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The Origin of Man by Richard Leakey Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Apr 4th, 2019

The book ‘Origin of Mankind’ by Richard Leakey is an exciting book to read. On analyzing the contents of the book, one realizes that Leakey was not only interested in the historical occurrences and sequences but on the reasons of the events at every stage of his discoveries.

He gave good analysis of every stage of human prehistoric species and gave solutions to some unanswered questions like the shape of human tree, gradual increase in the size of the human brain and the start of complex languages. On every issue raised above, he backs up with reasonable answers such as the first man in the planet seven million years ago and how modern man evolved from Homo erectus.

The first chapter of the book contains an analysis of how Darwin manipulated anthropologists and the manner in which recent research studies have changed the perception of human origin having a great inclination to the African apes. There is a critical analysis of the work of Charles Darwin letter concerning the ‘Origin of the Human Species’. Unlike the creation stories from religious books, Darwin stated that human beings evolved from apes to what they are today.

Just like Darwin, Richard Leakey has the same viewpoint that man evolved from apes and takes a contrary view to the creationist’s theories. Darwin’s theory has received a lot of criticism from different religions who believe that a supernatural being placed two people on earth who continued the lifeline of human beings.

In trying to prove his ideologies, Leakey tries to prove his arguments from a biological approach rather than a cultural perspective. He argues that this is an immense development in the profession because it allows proposal to be tested with things that already exist in the environment like animals.

When anthropologists realized that technology and the ability of the human mind exhibit different characteristics over time, they had to take a different approach in the quest to find the steps of evolution of mankind. It is for this reason that they have decided to provide evidence based on biological facts rather than cultural dimension.

According to Leakey’s study, several incomplete specimen’s had been discovered in southern and eastern Africa between the years one million and four million years ago though many others are being discovered. The oldest fossil of human resemblance seen in Eurasia is estimated to have been in existence for two million years.

The challenge the anthropologist have is getting the answers of which human species occupied the world and how they survived in this time. The next challenge is to give interrelations of the species as they evolved or the family tree of human beings.

Their biggest challenge is inconsistencies in geological records. Darwin had earlier complained about it in one chapter of his book because it was frustrating to his work due to exposure of species and fossilization.

The other big challenge of anthropologists is due to the fact that majority of the fossils found are very small in size. For instance, a piece of cranium, a small piece of bone from the skull, feet or teeth makes it difficult for identification. The identification process of these specimens is complex and scientists at times find it impossible to identify.

Discovery of fossils in Africa started in 1924 by Raymond Dart with the initial discovery of Taung child. The specimen resembled a child and was covered by Taung limestone hence its name. It is estimated that the child lived two million years ago even though the exact time of the existence of the quarry has not been estimated.

Early researchers of evolution argue that evolution was directly related to several other activities. For example, man was able to stand so that he could grasp weapons, when he acquired the weapons there was no reason for him to have many teeth and big mouth hence, the reduction of size jaws.

From this argument, one is left to wonder whether to believe that evolution had a correlation with the ability of holding weapons and whether weapons had anything meaningful to existence of man. Because of this assumption which argues that, weapons changed the way we evolved, describing how jaws and the mouth got smaller, how work and daily life was made efficient because of weapons, Leakey takes a different approach using modern scientific research.

In his propositions, Leakey starts the historic evolution of man from the bipedal apes. These were the first group of apes that walked on only two feet and not all the four though they did not display characteristics of human beings. Even though they were able to walk on two feet, they were apes.

On comparing apes and human beings, bipedal apes were more efficient in terms of energy conservation and mobility when they used two feet rather than four. Other reasons provided for bipedal Ape’s ability to walk on two feet was so as to enable them have an enhanced cooling system and the ability to watch over things in tall grass.

According to Richard Leakey, the first human existed seven million years ago, they walked on two feet and they resembled baboons. He further argues that the concerns of evolution are not long term but arise as a result of changes experienced in the environment like in the case when a species dies.

By 1950, “Australopithecus Africanus, the smaller one and Australopithecus Rubustus, the bigger one were the only species recognized as humans” (Leakey 19) they ate food by biting rather than grinding, stood and walked on their two feet, females were half the weight of males and an inch or more shorter than males.

At this stage, the bipedal apes were a little bit advanced than before. Australopithecus gradually evolved to ‘homo habilus’ and ‘homo sapiens’ which exhibited more advanced characteristics. The immediate stage of evolution after Australopithecus is homo habilus then Homo sapiens which is the modern human being that has got the most advanced characteristics.

Darwin further suggests that the modern man will evolve in future to a more complex being originating outside the human beings with bigger heads for large brains (Murray 88). According to him, this will be the most advanced generation of human men which we are yet to witness.

Another human was found named Lucy who was a grown up adult, three feet tall, looked like an ape and had longer arms and legs compared to the ordinary human being. The remains were found intact by the time of examination. Before this time, anthropologists had not found proof of a bipedal ape.

Richard Leakey elaborates five procedures through which food was shared which are “bipedal modes of locomotion, spoken language, sharing food, living in a home base and hunting large preys” (22). This was necessitated by the discovery of a camp which facilitated the social orientation and the manner in which food was shared.

This clearly illustrates the fact that even though man was a hunter, the most important thing about them was the social activities that they engaged in. The revelation that they shared food is enough proof that their involvement in social activities was a critical part of their life. Of all the major occurrences in the evolution of man from the bipedal ape, the period of the enlarged brain, the beginning of modern humans and the emergence of the modern generation of men like us is the biggest issue of concern to anthropologists today.

Several assumptions are debated every now and then and the subsequent results are productions of books, journals and scientific papers containing conflicting information on evolution. Men like us imply modern Homo sapiens who have an affinity towards technology, creativity and a strong affiliation to good moral values.

It is evident that a few years ago, civilization has been seen to in all forms of human life starting a few thousand years ago. For instance, social frameworks have been becoming complex, village elders giving way for chiefs, chiefs giving way for cities and cities giving way for nations. From the above flow, the level of complexity is rising as a result of cultural evolution and not biological dynamics.

According to Binford, the activity of hunting started with the emergence of Homo sapiens. He thought that skillful hunting started with this group of early men. He also held the idea that the homo group of species did not resemble the modern man and that human beings advanced within a very short period of time. This is contrary to the arguments of Charles Darwin and Richard Leakey that man evolved slowly and over a very long period of time.

Within the content of the book, the author gives evidence that man practiced scavenging. Among the evidence that support this argument is when it was found out that man scraped meat from the bone. According to Moore (21), “there is a connection between bones and stones in the sense that stones were used to crash the bones and scrap meat off it.

At those historical sites, stone flakes were found to have been put together signifying that human beings had a collection of tools in the same area and they used the stones to scrap meat off the bones.” According to the author, scavenging was a common activity among the human beings and that they had a common place where they accumulated stone flakes. It follows that humans had not become sophisticated hunters and scavengers three million years ago (Moore 65).

The book also covers the art of language in the sixth chapter. He argues that human prehistory reveals that the human art had a lot of imitation from animals as can be seen from carves, paintings and sculptures made thirty thousand years ago. At this age, human beings had advanced and were now occupying the old world generation as the new world dawned.

Whenever people from different regions drew pictures, they produced images of things that were within their environment. They could not avoid reproducing images in their immediate environment which the author believes had a lot of meaning and were mysterious.

The author recalls a visit to one of the caves in France which was beautifully decorated in 1980. He had been in the venue taking videos for BBC TV when he used the opportunity to inspect historical artifacts. One of the most decorated caves of the Ice Ages is the Lascaux in Europe and has been restricted to the public since 1963 to preserve the originality of the paintings. This is an example of the works art by the modern man.

There is also a description of the origin of the human mind. According to the findings of the author, there are three major happenings that are significant to the life of human beings on earth. The initial stage is the origin of life which is estimated at about three and half million years ago.

Richard Leakey argues that man started life in form of a micro organism which was a powerful show in a world that had been dominated by chemistry and physics. The next revolution of mankind is the emergence of multi cellular organisms approximately five hundred million years ago.

Life gradually became more advanced since animals and plants of all forms intermingled in fertile environments. Leakey argues that man started gaining consciousness around two and half million years ago which he considers as the third revolution. Life became very powerful that it started changing everything that was in the world.

Neanderthals, which the author wrote about lived between one hundred and thirty to one hundred and forty years ago. All the fossils that were found between these periods have proven that they were more advanced than Homo erectus.

As culture evolved over the years, the same happened to the human brain that made culture to be more advanced and complicated. Leaky identified East Africa as the first place that man originated from (Morgan 23).

Anthropologists also thought of multiple regions that man might have originated from and evolved over a long spread of time. Unlike the bipedal apes, Neanderthals had characteristics that were closer to the modern man. They used grunts to organize their language, their feet and hands were longer, and the skull was enlarged and had protruding eyebrows.

This group of evolving humans was better in hunting and scavenging compared to homo geniuses. According to the author, Neanderthals was the group of evolving people that lived just before the emergence of Homo sapiens. They didn’t live long enough because they were destroyed by the ice age though the assumption is not clear.

In conclusion, the book covers human prehistoric times and evolution stages that man went through from a being primitive to more advanced and complex humans. It also highlights the work of Charles Darwin and how he influenced the work of evolution of man. Bipedal apes which were the first apes to walk on two feet are wholly covered.

They advanced to Australopithecus that possessed more advanced characteristics. In his analysis, Leakey uses a simple survey to investigate important fossils which are accepted to date. There is a discussion of the contentious issue of social culture and language of art as anthropologist actively searched for the origin of man. The most captivating part of the wok is discussion on origin of the human consciousness and language.

Works Cited

Leakey, Richard. The Origin of Humankind, New Yolk: Basic Books, 1994. Print.

Moore, Nathan. The Theory of Evolution: An Inquiry, Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1931. Print.

Morgan, Henry. The Religion of the Hindus, New York: The Ronald Press, 1853. Print.

Murray, Iain. The Puritan Hope, London: Banner of Truth, 1971. Print.

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