Java Man; Carl Swisher, Garniss Curtis, Roger Lewin; 2000; University of Chicago Press; 235 pgs; Notes, index
Paleoanthropologists are, for the most part a bunch of dicks. Louis Leaky was arrogant. His son is the same, and Donald Johanson of Lucy fame is perhaps the biggest of them all. But there are exceptions, like the discovery of a huge cache of bones in South Africa a few years ago. This was an amazing find. Most paleontologists would keep the bones under wraps for years, and them let them out for brief periods to fatten their wallets or egos. But these discoverers cast every fossil they found and distributed them on demand. There bones went from unknown to the most studied in history in a few short years.
There are several reasons for this: anything really rare is valuable and coveted and scientific glory goes to those who publish first (so it makes sense to keep your discovery to yourself until you have extracted every ounce of data from it). They are often in it for themselves first and science second.
The history of paleoanthropology is full of "my back yard" prejudice. Englishmen argued that the first man must be English! Ha-rumph. That sort of thing.
Anyway… to the book. The authors are more geo-chronologists than paleoanthropologists. Java Man (and Peking Man and a few others) were found more than a century ago, and many of the original fossils disappeared during the war, due in no small measure to the aforementioned hubris.
The story follows the author's attempts to find and date hominid fossils. It is an interesting story with the usual all-to-human scientific intrigues. It was written in 2000, a mere 17 years ago, but since then much of the human tree has been re-written, or at least edited. The upshot of their findings was to place Java Man much recently in time than previously thought. This is always met with resistance (old == good, young == bad). The upshot of the book is too add evidence to the ever more complex tree of human life showing that many species of "human" may have been contemporaneous in more recent points in history than we ever thought. That is, go back 100,000 years and you might be able to bump into several types of Homo. Only one survived, of course.
Once funny story: The group was fossil-hunting in Java. Bones fragment can be small and hard to find. The authors had in inspiration: pay the locals for bones… 10 cents each. But the law of unexpected consequences reared its head. The locals would try to sell the same bone over and over, such that it became cheaper to buy them, rather than to re-examine and reject them, again and again. That was not a big deal. But the LoUC has many heads and people the world over are smart. One skull cap is worth 10 cents. One skull cap and a hammer is worth two bucks. The locals would smash the more valuable fossils to extract more money. The good news is that the breaks were obvious and easy to fix with crazy glue.
I recently read a book by the son Louis Alvarez (of dinosaur-killing comet fame). It was not terribly good and I did not forward my notes. But it had a great bibliography from which this book came. More dino-stuff to come, folks…
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.