Chris Stringer’s Lone Survivors: How We Came To Be The Only Humans On Earth (2012)

Out of all our ancestral hominin species, why are Homo sapiens the sole survivors? Paleoanthropologist, Chris Stringer, addresses this question through a series of fossil finds, genetic tools, and dating methods from archaeological excavations. Although this publication is five years old, it is still relevant in regards to recent research concerning the analysis of interspecies genetic exchange and the ground-breaking research of Neanderthals and Denisovans. These rapid discoveries are one of the reasons why our modern understanding of human evolution is constantly altered.

For readers who wish to enter the world of physical anthropology, this is a great way to start! Stringer thoroughly explains all anthropological terms, theories, and procedures in in a comprehensive manner. He takes the reader on a narrative journey of human evolutionary theory from Darwin’s time to today whilst highlighting our ancestral path from Australopithecus anamensis and beyond. While acknowledging both the ‘multi-regional’ and ‘out of Africa” models, Stringer challenges these concepts by presenting his new theory. Based on archaeological and genetic evidence, he argues that human species coexisted across the African continent which led to inevitable competition. This caused exchanges of genes, tools, and behavioral strategies between multiple populations. Recent fossil discoveries, particularly in relation to Neanderthals, fit within Stringer’s proposed model.

Aside from a detailed history of human origins, Chris Stringer presents a contemplative question: What makes us modern? Is it our cultural customs or our invention of tools? Although he offers his own understanding of the question, he urges readers to develop their own interpretation. An ideal way to conclude this book. I began to think– how are we currently evolving as a species?

I believe evidence of our current evolutionary path reside in the loss of our wisdom teeth, in our genetic resistance to some diseases, and in the presence of the LCT gene through adulthood.

  • Resistance to Disease: Sickle cells are a contemporary example of how we are evolving to resist diseases. Those who inherit one sickle-cell gene are protected against malaria. However, if a person inherits two copies of the recessive gene they will develop sickle-cell anemia.
  • Loss of Wisdom Teeth: As a species, our jaws have significantly decreased in size. This is due to our use of utensils to cut food as well as our cooking method for a softer diet. Wisdom teeth are now vestigial like the appendix. For those who do not have wisdom teeth, their genes are more evolutionarily progressive. Many years from now, the need for wisdom teeth removal will be absent.
  • Lactose in Adult Diets: The LCT gene, used to aid a human’s ability to digest lactose, is now present from infancy through adulthood. Naturally, the lactase enzyme shuts down as babies wean off of their mother’s breast milk. Now milk is a common component in our modern diet. Through domestication of cows, sheep, and goats, our ancestors discovered the nutritional advantages of consuming milk. Ancestors with the genetic mutation that allows one to digest lactose were nutritionally sufficient, which increased their survival rate to pass on the genes onto the next generation.

Hell, if we aren’t careful with our overconsumption of a sugar-filled diet and our growing dependence on technology, there is a small possibility that we may evolve into the horrid figures pictured in WALL-E (2008).

Photo from Pixar’s WALL-E (2008)

Where do you see evidence for our modern evolution?

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