This is a story of intrigue, of anger, of decisions made at the point of a gun. Friendships made and lost, bitter jealousies, dizzying discoveries.
Not exactly what usually comes to mind when you think about archaeology.
St. Paul author Kermit Pattison donned his metaphorical pith helmet and cargo shorts and created a work of staggering depth that brings us into the search for the oldest human. In “Fossil Men,” he recounts the saga of “Ardi,” a skeleton uncovered in the rugged hills of Ethiopia by a brilliant and irascible American paleoanthropologist considered by many the world’s premier fossil hunter.
Ardi — short for Ardipithecus ramidus — is the bony remains of a woman more than 4.4 million years old. Believed to be the earliest human ancestor yet discovered, she was dug from the ground by a team led by Tim White, a larger-than-life personality whose energy at excavating and classifying bones is matched only by his fervor for disagreeing disagreeably with other scientists.
White’s grudges and battles with his peers are a recurring theme throughout the book, as he angrily fights off skeptics in academic wars waged at the highest levels of the international scientific establishment. White’s discovery threatened to upend beliefs about evolution that generations of academics had built their careers upon, and many weren’t ready to cede turf easily.
Meanwhile, teams at the excavation sites in the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia often found themselves in the midst of real wars, as the country suffered through political upheavals as well as the ancient enmities of competing rural tribes.
Pattison deftly weaves strands of science, sociology and political science into a compelling tale that stretches over decades. His discussions of scientific theories and phenomena are sophisticated enough for the expert yet clear and understandable to the novice.
He spent more than five years researching the book, including several trips to the dig sites. The amount of material he juggles is astounding, yet he never loses the thread. His prose is lively and accessible, bringing to life topics that could be insufferably dry and dense in the wrong hands.
The story of Ardi is a mystery, Pattison writes, about the most fundamental mystery of all: Where did we come from? Like any good mystery, Pattison’s tale is brimming with scoundrels, heroes, wrong turns and surprising twists. It’s an ambitious work that fully justifies the extraordinary effort that went into it, both by the fossil men and by the writer who chronicled their work.
John Reinan is a Star Tribune reporter. • 612-673-7402 @StribGuy
By: Kermit Pattison.
Publisher: William Morrow, 544 pages, $32.50.