“Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death” by Brenna Hassett (Bloomsbury, 2017)

No two anthropological books are alike: they may discuss the various species of hominid and how Homo sapiens has adapted and evolved over time, but each anthropologist has her or his own point of view and angle, with prevailing theories and their own evidence to back it up. Built on Bones is the fascinating story of the history of humanity from nomadic hunters, to sedentary farmers, to village dwellers, and eventually city inhabitants as told through the bones of the dead.

Bones tell a story: from the marks and scorings on them, to what shape the entire bone in, to what the skeleton is like, what position and shape it is in, to whether it’s alone or part of a group. Teeth are little gems of wisdom, as unlike other bones, they remain relatively unchanged throughout our lives, once the adult teeth come in. Each angle of wear and tear, the cuts and grooves, the degradation in certain areas all come together to tell the type of life the tooth owner had.

Bioarcheologist Brenna Hassett, drawing on her own fieldwork in Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean, constantly citing first-hand evidence and experience, reveals some incredible findings about humanity over time as it made the change to farmer and the move into hamlets, towns and eventually cities, and what a toll this has had on the human skeleton. Fascinating insights are offered, like hunters and gathers having larger periods of time between offspring because it was harder to carry more than one child of a young age and be nomadic. What effect starting to live close to animals had, as well as being in close proximity to large groups of people, covering the subjects of plague and disease.

Built on Bones ends on an interesting question: was it worth it? How much has humanity sacrificed in coming together to form these towns and cities? There are many points for and against, but only the reader, by the end of the book, will be able to make a truly informed opinion.

Originally written on July 23, 2017 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Europe Before Rome: A Site-by-Site Tour of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages” by T. Douglas Price (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Europe Before Rome

T. Douglas Price is Weinstein Professor of European Archaeology Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Honorary Professor in the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Aarhus, and is the author of Images of the Past, Europe’s First Farmers and Principles of ArchaeologyEurope Before Rome is a site by site exploration of a number of stone, bronze and iron age sites throughout Europe.

Europe Before Rome begins with a history lesson on early hominids leading up to the prehistoric period and into the stone age.  Price uses a number of sites for specific evidence, explaining some of the importance of these sites, but never going into too much detail.  After this introductory chapter, there are main chapters on “The Creative Explosion,” “The First Farmers,” “Bronze Age Warriors” and “Centers of Power, Weapons of Iron”; photos are provided, as well as diagrams where possible.

Ultimately, Europe Before Rome is more of a text book on these many different sites.  Price reveals the important discoveries of many of the sites, but not really in any detail on what affect these artifacts have had on history and their importance.

Originally written on March 14, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann (Knopf, 2005)


If I were to ask you what you know on the subject of the people that lived in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and how they got there, you’d likely tell me they came over from Asia during the last ice age and proceeded to populate North, Central and South America in their small numbers and lived a nominal existence, traveling in tribes, forming their small civilizations, such as the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans, which eventually disappeared and then their lives were changed for the better when Columbus arrived in 1492, and brought the western world of civilization to the Americas.  Charles C. Mann noted essentially this when he read his son’s history books and saw that the supposed accurate history hadn’t changed since he’d been in high school, which didn’t seem right.  And so began years of research and learning that has gone on to change the way the western world sees the history of the Americas pre-Columbus.  While the book was revolutionary when it was released, went on to win awards and make a lot of “best of” lists, there is still a lot of educating of the world to be done with this true history; hopefully this book will help that cause.

In 1491 Mann seeks to reveal the last thirty years of archaeological and anthropological research and discoveries with the hope that it will change and alter all the commonly held assumptions mentioned above.  He does this in a well thought out way, revealing all the evidence and theory on particular subjects, like the whole population of people in the Americas, as well as the sizes and extents of the various empires that formed, and then proving what is the correct one and why, such as the astonishing fact that in 1491 there were likely more people living in the Americas than in Europe!  He goes into detail on the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, revealing their true extensiveness and reach and the affect they had on the people, their development and knowledge, and simple things, like why they had invented the wheel but didn’t use it as a means of transportation, because the rocky or jungle terrain made traveling by wheel wouldn’t be inefficient.  As to the supposed fact that the peopling of the Americas took place around twelve or thirteen thousand years ago with the Bering Strait land bridge, the evidence says otherwise, with some pointing to the mere existence of the peoples in the Americas before this period, as well as the crucial cutoff date with the end of the ice age not correctly coinciding with the people reaching South America according to the timeline; basically the evidence simply proves otherwise.

By the end of the book, the reader has come to the incredible realization that most of what they learned in school about the Americas is completely wrong, and that this supposedly undiscovered continent went on to do amazing things for the rest of the world, such as providing it with three-fifths of the world’s grown goods, including corn (or maize), peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and squash.  In fact the term “new world” may have been somewhat of a misnomer, as it seems possible the settling of the Americas may have happened before western civilization.

Much as Guns, Germs and Steel was revolutionary in changing our outlook on the way the world is, 1491 has the same affect on how the world views the Americas, what its true history was, the immense effect it had on the world after Columbus, and how the idea that these people were simple and primitive is just ridiculous.  The book is by no means an easy read, but once the reader makes it through, the fulfillment is well worthwhile and enlightening to say the least.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Missing Links: In Search of Human Origins” by John Reader (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Missing Links

Missing Links was first published in 1981 and caused quite a sensation then with its findings and information, providing an in-depth and chronological coverage of our ancestry spanning millions of years.  In this new edition, John Reader has essentially written a whole new book, building on the old edition, updating and providing even more information to make Missing Links so very new and fascinating.  John Reader’s work as a writer and photographer for more than fifty years, crossing the globe in his coverage, has led to his appointment as an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at University College London.

The key to this new edition of Missing Links is that it is not just a book of anthropology and archaeology, but also covers the genres of history and biography.  The chapter titles run the gamut of our ancestral species, from Neanderthals to Java Man to Piltdown Man to Peking Man; from Australopithecus africanus to Homo habilis to Ardipithecus ramidus.  Reader doesn’t simply tell the full story of a particular ancestor, but also provides the latest evidence and science on it, as well as giving the biography of when the first bones of said ancestor were discovered, who was behind the discovery, and how it all happened.  Each chapter is its own complete and enriching tale.

Originally written on January 24, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Lone Survivors: How We Came to the Only Humans on Earth” by Chris Stringer (Times Books, 2012)

Lone Survivors

One might say that Chris Stringer has had the ideal career that he dreamed of achieving when, at the age of eighteen, he switched his major from medicine to anthropology and was accepted in the PhD program at Bristol University to study Neanderthals.  Shortly after graduating he received a job offer at the Paleontology Department at the Natural History Museum in London, where he is still a researcher, and is now one of the world’s foremost paleoanthropologists.

Lone Survivors is the ideal book for any would-be fan of anthropology, wanting to get the latest news and discoveries on our ancient ancestors, as well as the perfect text for one either taking an anthropology course or perhaps contemplating switching majors, much as Stringer did.  The book is an easy read in that Stringer’s voice is conversational and pleasant, he breaks everything down to its base parts, and shows complex matters in a clear light.  He has introductory chapters dedicated to the various methods of archaeology used in studying fossils, as well as dating them.  Stringer also skillfully provides constant hints of matters he will be later discussing to entice and keep the reader hooked.  By the end of the book the reader will feel well educated and well versed on our ancestors, as well as up to date on the latest findings in the world of anthropology.

Originally written on February 3, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt” by William Nothdurft, John Smith, et. al. (Random House, 2002)

Lost Dinosaurs of Egyptstarstar

One would not think it that surprising to discover that dinosaur fossils had been discovered within the Sahara Desert of Egypt, considering the immense history this country already has, but apparently from an archaeological perspective, this is pretty rare.  What is even more amazing is that these dinosaur fossils were actually the largest ever found.  Yet they remain relatively unknown due to the stupid efforts of archaeologists and patrons during the early twentieth century when they were discovered.  Sadly, this book lacks in that it could be a third shorter and pertain more to the actual subject at hand than going on fictional tangents.  It creates a question of what is real and what is not, most important in the study of fossils many millions of years old.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on November 25th, 2002.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.