“The Five Million Year Odyssey” reveals how migration shaped humanity

The Odyssey of five million years
Peter Bellwood
Princeton University, $29.95

Archaeologist Peter Bellwood’s academic odyssey went from England to teaching positions halfway around the world, first in New Zealand and then in Australia. For more than 50 years, he has studied how humans settled islands from Southeast Asia to Polynesia.

So it’s fitting that his new book, a plain-English summary of what is and isn’t known about the evolution of humans and our ancestors, emphasizes the movement. In The Odyssey of five million yearsBellwood examines a parade of species in the human evolutionary family: he refers to them collectively as hominids, while some others (including Science news) uses the term hominids (SN: 9/15/21) and tracks their migrations by land and sea. It brings together evidence indicating that hominids on the move continually changed the direction of biological and cultural evolution.

Throughout his tour, Bellwood presents his own take on controversial issues. But when the available evidence leaves a debate unresolved, he says so. Think of the first hominids. Species at least 4.4 million years old or older whose hominid status is disputed, such as Ardipithecus ramidus, get a brief mention. Bellwood does not pass a verdict on whether these finds come from early hominids or ancient apes. Instead, it focuses on the African australopithecines, a group of upright but partly ape-like species that are thought to have included populations that evolved into members of our own genus. man, between 2.5 and 3 million years ago. Bellwood hammers home the point that the manufacture of stone tools by the last Australopithecines, the first man groups or both contributed to the evolution of larger brains in our ancestors.

The action accelerates when standing man becomes the first known hominid to leave Africa, approximately 2 million years ago. Questions remain, Bellwood writes, about how many such migrations occurred and whether this human species reached distant islands like Flores in Indonesia, perhaps giving rise to small hominids called hobbits, or Homo floresiensis (SN: 30/3/16). What is clear is that H. erected groups traveled across mainland Asia and at least as far as the Indonesian island of Java.

Intercontinental migrations flourished thereafter A wise man debuted about 300,000 years ago in Africa. Greetings Bellwood H. wise, Neanderthals and Denisovans as distinct species that interbred in certain parts of Asia and Europe. It suggests that Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago when they mated with members of larger H. wise populations, leaving a genetic legacy to people today. But it doesn’t address such a different counterargument man Populations at this time, including Neanderthals, were too closely related to have been separate species and that it was intermittent mating between these mobile groups that drove the evolution of modern humans (SN: 6/5/21).

Bellwood devotes considerable attention to the increase in food production and domestication in Europe and Asia after about 9,000 years ago. It is based on an argument, derived from his 2004 book First farmers, that expanding populations of early cultivators migrated to new lands in such large numbers that they spread the major language families with them. For example, farmers in what is now Turkey spread Indo-European languages ​​across much of Europe about 8,000 years ago, Bellwood says.

He rejects a recent alternative proposal, based on ancient DNA evidence, that the horse herders of the Yamnaya culture of Central Asia brought their Indo-European languages ​​and traditions to Europe about 5,000 years ago (SN: 11/15/17). Too few Yamnaya migrated to impose a new language on European communities, Bellwood says. Similarly, he argues, ancient Eurasian conquerors, from Alexander the Great to the Roman emperors, were unable to get speakers of regional languages ​​to adopt new dialects from their outnumbered military masters.

Bellwood completes his evolutionary odyssey with a reconstruction of how the first agricultural populations expanded across East Asia and beyond to Australia, a chain of Pacific islands, and the Americas. Between 4,000 and 750 years ago, for example, seafaring farmers spread Austronesian languages ​​from southern China and Taiwan to Madagascar in the west and Polynesia in the east. Exactly how they accomplished this remarkable feat remains a puzzle.

Bellwood unfortunately ignores a recent archaeological argument that ancient societies were more flexible and complex than long assumed (SN: 9/11/21). Moreover, its evolutionary odyssey is moving at a rapid pace and, like our ancestors, it covers a lot of ground.


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