Fossil Men is the riveting science-adventure story of the brilliant team who discovered the “Ardi” skeleton, a human more than a million years older than the famous Lucy, and their 20-year quest to redefine our understanding of human evolution.
In 1994, an excavation group led by fossil-hunting legend Tim White – “the Steve Jobs of paleoanthropology” – discovered a series of bone fragments in Ethiopia’s Afar region that radiometric dating indicated were 4.4 million years old, more than a million years older than “Lucy,” then the oldest known human ancestor. With this discovery (Ardipithecus ramidus), White and his cohorts had found something deeply unsettling, a rebuke to a half-century of paleoanthropological orthodoxy. They were about to shatter many broad assumptions about human evolution: how we developed opposable thumbs, when we started walking, and, most crucially, whether we were truly descended from a common ancestor that resembled today’s chimpanzee. In short, White’s team would reveal that in the decades after Lucy, paleoanthropologists had been wrong about some basic tenets of human evolution. To say the least, not everyone was happy about that. Fossil Men brings together one of the most consequential scientific discoveries of our time, and the personal stories of an unforgettable cast of characters. At the center of it all is Tim White: cantankerous and vindictive, feared by friends and enemies alike, and one of the greatest scientists in the world. Then there’s Gen Suwa, the Japanese savant who reads arcane computer code for fun; Owen Lovejoy, creationist-turned-paleoanthropologist; Gordon Getty, scion of J. Paul and a serious fossil buff who provided the team with financial support; and the Leakeys, for decades the most famous family in fossils, who have waged war with the Ardi team and cast doubt on the discovery.