The World Before Us

Tom Higham helps run the Research Laboatory for Archaeology and the History of Art (RLAHA) at the University of Oxford. He has been a pioneer of improving the efficacy and accuracy of radiocarbon dating, introducing methods that are now global standards in radiocarbon work, like the ultrafiltration of collagen molecules and single amino acid dating. His work has been published in every academic and popular venue imaginable, from Science to the super soaraway Sun and everywhere in between. Thanks to dating improvements implemented by Tom and his team, we now have secure chronologies for the extinction of Neanderthals and a host of other Pleistocene megafauna.

I first met Tom as a very green PhD student, way back in 2002. In those heady Oxford days, our ancient DNA group had close ties with RLAHA and we would often hold informal meetings in the legendary Lamb&Flag pub on St. Giles[1]. Tom is a very enthusiastic and effusively friendly Kiwi whose wide-ranging interests were not limited to radiocarbon, but every aspect of life in the late Pleistocene including ancient DNA, stable isotopes and a host of scientific archaeology methodologies. In Science, I’ve found that people who are positively infectious with enthusiasm are the perfect teachers. Simply hanging about with Tom lead to an organic diffusion of knowledge, that taught me an awful lot about radiocarbon, isotopes, Neanderthals and much more. I was delighted when I heard through Facebook that he was using lockdown to write a book, and determined to buy a copy for myself as soon as feasible after publication. Luckily, I was able to source one through another fabled Oxford institution; Blackwells bookshop on Broad street, and Tom was kind enough to sign it for me. “The World Before Us” is a book that crams everything a global expert who has been at the vanguard of many of palaeoanthropology’s biggest breakthroughs of the last two decades can tell us into 300-odd pages of gripping prose.

I’ve devoured it over the last week and this review is an expression of how much I enjoyed reading it. If you have read much sci-comm then you know, as I do, just how much of it is as dry as a ship’s biscuit. The tightrope between giving the reader enough information to be interesting, and imbuing a sense of narrative and flow is a tricky one that I know all too well myself.

Tom’s book describes how he has been involved with globally important research into Neanderthal extinction, the jaw-dropping discovery of the Denisovans, and the unexpected Hobbits of Flores.

In books like this it’s all too easy to produce a dusty tome of sites, dates, and names but that is a million miles away from what Tom has produced. He has injected enough of himself, his wry observations and subtle humour, to make the tangled story of our origins a real page-turner. Discussions of working in the famous Denisova cave are fascinating, and the discovery of “Denny” the F1 hybrid girl between a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father is really brought to life. Her whole story was pieced together from a 1” fragment of indeterminate bone sieved from Denisova cave and identified by ZooMS[2].

What’s great about “The World Before Us” is that Tom synthesises many strands of evidence to tell a convincing best-guess scenario about what our relatives and ancestors were up to. A lot of this information has had to be gleaned from fairly dense academic papers and Tom does an excellent job of distilling the vital essences to add to the overall story. Along the way, thanks to his many connections, he calls on various experts who make cameos in the book and give first-person insight into the advances they’ve made.

Overall, the book massively succeeds in its aim of making the latest advances in our understanding of human origins understandable by everyone and does so in a way that never makes it feel hard to comprehend.  Despite being involved in many of the papers that have fuelled this advancement, Tom never makes the prose about himself but is generous with credit to all who have contributed. After finishing the book it feels like you’ve been on a whirlwind ride through all that’s new and exciting in human origins and with a good appreciation of the collaborative nature of science. Tom’s optimism is ever present in the writing and you can palpably sense this when the books ends, all too soon, with the sentiment “if you think this stuff is cool, wait ‘til you see what’s gonna happen in the next ten years!”.

[1] After 450 years of continuous trading in Oxford’s city centre, the Lamb and Flag closed in January 2020, seemingly permanently. How a college as infamously rich and moneyed as St. Johns can allow this shortsighted asset stripping to happen is a mystery to me and many others.

[2] ZooMS (Zoology by Mass Spectrometry) is a technique that uses comparison of bone proteins from small fragments of bone to identify them to species, when comparative morphology is impossible.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

You can follow Tom Higham on Twitter @TommyHigham

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2 Responses to The World Before Us

  1. MC'sSquare says:

    Very informative article .👍

  2. I will definitely try to find this book in the library!

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