Upon receiving When Dinosaurs Conquered the Skies from Quarto Publishing recently, I was surprised to learn that between it and When the Whales Walked, two other books had come out in its “Incredible Evolution” pseudo-series. As someone who has frequently bemoaned the lack of good paleobotany books, I was perhaps most intrigued by When Plants Took Over the Planet, though I have yet to find it. However, my local library DID have When We Became Humans in stock, which I was still more than happy to get a hold of! So how does it compare to its fellows? Let’s find out!
Written by Michael Bright & illustrated by Hannah Bailey (who also illustrated the first book in the series), this book actually begins with much less preamble than the other books. The little background it does give however lays a very strong foundation for the rest of the book, with a great visual representation of how we define the various taxonomic clades that humans belong to, in a manner that reminds me a bit of Grandmother Fish. It certainly helpful to start a book such as this with a working knowledge of the difference between hominids & hominins!
From there, the book follows the line of human evolution, from the earliest known primates that lived right around the time of the end of the dinosaurs, up through the development of human civilizations. Some of the earlier species share a page, which most of the more “advanced” species get their own pages. This section of the book covers:
- Purgatorius & Archicebus
- Aegyptopithecus, Proconsul, & Pierolapithecus
- Lucy (Australopithecus)
- Homo habilis
- Homo erectus
- Homo heidelbergensis
- Homo neanderthalensis (& Denisovans)
- Homo sapiens
This section does a decent job explaining what made each species of primate unique, and how certainly evolutionary innovations divide the categories we use from each other. While it’s of greater importance later in the book, we do get some discussion on early bits of hominin technology & culture, such as the explanation of how Oldowan & Acheulean stone flake tools were created, and even how we can tell them apart from rocks that have simply cracked in odd ways.
Once Homo sapiens appears on the scene, the book shifts gears to describe the development of ancient human cultures, and the artifacts they created. This change in focus takes up the second half of the book, which I like, as it emphasizes that our continuing cultural development is every bit a part of our evolution as the process divergence from other primates. (While not stated as explicitly, I feel this emphasis is similar in spirit to Unnatural Selection, which emphasizes that “artificial selection” still counts as evolution, every bit as much as natural selection does.)
While other hominins were mostly discussed in the previous section of the book, a few do make a brief reappearance in the latter half, when the author discusses the interbreeding of various human species. While we do not descend from Neanderthals, but are their cousins, our ancestors did cross paths with them when some of them migrated out of Africa, and interbred with them to some extent. A similar interbreeding occurred with the Denisovans, so most of us carry at least a small percentage of genetic material that can be traced to one group or the other. The enigmatic Homo floresiensis also appears in this section as an interesting side branch that did not seem to contribute to the modern human gene pool.
I gotta say, this was a pretty well done book. It’s clear and direct, and it has a sense of focus that surpasses the other two books in this series I’ve looked at so far. The artwork is lovely as ever, even if my only true criticism for the book involves a couple of illustration goofs. (Near the beginning, a dinosaur is shown that seems to have its eyeball in the antorbital fenestrae, or the hollow in front of the actual eye socket, while the scene illustrating the “Buffalo Jump” depicts Water Buffalo rather than the American Bison.) All in all, I highly recommend When We Became Humans for older children curious about the natural history of our lineage. It’s one of the best I’ve seen on human evolution specifically, so far, and definitely top tier overall, earning my Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!
For more books that touch on human evolution, see my reviews of Fossil Huntress: Mary Leakey, Mega Meltdown, Mammal Takeover! (Earth Before Us #3) & Grandmother Fish.