Works In Progress

Searching in Life
Alan Walker and Pat Shipman,
The Wisdom of Bones: In Search of Human Origins.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

We speak often of “The Search”—listeners can hear the capital letters, and a solemn tone invades even print on a page. The phrase calls up scenarios of an over-serious seeker, falling head-long into spiritual pursuits, abandoning material comforts for begging bowls, calling for self-sacrifice.

If we detach all this baggage, we can appreciate the idea of a passionate engagement with what we do not know and cannot love about the world we live in, the people we live with, or the history of our species. What value is there in a passionate engagement? A life spent with our burning questions always before us have built-in reasons to  get up in the morning, morning after morning. And as many have noticed, life has a great many more mornings than I realized it had at 21.

The Wisdom of Bones (1984) is a case in point, a book that describes a search by archeologists Alan Walker, Pat Shipman, and Richard Leakey for the so-called missing link, the species between the earliest human and the much more recent appearance of Homo Sapiens.  

I do not review this book to illustrate the state of  21st century knowledge about prehistoric digs.  The book describes events taking place, presumably, in the 1970’s and perhaps early 1980’s. Instead, this review underscores how a search for answers to questions that will not be quieted—the process of the search itself—enlivens us. Over and again, reports from paleoanthropological digs illustrate how a search can animate the personal lives of those in pursuit of answers they are driven to find—even those who lose life and fortune in the field.

In Wisdom of Bones, the authors describe the team’s findings of “a youth stone dead:” a discovery Alan Walker, Pat Shipman, Kamoya Kimeu and the “hominid gang”, and Richard Leakey made along Lake Turkana in Kenya, below Ethiopia.    

The book points us toward many questions. One set circles around scientific methodology, descriptions of the technical procedures followed to uncover and analyze the fossilized remains. Another set concerns the skeleton they call “15K,” the “Nariokotome boy,” the so-called “stone dead youth.” What can the figure reveal about ancestral origins of modern humans?

Readers catch intriguing glimpses into the comings and goings of the scientific community who share this team’s passion for identifying and analyzing skeletal remains. The following hints at the scientific search that the authors make us privy to.  Chapter 1 opens: “August 22, 1984: Mac wasn’t high-grading; he never does.” High-grading, we learn, is a technical term for a certain style of searching for hominids: a dipping into the most likely spots for pieces of bone—and if the search is not immediately successful, going to another likely spot. Mac’s style is other. He practices repetitive walking, combing over and over any site. It means that Mac (Kamoya Kimeu, Richard Leakey’s foreman of the native team) “walks the same territory over and over again;” if he went to the left of the bush today, he walks to the right of the bush tomorrow until finally, on this site alone, the team sieves 1500 tons of dirt. That is thirty million pounds of soil, thirty million pounds of that “bleak and beautiful desert” that preserves all that is left of the homeland of every human being on earth” (5).

This opening, like many modern novels, puts the reader in the middle of things, knowing nothing of Mac or hominids or prehistoric bones. The text invites laypeople in to observe the professionals at work. We listen while those on track of fossils find them; we learn that finding a hominid fossil requires something beyond recognition of types of bones; it is the  ”who knows what” of discovery into which everyone is drawn. Walker says, ”It is a discovery I already knew. The fossils always look as if they belong there, in place. The few times I have been shown a fossil that was moved before I got there, I have always known it. I can sense the place the fossil has made for itself on the outcrop by shading the ground, protecting itself…(9)” That’s what Mac must have sensed that August day: the elusive feeling that you have found something in its place.


What Mac found “amidst the litter of black lava pebbles and dried leaves and sticks” was lying loose on the surface—a matchbook sized fragment from a hominid frontal bone. However unprepossessing, it was recognized “at once” as Homo erectus, the species that may precede modern humans. This ancestor, Walker says, is the one paleoarcheologists knew—or thought they knew—the most about.

Eventually, over five or six years of research expeditions, the team locates a very nearly complete skeleton (and few things are so rare). Just how rare such complete skeletons are is suggested when Richard Leakey approaches his co-worker with some bones in hand; “Walks,” he says, “What are these?” Walker responds, “Leaks, those are hominid ribs.” These bones are so rare even an experienced hand like Richard Leakey, who had grown up searching Olduvai Valley with his parents Louis and Mary Leakey, had never before seen any, did not recognize them. The gradually emerging 15K sets off high hopes and impatience among team members; this young Nariokotome boy, whose skull had been obscured by a tree which had grown up inside it, as if it were an “overturned flower pot,” dates from the early 1.5 million-years-ago strata. Not only did it promise new knowledge; it also promised Walker eminence in the academic disciplines (and the accompanying grants and awards one might hope for). They almost hesitated to even talk about the chance that the find might turn out to be even better than Lucy, the only other extant skeleton from the era. 

Walker’s boy had died of an abscessed tooth, both tooth and body preserved in the mud of a river where hippos and other animals had buried the remains which were destined, millions of days later, to be found. Its finder believed it had tools, a body type much like modern humans, a rather small brain case (by modern standards) and, without doubt, language, language which they thought responsible for the species’ survival and ultimate evolution into big-brained modern man. They had (again without doubt) positively identified Broca’s area in the braincase, the areas where linguistic abilities were stored. They were sure.

Thereafter, though the boy was hailed as the missing link, it became apparent to Walker and Leakey at least that the team had discovered something that looked human but (as evidence piled up) only showed that the field’s most precious hypotheses about evolution were brought into question. Few scholars are more contentious than paleoanthropologists, and for the next several years, while many were praising the find, Walker Shipman, Leakey and that team struggled with what they had—with what it was, and what it was not. 

Walker pays special attention to those, like him, who spent a lifetime in this search. One of his predecessors, Eugene Dubois, worked in Java in the 1890’s. After some five years of fever, rebellion by native workers, and deaths of at least one of his engineers, he located a new species he labeled ape-man, the so-called missing link between the primate and hominid species. Dubois’s work was largely rejected during his lifetime; not until later did researchers understand that Dubois had discovered the ratio of brain to body size, a key factor in understanding Homo erectus.
Out of a number of differently named fossils—-Java Man (Dubois’s work), Peking Man, and others from Dragon-Bone Hill in China were all found to be samples of a single species—Homo erectus. In the mysterious ways that questions work on us, Walker—who intended to study primates— continued his lifetime seeking the origins of those who walk upright.

“15K” yielded information about many features of this early ancestor, but each finding put new holes in the major hypotheses paleoanthropologists thought they had already resolved. From dentition to locomotion, the skeleton cracked the most closely held assumptions. One example is the damage the fossil remains wreaked on ideas about language.

Because the boy had a place in the skull for Broca’s area, it had been assumed that the stone-dead youth walked upright, had tools, and spoke. But as Walker brought in more experts and thought more deeply, the evidence against the language hypothesis mounted.

And so Walker sought what he could learn about the origins of language. He concluded, after much careful research and with deep affection for this ancient boy he’d lived with for twenty years, that full language most likely began only with the anatomical development of modern humans. Thus this young man, like all Homo erectus specimens,was illinguate—without language. Walker concludes that he could almost see the boy: tall, strong, black, part of a village whose members cared for young and nourished mothers, striding out in the earliest African diaspora and populating the world. He imagines meeting him along the road:

As I approached him closely, as I was ready to meet him, he turned and looked at me. In his eyes was not the expectant reserve of a stranger but that deadly unknowing I have seen in a lion’s blank yellow eyes.  He may have been our ancestor, but there was no human consciousness within that body. He was not one of us.


Two things are noteworthy about this book. The first is the inviting voice the authors use to bring readers into the fieldwork space. We like the authors; we trust them because their credibility is of both the personal and the professional sort. They achieve this by inter-twining the conventionally respectable academic research of the sort found in Nature or other refereed scientific journals with the ethnographic details of their subjective experiences in the field.

The other is the author’s willingness to emphasize all conclusions are tentative, provisional. And yet his conclusions have a taste of the whimsical. He sees the boy as “a creature of human size and appearance, with superhuman strength,” one who combined “tender sensibilities and a practiced predatory cunning,” an animal who, “with the brain of a toddler”, along with his ancestors and descendants, manages to spread out from Africa and adapt to many ecosystems. What the species did to, or for, these environments, “we do not yet know.” Nor do we understand how erectus, with a limited abilityto design mental maps of actions in space and time, managed plans to kill food and protect his young in unfamiliar territory.
Finally, we see how question leads on to more questioning. Since survival in a hostile environment with only a hand axe and bow or spear must have been difficult, did erectus groups band together? Did strangers meet, exchange information, communicate? Even though questions about the life and times of this evolutionary moment may not be answerable, he says, “[such questions] are worth pondering. You do not recognize answers to questions that have never arisen.” Readers are left with the sense that Walker valued this process of questioning, allowing answers to remain provisional.

All this has been tremendously appealing to me. But then I read other analyses, other interpretation, no less delightful and drawing other conclusions. Had I been manipulated? I was hurt, my author had tricked me, I’d been a little betrayed.

However, essays collected in Writing Culture, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, remind us that ethnographic writing is part of an academic ideology that claims to be more transparent than it is, that as a text among other texts, it uses the portrayals of here-and-now experience as a rhetorical device. Its purpose, we need to remember, is to persuade readers to believe the claims the author makes. It hopes readers will all but overlook the fact that the writer is making claims at all.

Anthropologists’ ethnographies (or stories of fieldwork) are always across culture divides, the anthropologist the only one who knows and can tell the folks back home what “the others” are like. And here, the lay reader is separated not only by space from the cultures Walker describes but separated by a million years or more as well.

At first, we can scarcely help but put these paleoanthropologists on the highest shelf; their words are certainly beyond our criticism. Just because we are so reliant on these authors, we need to become wary. Ethnographies have several conventional features: contextual, rhetorical, institutional, generic, political, and historical. Like all ethnographies, this one draws from and creates for readers a meaningful social context—here, a homo erectus site—but it is at least as fictive as factual. It uses certain “literary” conventions such as detailed descriptions figures of speech, stories, puns, and so on; it is produced within a specific tradition or discipline and often seeks to “enlighten” its practitioners; the power to give shape to this culture is not equally shared with, in this case say, the “hominid team.” It is an Anglo-European narrative. It is not the whole view by any means.

When this book is viewed alongside other books of the same type, we see that ethnographic truths are always “inherently partial—committed and incomplete.” As we apply “inherently partial” to The Wisdom of Bones, we distance ourselves from the world the text creates and remember to question our own ability to weigh persuasive remarks and critique them.



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