06/12/2015

The Peculiarity of Homo Sapiens

17:27 minutes

Earlier hominid fossils discussed in Ian Tattersall's book. Clockwise from top left: the Sangiran 17 "Homo erectus" cranium from Java; a late "Homo erectus" skullcap from Ngandong, Java; the "Homo heidelbergensis" cranium from Petralona, Greece; the "Homo heidelbergensis" cranium from Dali, in China. To scale. All drawn by Don McGranaghan except top right, by Diana Salles (from "The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack" Copyright © Ian Tattersall, 2015)
Earlier hominid fossils discussed in Ian Tattersall’s book. Clockwise from top left: the Sangiran 17 “Homo erectus” cranium from Java; a late “Homo erectus” skullcap from Ngandong, Java; the “Homo heidelbergensis” cranium from Petralona, Greece; the “Homo heidelbergensis” cranium from Dali, in China. To scale. All drawn by Don McGranaghan except top right, by Diana Salles. From “The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack” Copyright © Ian Tattersall, 2015

Modern humans are the only surviving hominin from what was once a rich, fairly bushy family tree. But why did we alone survive? We may never have a definitive answer to that question—but we shouldn’t be too quick to underestimate the intelligence of our ancestors, says anthropologist Ian Tattersall, author of The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales From Human Evolution. (Read an excerpt.)

His book details the efforts of anthropologists to untangle our messy human lineage, based solely on the subtle differences in the skeletons of our forebears. And it documents anthropologists’ evolving theories about our human origins, as well as some of their most spectacular mistakes, such as the characterization of an early Neanderthal fossil as a Cossack horseman afflicted with rickets so severe, he furrowed his brow into a permanent expression of pain.

Segment Guests

Ian Tattersall

Ian Tattersall is curator emeritus of the division of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, New York.

Meet the Producer

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata is Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

Explore More

What Lemurs Can Teach Us About Human Evolution

An excerpt From "The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales From Human Evolution."

Read More