The World Before Us.

By Tom Higham

Printed: 2021

Publisher: Viking.

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 3 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 3

Condition: As new  (See explanation of ratings)

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In the original dustsheet. Yellow cloth binding with black title on the spine.

  • F.B.A. provides an in-depth photographic presentation of this item to stimulate your feeling and touch. More traditional book descriptions are immediately available.

‘Fascinating and entertaining. If you read one book on human origins, this should be it’ Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules – For Now

‘The who, what, where, when and how of human evolution, from one of the world’s experts on the dating of prehistoric fossils’ Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

50,000 years ago, we were not the only species of human in the world. There were at least four others, including the Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonesis and the Denisovans. At the forefront of the latter’s ground-breaking discovery was Oxford Professor Tom Higham. In The World Before Us, he explains the scientific and technological advancements – in radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA, for example – that allowed each of these discoveries to be made, enabling us to be more accurate in our predictions about not just how long ago these other humans lived, but how they lived, interacted and live on in our genes today. This is the story of us, told for the first time with its full cast of characters.

‘The application of new genetic science to pre-history is analogous to how the telescope transformed astronomy. Tom Higham brings us to the frontier of recent discoveries with a book that is both gripping and fun’ Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion

‘This exciting book shows that we now have a revolutionary new tool for reconstructing the human past: DNA from minute pieces of tooth and bone, and even from the dirt on the floor of caves’ David Abulafia, author of The Boundless Sea

‘The remarkable new science of palaeoanthropology, from lab bench to trench’ Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred

‘Higham’s thrilling account makes readers feel as if they were participating themselves in the extraordinary series of events that in the last few years has revealed our long-lost cousins’ David Reich, author of Who We Are and How We Got Here

‘A brilliant distillation of the ideas and discoveries revolutionising our understanding of human evolution’ Chris Gosden, author of The History of Magic

Review: The author is a paleoanthropologist (1) and in this book he describes the current state of our knowledge about ourselves and our ancient relations. This has become a fast moving subject due to advances in technology (2). Although recent finds are often small, such as fingers or teeth rather than skulls and skeletons, new technology provides a lot of information. The new technology also allows old finds to be re-examined and complicates the story (3).

This book does not provide a detailed history of our ancestry. Australopithecines are mentioned, but the book tends to focus on the later hominins such as Homo erectus, the Neanderthals, the Denisovians, Homo floresiensis and Homo luzonensis. It does provide details of the new technologies used, written for a non-specialist (4). The book can also be quite personal in places, with the author describing his own work and research.

THE BOOK (5) is divided into 17 chapters. There are 37 illustrations in black and white of various sizes. There are matt reproductions of photographs, maps, diagrams, line drawings of stone tools and skulls. Although numerous, they do not intrude and the text always dominates. There is also a section of colour plates on 8 pages containing 23 images. These include photographs of the sites mentioned and artist’s reconstructions of a Neanderthal, a Denisovian and a “Hobbit” (Homo floresiensis). At the end of the book, the References and Notes section (6) is extensive as is the Index, but I would have liked a Glossary as well.


(1) He is Professor of Archaeological Science at Oxford and Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. A video from his lecture tour can be found on YouTube.

(2) The new technology includes advances in the use of computers, for example to match partial samples of DNA. Radiocarbon dating is enhanced by new computational methods such as Bayesian chronometric modelling. Pattern recognition and bioinformatics can be used. Mitochondrial mutation rates can be calculated, epigenetics can be applied to DNA samples, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is used to find potential sites, proteomics (study of proteins) and 3D modelling (e.g. of skulls), ZooMS (zooarchaeology by spectrometry) are also in use.

(3) The author says “I remember studying human evolution as a student in the 1980s. It was so simple and linear then; the story is now much more complex, and infinitely more interesting and puzzling.” (Chapter 2 “Out of Africa” page 17)

(4) Although written for the layman, attention is required. Thus at the start of Chapter 5 “The Genetic Revolution” the author states “In this chapter I am going to introduce some quite complex concepts, which might be a bit heavy going at times, but it is important to understand at least the basics of genomics, and it will also come in handy in reading the rest of this book. I hope very much that, by the end of this chapter, if I talk about how many SNPs were identified in an ancient genome, you’ll know immediately what I mean.”

(5) Title: The World Before Us

Subtitle: How Science is Revealing a New Story of Our Human Origins

List of Illustrations (3 pages); A Note on Time and Dates (1 ¼ pages)

1 Introduction; 2 Out of Africa; 3 Neanderthals Emerge into the Light; 4 The Road to Denisova Cave; 5 The Genetic Revolution; 6 A New Species of Human; 7 Where are the Fossil Remains?; 8 Finding Needles in Haystacks; 9 The Science of ‘When’; 10 On the Trail of the Modern Human Diaspora; 11 DNA from Dirt; 12 The Hobbits; 13 The Journey to the East of Wallace’s Line; 14 Homo erectus and the Ghost Population; 15 Disappearing from the World; 16 Our Genetic Legacy; 17 The World Before Us;

Acknowledgements, Picture Credits, References and Notes (31 pages), Index (17 pages),

(6) The References and Notes section is mostly references to sources used, and these are mostly references to scientific journals. There are a few notes, but not as many as provided as footnotes throughout the book. The few books referenced include: Pat Shipman  The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction , Morwood and Van Oosterzee  A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia , Flood  Archaeology of the Dreamtime  and Trinkaus and Shipman  Neandertals: Changing the Image of Mankind .

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