Proconsul book reviewed in Science

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Proctor reviewed Alan Walker and Pat Shipman's new book, The Ape in the Tree: An Intellectual and Natural History of Proconsul. Here's a quote:

Walker is probably best known for having found the Nariokotome Boy, a 1.7-million-year-old specimen of Homo erectus (or H. ergaster, as the splitters have it). The discovery and significance of that remarkably complete hominid fossil from the western shores of Lake Turkana are beautifully chronicled in the authors' Wisdom of the Bones (1), which won the Rhone-Poulenc science books prize. The Ape in the Tree is a successor volume of sorts, presented with Shipman's well-honed flair for telling a good story. And it offers lots of good stories: from early carnivals with apes (Consul was a famous Parisian performing chimp from 1903), to early fossil hunters attacked by hippos and eaten by crocodiles, to Louis Leakey's push to find very early cultural hominids in Africa (and, less sagely, even in America, whence his endorsement of the bogus Calico Early Man site in California). We read about how the 1947 Pan-African Congress of Prehistory became a turning point in the recognition of Africa as the birthplace of humanity (as Darwin had predicted and most everyone else had later denied); about Leakey et al.'s expedition to Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, where Mary Leakey in 1948 found a nearly complete Proconsul skull; about Louis Leakey's misfired efforts to humanize the creature; and about how a "pothole" full of fossils on Rusinga turned out to be a hollowed-out petrified tree (Proctor 2005:1188).

I've flipped through the book at Barnes and Noble; one of the things the review doesn't mention is the inclusion of some very nice artwork by John Gurche (including the cover).

So, the discovery of Miocene apes might not seem like the most compelling subject (and indeed I haven't been compelled to buy it yet), but it does offer some new stories for those tired of shopworn tales about early hominids.


Proctor RN. 2005. Finding life in old bones. Science 309:1188. Full text (subscription required)