Book Review: Meeting Prehistoric Man

Meeting Prehistoric Manby GHR Von Koenigswald is a journey throughout the world in discovery of early man as paleoanthropologists understood him during VonKoenigswald’s time, circa 1950’s (the book

was written in 1956). Because the early iterations of man’s genus, Homo, was widely spread throughout the world, Koenigswald took his research to those disparate locations, in search of what our progenitors were truly like.

  • to Java where a 1.8 million year old skullcap of a young boy was discovered in 1936 (Mojokerto child). The youngster suffered a violent death—the hind part of the skull was crushed by a mighty blow and in places the bones were not broken, but telescoped one over the other as is only possible with fresh bone. The upper jaw was also broken. Scientists speculate he might have been killed by Gigantopithecus (a pre-human species). This was followed up by Eugene Du Bois’ discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus, or Java Man, what DuBois considered the missing link but turned out to be a wonderful representation of Homo erectus.
  • to China where he discovered 1.8 million year old bones of Gigantopithecus, a giant pre-Australopithecus early man. This is also where the 800,000 year old bones of Lantian Man were discovered in the Shaanxi province
  • to South Africa where the 2 million year old bones of an Australopithecine were found in a limestone cave called Sterkfontain Cave. Dubbed Mrs Ples, this is the world’s most complete skull of Australopithecus africanus, and were discovered by Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson in April 1947.
  • To Europe
    • to Sussex Forger and Lascaux Cave
    • More recently, Gran Dolina in Spain has been a site of an 800,000 year-old shelter inhabited by Homo antecessor. These representatives of early man present some spectacularly “modern” characteristics, particularly its face, together with other traits which are very similar to those of Homo ergaster. The Gran Dolina face is almost like our own: flat and very gracile.
  • to East Africa where a plethora of early man’s bones have been found over time, most after Von Koenigswald’s work there, most during the Leakey’s groundbreaking research in Olduvai Gorge. These include:
    • Turkana Boy (1.6 million year old Homo ergaster. This early man had no apelike reliance on trees. His narrow pelvis and barrel-like chest emphasize bipedalism. A narrow pelvis in females implies a constricted birth canal, limiting the amount of brain growth before birth, and prolonging infancy, as in modern humans.  A reduced digestive tract indicates a diet containing more meat and tubers.
    • Nariokotome Boy, discovered by a team led by R. Leakey and A. Walker in 1984 (well after Von Koenigswald was there). This is the most complete early human skeleton ever discovered. The specimen was dated to 1.6 myr, and is considered by some as ergaster, but to most researchers it is erectus. The relative completeness of this specimen allowed detailed examination of the anatomy of erectus, and has led to many influential ideas about this species. It is the skeleton of a 10-12 year old individual (generally considered male). The teeth are unworn. Shovel-shaped incisors. Nariokotome Boy was 5’3″ (168 cm) tall at death, and may have been as tall as 6’0″ (183 cm) if it had reached maturity. His cause of death is unknown but there are no signs of trauma or toothmarks that might be due to his being killed by a predator. May have died from septicemia following an infected jaw, and fell face down into a shallow swamp at Nariokotome, on the western side of Lake Turkana, in Kenya. Omo River at that time was flowing in a huge braided stream over the area where today’s Lake Turkana lies
    • “Chellean Man—1.2 million year old fairly complete braincase (size approx. 1050 cc) of Homo erectus discovered by Louis Leakey
    • “Pinhead—800kMyear old Homo erectus skull found by M. Cropper in 1962 in Olduvai Gorge.

Some of my favorite quotes from this book include:

  • Man did not address his inquiries to the earth on which he stood until a remarkably late stage in the development of his desire for knowledge. And the answers he received to the questions ‘Where do I come from?’, ‘What is man?’, although they made him poorer by a few illusions, gave him in compensation a knowledge of his past that is vaster than he could ever have dreamed. For it emerged that the history of life was his history too.
  • As late as 1650, Archbishop Ussher of Ireland said that our earth was created on Oct. 4, 4004 b.c.
  • Today, hippos are confined to Africa, but as fossils they also occur in Europe, India and Java.
  • A single discovery may change the whole state of affairs
  • To judge by the thigh bones, Peking Man was about five feet two inches tall in the case of the male with the female some five inches less
  • After all this, there could be no doubt that the orangutan, which is today confined to Borneo and Sumatra, was originally a native of China as well.
  • the region of Borneo was somehow connected with Asia. Java itself lay beneath the sea until towards the end of the Tertiary.

As an aficionado of early man, I found this book highly readable, just detailed enough to learn from without the complicated jargon that only a PhD in paleoanthropology can understand.


7 Responses to “Book Review: Meeting Prehistoric Man”

  1. 1 Dyan Bruneau
    August 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    I was wondering if somone can explain the years of the earth to me? I read about 300 ad or bc then 1000,000 bc, but do not know how it is counted to connect to todays years? I hope I have explained myself correctly? what was the date of years prior to the year 1 (one) in out time?

    • August 13, 2011 at 8:41 pm

      BC is ‘before Christ’, now replaced with BCE, or ‘before current era’. It is commonly accepted to be the years prior to the year 0. 1million BC (or BCE–they’re the same) would be during the Pleistocene, during the era of Homo erectus/Homo habilis, long before the era of modern man. It’s a fascinating time, one I spend a lot of time reading about.

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