazine on ancient civilizations, early humans and prehistoric life. He also tracks the activities of National Geographic-funded scientists and works closely with them to create stories for the magazine. He has written two articles for National Geographic and six award-winning children’s science books.