Science

The best books on Anthropology

recommended by Brenna Hassett

Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood by Brenna Hassett

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Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood
by Brenna Hassett

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New techniques have uncovered an enormous amount of information about how humans evolved and new human species continue to pop up on a regular basis. Biological anthropologist Brenna Hassett, author of Growing Up Human, recommends books to learn more about our ancestors and how we became the human beings we are today.

Interview by Benedict King

Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood by Brenna Hassett

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Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood
by Brenna Hassett

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Before we get to the books, could you tell us where the boundaries of anthropology lie? Sometimes it seems closely linked to archaeology, but a number of your books seem to be quite close to biology.

Anthropology is the study of humans, which means it’s the study of basically anything that could ever be interesting. But given that this is an expansive topic, we do tend to organize ourselves into subfields. So the subfield that I am particularly associated with would be biological anthropology. My mission is to take the actual physical remains of humans and to see what we can understand about how humans live now, and how humans lived in the past. This quite frequently involves all sorts of other things like archaeology, as you do have to find the remains in the first place. And archaeology is, of course, another very useful tool for helping us understand the environments that people lived in, the foods they would have been eating, the houses they would have been living in, the tools they would have had. It all comes together. So you can call me a biological anthropologist, but I’ve got a lot of archaeology to me as well.

Let’s go straight to the anthropology books you’re recommending. The first one is Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes. Tell us about this book and why you chose it.

I have both personal and professional reasons for choosing this. Kindred is an extraordinary book. It really captures the zeitgeist of what is changing in our views of human evolution. We have, for the last 150 years or more, had this idea of cavemen crawling out of the dark into our modern progressive era. These are not really the opinions that anthropologists hold today. That’s not how we see the past—as brutish, nasty Hobbesian lives.

Kindred is about our nearest relatives, the Neanderthals—our kissing cousins, if you will. Kindred lyrically and poetically brings out the research that shows us that this was a human species that had a very similar existence to ours and was probably capable of all sorts of creative thoughts and things like that. It really reopens, in a very beautifully written way, the idea of what the past would have looked like when there was more than one human species wandering around, what other types of ways there are to be human. That’s my primary reason for choosing it, because it’s a fantastic, incredibly well-written book.

“Anthropology is the study of humans”

Also, I have known Rebecca Wragg Sykes for over a decade now, because she works with me on the TrowelBlazers project, which looks at raising the profile of women in the digging sciences. We have worked together on a number of fascinating projects, to try and show how important women’s contributions to our various disciplines have been. I know her as an excellent researcher and her book really blew me away.

Next up is Evolution’s Bite by Peter Ungar.

Peter Ungar is an extremely big name in the very specialist field of dental anthropology. You can get even more specific than biological anthropology and do specifically teeth, which is actually what I do. That is my highly specialist academic subject. So there’s quite a bit of teeth reading in this list but I think it’s in a very good cause. Very few people realize how interesting teeth are. This book really goes through the major topics from one of the top names in the field, and it’s very accessible. He’s been there when discoveries were made and he made some of the discoveries himself. That first-person aspect really brings out how exciting some of the research into what our ancestors ate is, how that changed the way we lived, and how that got us to be the species that we are.

What does he say specifically about the evolution of teeth?

He is an expert in the foods we ate. He has an incredible array of scientific techniques for reconstructing what hominid species and even our earlier ancestors, millions of years ago, would have eaten. He can look at scratches on teeth and tell you whether they’re from leaves or nuts, and what this would have meant in terms of the environments our ancestors lived in, and what happened when they changed their diet.

Is there some overarching change that he’s depicting from our early ancestors to now?

In the book, he essentially goes through all of the things that we can know, given the various techniques we have to understand evolution. He looks at changes, for instance, from largely grass-eating species to species that ate leaves, nuts, and other things like fruit—essentially, frugivores—to the omnivorous types of animals that we now are with our impressive array of meat eating skills that may well not have been present in our earlier ancestors.

Let’s go on to Palaeofantasy by Marlene Zuk.

I love this book. Again, it’s written in a very readable style. If anyone has been rubbed up the wrong way by the thought that there is one true way that we’ve evolved to be—and that if we just went back a little bit in time, we’d all be happier, thinner, healthier—this is definitely the book for them. Paleofantasy is a really informed look, by an evolutionary biologist, at the ways we imagine the past would have been, and the lies we tell ourselves today about what we evolved to do. So one particular example from the book that I really like is the takedown of this idea of a ‘paleo diet’, which is a particular bugbear of mine, bearing on teeth as it does.

What is a ‘paleo diet’?

In certain segments of the internet, particularly, there is a quest for a perfect evolutionary lifestyle. This must be accompanied by a perfect evolutionarily adapted diet. So people look at research about what our species would have eaten in the past, and try to re-engineer this diet.  People say, ‘Oh, well, it would have been all lean meat, no carbohydrates.’ It’s just patent nonsense. It’s just not true but it has a hold on the imagination.

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Paleofantasy takes these ideas of ‘the one true way’ and puts them in context. It explains how while it may have been a great idea to eat a lot of lean meat when we were essentially tree shrews, that’s not what we’ve adapted to do today. She looks at some theories like ‘paleo parents’, how you should parent a baby.

What’s paleo parenting?

It’s another one of these prescriptions for having a happy, healthy baby. It’s a pretty understandable reaction to the incredible amount of advice that new parents get about how to raise a baby. As any new parent can tell you, all you want is a happy, healthy, preferably quiet, baby, maybe sleeping. There are all sorts of debates around things like whether you should carry your infant close to the skin with you at all times. She looks at some of the evolutionary arguments that people have made for what are pretty demanding things, especially for the mother, like breastfeeding on demand and never putting the infant down. She looks at why those may have existed in the past, but why they may not be suited for actual living human beings.

The point is there is no paradigm for some kind of authentic existence that we could follow that existed in the past. 

No, the store is all out of mammoth protein bars. Those are no longer available.

Let’s go back to teeth with Tales Teeth Tell by Tanya Smith. What’s this book about?

I have an incredible amount of respect for Professor Tanya Smith. She does research that is very like my own. She has done some incredible work, for instance, taking Neanderthal teeth into a synchrotron and zapping them with a hugely powerful laser beam to see inside and reconstruct the daily growth patterns of another human species that lived tens of thousands of years ago. Her research is super exciting and on the biting edge of what dental anthropology can do.

Her book really takes an in-depth look at what we can learn about the past from teeth. Where Professor Ungar’s book is very concentrated on diet, Professor Smith’s book allows us to think about some of the issues of how we grew, how we fed and what these things tell us about life in the past. In addition, she writes quite personally about her own journey as a scientist, and her enthusiasm for the subject really comes through. I think that even if you aren’t obsessed with teeth, it’s a really nice book for people, particularly girls who might be interested in science, to see this journey of interest and excitement and to feel how fun it can be to do something as unlikely as dental anthropology.

Does she come to any surprising conclusions about how we lived or behaved in the past, as a result of her zapping all these teeth?

Well, one of the really fascinating things she has been able to do is to reconstruct the childhoods of different hominid species. In my own research, I’m very interested in childhood growth. So her work, looking at how long the Neanderthal children take to grow up has been really interesting in terms of suggesting—the jury’s still out—that Neanderthals may have grown ever so slightly quicker than modern humans. They might have had a slightly faster childhood than the long slow childhoods that got us to be who we are today.

I think we may talk about that again when we come to your book, but does she come to some conclusion about why Neanderthals had this slightly more truncated childhood? Or might have?

A lot of her work is on the methodological cutting edge. It’s explaining how we know these things. It’s pretty unlikely, if you think about it, that we could take a 50,000-year-old fossil and know exactly how it grew. Her work looks at how the tiny little fossil clock in our teeth can actually help us answer questions like that. She’s providing an insight into how evolutionary science is done and the kind of joy with which it can be done, which I think is very important.

Let’s go to the last book, Our Human Story by Louise Humphrey and Chris Stringer.

I have to admit that this one is also professional and personal. Our Human Story is my go-to book on what is going on in human evolution right now. Which species are which, which ones are where, and what is our current understanding of dates? What did they eat? What were their environments? Why does it matter? What changed? What happened? Human evolution is an incredibly complex subject. We keep on coming up with new species. No one expected the Denisovans. And we keep on finding new species. There’s the hobbit species, Homo Floresiensis, and there’s Homo Naledi, that has just come up in South Africa. It’s really difficult to stay on top of these things and this book summarizes them without skimping on the important detail and it’s written by two people who know exactly what they’re talking about.

There is also a personal aspect, because both Louise and Chris are fantastic anthropology researchers at the Natural History Museum in London, where I was lucky enough to work.

These new species, have they arrived on the scene because they’ve been dug out of the ground, or because you’re doing work on existing species and realized that actually, there are two strands that are separate?

All of the above. We have ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’ in anthropology. People are continually reassessing old information. Biological anthropology as a discipline is based on looking at the bones and teeth and at shape differences. Are your teeth built for meat? Do they change into teeth built for grass? What is the evolution there? Recently, we have, of course, added new techniques to this. One of those, ancient DNA studies, has particularly thrown some species foxes amongst the anthropological chickens. For instance, the find of Denisova is from the very tip of a pinky finger bone. The very last bone of a pinky finger was discovered in Denisova cave, and they were able to retrieve some ancient DNA from it. And, lo and behold, it wasn’t a Neanderthal. It wasn’t a human. It was something completely new. We got a new species. We know it has DNA that isn’t ours and isn’t Neanderthal, but we don’t actually know what it looks like.

“Very few people realize how interesting teeth are”

Some discoveries are made in the traditional way. Naledi is a rather fabulous story. Some cavers went down very deep into the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. They were in contact with an anthropology professor who had asked them to look out for anything interesting. After one of the men went through an 11-inch gap, dislocating both of his shoulders, they discovered some hominid fossils. There was a campaign with live video, and some very brave anthropologists entering this cave system, and they came out with an incredible treasure trove of an entirely new species that we had no idea existed, Homo Naledi.

Let’s get on to your book now. Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood. What gap in the market are you filling?

There are a lot of evolutionary books that have talked about why we walk upright and why we have big brains. But one of the incredibly strange feature of human life that is not really talked about is our childhood. We have ridiculously extended childhoods. We are children forever. I have previously flippantly said that it is now possible to be a child well up to the age of 40, possibly beyond. What I mean by this is that humans have a period of investment in the next generation that really outstrips any other animal, including our nearest relatives, and including probably our fossil relatives, our ancestors. This has a huge impact on the species that we grew up to be. In the book, I’m really interested in talking about how we get the childhoods that we have, and how those childhoods have made us the species that we are because we have some very unique characteristics. They have to be used to explain the very strange species we became.

Do you answer the question why we have such extended childhoods?

I hope so. I think the overall theory, in terms of evolutionary biology, is that the long period of investment gives you more time to transfer skills, calories, learning, training to the next generation. All primates have pretty long investment periods as children. What primates have been doing is taking the time to learn to be a better monkey. We need that time in order to learn how to navigate our complicated social worlds. There is nothing more complicated. In the modern humans’ social world you have got to learn everybody’s name; you’ve got to learn how to do useful things, whether it’s making pottery or finding game or chartered accountancy.

Interview by Benedict King

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Brenna Hassett

Brenna Hassett

Brenna Hassett is a biological anthropologist and archaeologist whose career, first at the Natural History Museum, London and now at University College London, has taken her around the globe, researching the past using the clues left behind in human remains. Her most recent book is Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood (Bloomsbury, 2022).

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Brenna Hassett

Brenna Hassett

Brenna Hassett is a biological anthropologist and archaeologist whose career, first at the Natural History Museum, London and now at University College London, has taken her around the globe, researching the past using the clues left behind in human remains. Her most recent book is Growing Up Human: The Evolution of Childhood (Bloomsbury, 2022).