The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack
June 11, 2019 8:04 PM - by Ian Tattersall - Subscribe

n his new book The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, human paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall argues that a long tradition of "human exceptionalism" in paleoanthropology has distorted the picture of human evolution. Drawing partly on his own career—from young scientist in awe of his elders to crotchety elder statesman—Tattersall offers an idiosyncratic look at the competitive world of paleoanthropology, beginning with Charles Darwin 150 years ago, and continuing through the Leakey dynasty in Africa, and concluding with the latest astonishing findings in the Caucasus.

The book's title refers to the 1856 discovery of a clearly very old skull cap in Germany's Neander Valley. The possessor had a brain as large as a modern human, but a heavy low braincase with a prominent brow ridge. Scientists tried hard to explain away the inconvenient possibility that this was not actually our direct relative. One extreme interpretation suggested that the preserved leg bones were curved by both rickets, and by a life on horseback. The pain of the unfortunate individual's affliction had caused him to chronically furrow his brow in agony, leading to the excessive development of bone above the eye sockets.
The subsequent history of human evolutionary studies is full of similarly fanciful interpretations. With tact and humor, Tattersall concludes that we are not the perfected products of natural processes, but instead the result of substantial doses of random happenstance.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (2 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not rickety and I'm not a cossack, I'm an archaic human! But man did it take a while for the powers that be to grok that. Anthropology and archaeology are fields who's antecedents were full of vim, vinegar, and bad science. Well, more like bad conclusions based on faulty evidence based on assumptions. This is a great book on all the mistakes about human evolution that were thought to be true in the recent past. Ranging from the honest mishap- to the way-too-territorial-about-their-mistaken-findings guys to the what were they thinking?. It's a good book about all the ways science has been mistaken (and right!) about us and our ancestors.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:08 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I took a paleo-anthropology class at NYU in the late nineties. The professor mercilessly and repeatedly mocked the idea that homo sapiens had ever interbred with neanderthals. This was described as both physically and genetically impossible. It was a great class, but this particular observation did not age well... I remain very interested in this stuff.
posted by xammerboy at 8:01 PM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

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