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The Human Fossil Record. Vol. 4, Craniodental Morphology of Early Hominids (Genera Australopithecus, Parathropus, Orrorin): An Overview

The Human Fossil Record. Vol. 4, Craniodental Morphology of Early Hominids (Genera Australopithecus, Parathropus, Orrorin): An Overview

By Jeffery H. Schwartz and Ian Tattersall. Pp. vii + 561, figs. 254, pls. 40. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken 2005. $195. ISBN 0-471-31929-5 (cloth).

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This publication continues a catalogue sequence that began in 2002. The authors produced a volume per year, with volume 3 (The Human Fossil Record: Brain Endocasts: The Paleoneurological Evidence [Hoboken 2004]) authored separately by Holloway, Broadfield, and Yuan. These volumes are a necessary addition to any university library and essential for any serious scholar in human evolutionary studies.

Each volume is consistent in the production of information for each hominid site and its fossil specimens, portioned and described in the following categories: location, discovery, material, dating and stratigraphic context, archaeological context, previous descriptions and analyses, morphology, references, and repository. Volume 4 contains discussions of 23 fossil-bearing sites produced in an alphabetical sequence. The book is divided into three major parts, with the inclusion of a small appendix discussing additional fossil remains added to the fossil sites and specimens included in volume 2 of the series. Part 1, “Introduction,” includes an abbreviated description of the standardized elements contained in each of the volumes (3–19). Part 2, “Site Entries,” composes the bulk of the tome (21–461), and part 3, “Hominid Craniodental Morphologies: An Overview,” represents the synthetic part of the volume and combines information encompassed in each of the Schwartz and Tattersall authored volumes (463–551). Thus, volume 4 is really two books in one—or one book (parts 1 and 2) and one lengthy summary article (part 3).

The authors, in the preface to volume 1, noted that the objective of their data collection was to produce four volumes describing the craniodental sample of all known fossil hominids and to publish in a timely fashion. They have certainly lived up to that bold objective. Additionally, there is a hint that the authors will consider extending the series with a description and discussion of the postcranial elements from each of these fossil-bearing sites. Thus, in the end, the only missing fossils will be from hominid sites on the continent of Australia.

Paleoanthropology has a history of producing catalogues of fossil hominid remains. These works become increasingly more complex over time as the fossil record of human evolution becomes increasingly dense with discoveries in just the last three decades, adding a significant dimension to our understanding of hominid populations across geography and through time. The most recent of these catalogues is a series starting in 1990 with additions made through 2000, edited by Rosine Orban and Patrick Semal at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. This series contains entries from fossil sites primarily in Europe and Asia, with each country, and separate site entry, authored by different individuals. This style of hominid catalogue carries on from the multiauthored tradition of a three-volume set, The Catalogue of Fossil Hominids (K. Oakley et al., eds. [London]), produced in the 1960s and 1970s. For each fossil site, in a series of coded entry categories, all the basic information on the history, context, dating, and fossil specimens is given for that particular site. Unlike the Schwartz and Tattersall books, each of the three volumes of The Catalogue suffers from a lack of comprehensive photographs of individual fossil specimens.

Within this genre of catalogues, Schwartz and Tattersall’s entries and descriptions are produced solely by the authors themselves. The extensive descriptive elements of the fossils show consistency and are complete and up-to-date. Thus, a serious student or professional in human evolutionary studies, in one handy source, can use the volumes to begin the process of accumulating the relevant information pertaining to a grouping of fossil hominids. It is not meant to reproduce all points of view but to supply a starting point from which scholars can begin their own research and critical analyses. Although Schwartz and Tattersall present their descriptions in categories termed “morphs,” which may or may not be acceptable to individual researchers, the quantity and quality of the descriptive elements are awesome. However, reviews of the series seem to agree that the major weakness of the volumes is the lack of measurement data (e.g., M.H. Day, Journal of Human Evolution 43 [2002] 767–68; K. Rosenberg, American Journal of Human Biology 15 [2003] 729–31; S.R. Zakrzewski, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 15 [2005] 150–52; D. Strait, American Journal of Human Biology 18 [2006] 229–30).

Part 3 of volume 4 represents a synthesis of the information presented in each of the volumes. The section begins as a general critique of prevailing views of the interpretation of the hominid fossil record, and claims that a kind of stagnation has dominated the field of paleoanthropology. Schwartz and Tattersall then go forward with their own interpretation of the fossil evidence. This analysis breaks from tradition and is a celebration of the diversity represented in the morphs described. This discussion becomes somewhat sterile, however, and the analysis seems to stop abruptly when they become overwhelmed by the diversity represented by the fossil record: “a variety that is inadequately described or organized by any of the constructs of hominid systematics that are on offer today, including our own” (510). Their analysis also reflects a rejection of one of the basic practices in fossil studies—the placement of fossils into the biological category of species. The field of paleoanthropology will be responsible for the evaluation of this partial synthesis; at present, we can only speculate as to its impact on the future of human evolutionary studies.

A year after The Catalogue of Fossil Hominids: Americas, Asia, Australasia (the third volume of the three-volume series) was published in 1975, Howells noted in a review (The Quarterly Review of Biology 51.2 [1976] 347): “The future problem will not be obsolescence, only incompleteness which is unavoidable.” Unlike the situation in the 1970s, we can only hope that future fossil finds can be incorporated into this work, appended in some printed or digital format, so that it remains as timely in the future as it is today. Indeed, the effectiveness of all the volumes of The Human Fossil Record would have been increased if each volume were available digitally rather than in an exclusively printed format (although vol. 2 is available as an “e-book,” according to the Wiley Web site). At the very least, the photographs that effectively illustrate each of the fossil entries should have been made available on a CD-ROM.

Janet Monge
Department of Anthropology
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-6398

Book Review of The Human Fossil Record. Vol. 4, Craniodental Morphology of Early Hominids (Genera Australopithecus, Parathropus, Orrorin): An Overview, by Jeffery H. Schwartz and Ian Tattersall

Reviewed by Janet Monge

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 2 (April 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1132.Monge

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