Tale of a monkey's uncle, deceased

In 1994, two geologists turned the world of archaeology upside down. A Javan fossil led them to claim that man's ancestors left Africa nearly 1 million years earlier than experts had previously thought. Two years later, they struck again: This time with a study suggesting that three distinctly different human species lived on earth at the same time, as recently as 30,000 years ago.

By itself, each finding is significant. Together, they paint a picture of human evolution vastly different from accepted theories and infinitely more complex.

Now, the geologists - Carl Swisher and Garniss Curtis - have decided to tell the story of these discoveries and their implications, and they've teamed up with established archaeology author Roger Lewin.

"Humans have been asking questions about their origins and their place in nature ever since true self-awareness began to flicker in the human mind," they write. "Java Man" is an attempt to help answer some of these questions. Specifically, it addresses the long-standing dispute about how we evolved into the species we are today.

"Java Man" has the makings of a wonderful tale. It begins in Java, Indonesia, in the presence of a revered Homo erectus fossil, a child's skull found in 1936. As the fossil's keeper looks on in horror, Swisher borrows a knife from a colleague and begins to scrape away at the skull's surface in an attempt to determine its true age.

The book closes with a discussion of their second discovery: a group of Homo erectus fossils that may be hundreds of thousands of years younger than scientists had previously believed, and may have lived at the same time as the Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens.

These findings suggest that rather than being a direct, linear progression from one species to the next, human evolution was incredibly messy and involved lots of dead-end species: "There was no inevitability to the evolution of Homo sapiens.... Almost certainly, everyone in the world today is a descendant of a population of newly emerged humans who, in their inexorable spread across the world, caused the extinction of species of humans that were like us, but weren't us."

Unfortunately, the pages between the opening scene and the intriguing conclusion are packed with lab politics and trivial details. What begins as an engaging narrative quickly turns into a colorless catalog of events. Clear, lucid prose gives way to awkward and unnecessary descriptions. In the span of two pages, for instance, the authors move from Indonesian schoolrooms to fossil dig sites to an oddly misplaced discussion of Java's birth-control policies.

Unlike most of Lewin's previous books on bones ("Origins Reconsidered," "Bones of Contention"), "Java Man" is not so much a cogent story as an insider's look at the field of archaeology. The authors devote entire chapters to wearisome details about their lab's collapse, funding issues, and a barrage of scientists who are quickly introduced and just as quickly forgotten. They fill their pages with irrelevant scientific rivalries and odd homages, and their descriptions of laboratory techniques are cluttered with historical minutiae.

Swisher's and Curtis's discoveries are fascinating, and their implications profound. By the time I had finished "Java Man," I knew more about pre-historic man than I had ever expected. However, the lack of a strong storyline creates a lack of coherency, which in turn leaves me guessing as to the authors' exact purpose. And after all of my digging, I still haven't found the meat of their argument - only the skeleton.

Lauren Gravitz is a freelance science writer in Boston, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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