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Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History…

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006)

by Nicholas Wade

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8983715,010 (4.13)1 / 90

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Nicholas Wade discusses how the growing science of genetics expands and deepens our understanding of human evolution, our relationship to our closest relatives, and how we became the species we are--and what we might become in the future.

There's a lot of ground to cover, and this is a survey, not a textbook. It's very well-referenced, but in some cases he's relying on cutting edge research that, inevitably, will not all hold up. He also ventures into some touchy areas that not all readers will be comfortable or happy with. Nevertheless, it's an excellent, informative, and thought-provoking book that is well worth reading.
One of the topics covered here is the often-surprising path of human migration and expansion out of Africa. Just one major human lineage, L3, left Africa, and it's from that lineage that all the sub-lineages that populate the rest of the globe are descended. Human migration went eastward and along the coastlines, to India, southeast Asia, and Australia before going northward and westward. He repeatedly emphasizes that dates derived from genetic mutation rates are approximate and need to be evaluated in conjunction with archaeological evidence. That said, he gives us a fascinating picture of how archaeological, linguistic, and genetic evidence interact to give us a much fuller, richer, more complete picture of human evolution.

Among the conventional assumptions overturned by the growing body of evidence is the notion of early human hunter-gatherer bands as peaceful people, living in harmony with other humans they encountered, with war as an invention of sedentary societies after the invention of agriculture. In fact the evidence points the other way: hunter-gatherer bands, even today, are very violent societies, frequently raiding their neighbors and as much as 30% of the population dying by violence. Our nearest relatives, the common chimpanzees, are even more violent, not only raiding other troops and killing any member of another troop found alone, but also handling most internal disputes including leadership disputes by violence. Permanent settlements, with higher population density and less ability to move away from neighboring individuals or groups you didn't get along with, required an increase in human sociability, and willingness and ability to cooperate even with unrelated individuals, in order to work. And the archaeological evidence shows that agriculture came after that point, a result rather than a cause.

Humans have been domesticating each other, along with domesticating other species, and the typical experience of violence in settled, developed societies is much, much less and decreasing compared to "more natural" hunter-gatherer societies. The human ability to cooperate with unrelated strangers, routinely and on a large scale, is simply unknown in other species. Some readers will be disturbed by that argument. Others will be disturbed by the case that Wade makes that one of our evolved mechanisms for making this cooperation possible is religion.

I'm not going to go on, touching on every issue Wade discusses. This is an excellent, highly readable book, laying out all we've learned about our past in recent years, due to the advance of genetics. Because he does rely on research that, in 2006, was very new and cutting-edge, some of what he says will prove to be wrong--but there's still a lot to learn here, and well worth your time.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from a friend. ( )
1 vote LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Recovering the lost history of our ancestors
  jhawn | Jul 31, 2017 |
Wade may be a science reporter, but he's still a reporter. I cannot read science books that aren't written by actual scientists - reporters think in terms of presenting newsworthy information, and creating headlines. They don't think in terms of explaining clearly and consistently.

For example, when discussing the Exodus" of our ancestors from Africa to Oceania, he explains that the population grew and thus naturally spread along the coasts, as the group got larger and some members needed to expand to new territory to be able to make a living. He doesn't say 'probably,' but states this confidently. Then, a few pages later, he admires these people for their "epic migration." Huh?

And that original group was how big? Well, one genetic analysis suggests "probably fewer than 550 women of childbearing age" and another suggests "the number of modern humans... could have been as few as 160." From that info. he claims that the ancestral group was a single band of hunter-gatherers, which means (accd to studies of such bands more recently) that their numbers would be 150 ppl, or fewer if only part of a band left. Um, my arithmetic suggests that we seriously consider that there was an alliance of two bands that worked together to cross the Red Sea and escape Africa for room to grow.

Before that, Wade devotes space to explaining [a:Donald E. Brown|799664|Donald E. Brown|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-632230dc9882b4352d753eedf9396530.png]'s Universal People. It's a terrific concept. But is it Wade or Brown who makes odd claims about what behaviors we do all have in common? Unfortunately, sanctions against rape, for example, are *not* universal. And besides which, that text dates to 1991 - which is, in this field, *old.*

And what's up with saying that early modern humans were more violent and warlike, simply because their skull and frame were heavier than today's people? Couldn't they have just been sturdier in order to survive leopard attacks?

I'm also totally dissatisfied with the Adam's Y chart. Nothing in Wade's text or graphic explains why there wasn't more than one Adam. Yes, inevitably some lineages will die out. But at generation (?) marker 15, on this graphic of a sample of lineages, there were still three Adams....

Well anyway. The author does remember to use the words '[evidence] suggests' and 'probably' and to admit we need more information. But he almost never explains alternative theories, and often doesn't accept that there might be some. (Oh, another example - can't find the bookdart, but can paraphrase confidently: Adam's Y and Eve's mitochondria give us different dates of development. Wade says 'more work is going to need to be done to fit these together.' Not 'maybe this is not an artifact, but reveals some alternative theory is needed."

But a sprinkling of 'probablys' and notes & index does not a credible document make. I can't stomach this. Besides, it's dated 2006, which is old enough to be less than relevant, anyway. I'll look for something newer. Suggestions??"
4 vote Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Jun 5, 2016 |
Before the dawn. Recovering the lost history of our ancestors is a great book about the origins of humananity. Its author, Nicholas Wade is a journalist. Wade has done a great job reading and bringing together all materials to present an entirely up-to-date picture of the pre-history of human ancestry.

First published in 2007, the work is already somewhat older, especially as in recent years many new discoveries in the field of human descent have been made, but the book is still very useful. Not a scientist himself, Wade is not hindered by hobby-horses or the need to graft his own experience on a certain muster. His research is thorough and to the point. The scope of the book is remarkably wide, including a number of very interesting issues, such as the origin of language, race, and the extension of humanity to apes.

Before the dawn. Recovering the lost history of our ancestors describes the origins of humanity and its spread over the world, through the trasnsition from hunter-gatherer to the sedentary agricultural cultures. Unlike Guns, germs and steel. The fates of human societies, the book is never populist, and much more focussed, supported by much more findings. There is some over-reliance on the evidence of DNA; some reference to DNA appears on almost every page.

Before the dawn. Recovering the lost history of our ancestors is a very satisfactory book, describing humanity's pre-history not merely from a single perspective, but from a milti-faceted angle, involving biology, archaeology, and anthropology. Speculation is limited and within apparently very reasonable confines.

Before the dawn. Recovering the lost history of our ancestors is one of the best books in this field that I have read. ( )
  edwinbcn | Apr 23, 2016 |
Interesting and educational - really glad I read it, though it went slow in places. ( )
  bicyclewriter | Jan 8, 2016 |
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Genetics & Genesis

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Travel back into the human past, and the historical evidence is plentiful enough for the first couple of hundred years, then rapidly diminishes. At the 5,000-year mark written records disappear altogether, yielding to the wordless witness of archaeological sites. Going farther back, even these become increasingly rare over the next 10,000 years, fading almost to nothing by 15,000 years ago, the date of the first human settlements. Before that time, people lived a nomadic existence based on hunting and gathering. They built nothing and left behind almost nothing of permanence, save a few stone tools and the remarkable painted caves of Europe.
In every population of the world, women's skin colour is 3 to 4% lighter than Men's, perhaps through sexual selection by men, and perhaps because of mothers' greater needs for vitamin D.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 014303832X, Paperback)

Nicholas Wade’s articles are a major reason why the science section has become the most popular, nationwide, in the New York Times. In his groundbreaking Before the Dawn, Wade reveals humanity’s origins as never before—a journey made possible only recently by genetic science, whose incredible findings have answered such questions as: What was the first human language like? How large were the first societies, and how warlike were they? When did our ancestors first leave Africa, and by what route did they leave? By eloquently solving these and numerous other mysteries, Wade offers nothing less than a uniquely complete retelling of a story that began 500 centuries ago.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:00 -0400)

Draws on new findings to examine the ancestral human population that lived in Africa fifty thousand years ago, explaining how the human line evolved from African apes to humans with the unique gift of language.

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