Saturday, January 08, 2011

Every Bone Tells a Story: Book Review

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates, by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw

In general, archaeologists and paleoanthropologists don't do a great job of telling the public about their work. Their studies are so technologically and theoretically specialized today that it's difficult to convey all the relevant information to even a fairly well-read person, unless these people are willing to sit through several introductory lectures or classes in anthropology. And even then it can still be hard to describe the subtleties of current anthropological debates and translate the latest jargon (like hominin!*) to, the general reader. It doesn't help that anthropologists aren't generally rewarded for making their passions clear to the public. It doesn't get them tenure, advance their research, or bring in grants, and writing for non-specialists is very, very different from the type of writing that anthropologists are trained to do in graduate school. Sadly, grad students and most anthropologists aren't awarded any points for creative writing, compelling dialogue, or evocative descriptions - or any of the other things that keep readers (especially children) turning the pages of a book.

Explaining anthropological research to the public is crucial if the field is going to continue to exist in times of economic hardship, however. Which partially explains why I was so excited to learn about Rubalcaba and Robertshaw's latest book when it was mentioned in the comments at Heavy Medal, the School Library Journal's blog on the current contenders for the Newbery.

Sadly, I had to request Every Bone Tells a Story from inter-library loan to read it. Only ten or so libraries in Michigan currently have it in their catalogs (and Ann Arbor isn't one of them! I suggested that they buy it). Maybe if it wins some more awards it will find its way to more libraries and into the hands of more kids and adults.

It's written for older kids through young adults, but like some of the other nonfiction contenders for this year's Newbery prize (such as Sugar Changed the World, by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, and They Called Themselves the KKK, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti), Every Bone is suitable for adults as well as kids. The writing style is simple and usually clear without being simplistic (with the exception of the section on the genetics of speech, and let's face it, mitochrondial DNA is difficult to explain clearly), and much of the information presented will be new and interesting to anyone interested in human evolution. Four sets of skeletal remains from different time periods are presented, with wonderful descriptions of their discovery, some good summaries of the deductions scientists have made that are based on these remains, and lively looks at the current debates swirling around them.

Because Every Bone Tells a Story is very well-written, I found myself wondering which author wrote which parts, but it was all very seamless, without any discernible differences in style. Perhaps Peter Robertshaw is one of those rare archaeologists with a gift for popular as well as academic prose, or maybe Jill Rubalcaba has the (also fairly rare) ability to imbue scientific discourse with human interest. At any rate, it was an enjoyable read, reminding me a lot of Mary Roach's nonfiction books (Stiff, Bonk, Spook, and Packing for Mars), which are funny, informative, compelling and memorable. It's a hard balance to find.

My only criticisms of this book are minor ones (i.e., not enough to warrant taking a star away from the 5 out of 5 I gave it on I wish that one of the skeletons that they had featured was distinctively female, so prehistoric gender roles could have been addressed. Lapedo child could have been a girl, but we really can't tell. I think the Time Line at the back of the book should have been put in the front - it would help readers put the Turkana Boy, Lapedo Child, Kennewick Man, and the Iceman in an temporal/evolutionary context as the reader encountered each of them, instead of trying to fit them all together at the end.

Unfortunately, Every Bone was written and published right before Svanto Pååbo completed the latest  reconstruction and analysis of the Neandertal genome, which reversed earlier conclusions about ancient humans and Neandertals gene-mixing. The latest genetic analysis suggests that Euro-Asian populations may have interbred with Neandertals between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago, probably in the Middle East (see Nicholas Wade's article in the NYT from May 2010). It must have been frustrating for the authors to see this research appear so soon after their book came out, with its debate section on Lapedo Child that cited Pååbo's earlier suggestion that "Neandertals went extinct without contributing to our gene pool" (p. 79), yet their conclusion notes that research continues, and the bones' stories have just begun.

* Hominin is the new, rather unwieldy term used to classify humans, their ancestors, and closely related species, including the genus Homo and the genus Australopithecus. The Tribe Hominini does not include chimpanzees or gorillas. Hominid, which anthropologists previously used to describe humans and their ancestors, now includes chimpanzees and gorillas as part of the family Hominidae. Got it?

1 comment:

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I love this. I'm off to search for this book!