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Q&A with Ian Tattersall: Masters of the Planet

Q&As

Museum Curator Emeritus Ian Tattersall’s latest book, Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins, offers a look at early human ancestors and reveals how our species came to rule the planet. On Wednesday, March 28, Tattersall will discuss his work with Science Friday host Ira Flatow at a live recording of NPR’s popular talk show in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. He will also speak about the book at a special Museum lecture on Monday, April 2. Tattersall recently answered a few questions about Masters of the Planet.

How long did it take Homo sapiens to become the dominant human species?

Ian Tattersall: Homo sapiens came to dominate very quickly. Forty thousand years ago, there were at least four different human species on the scene. And now there’s only us.

What traits allowed Homo sapiens to succeed?

Tattersall: I think it was our way of processing information, our symbolic cognition. Human beings create images of alternative worlds in ways that no other animal does. Most animals live in the world as nature presents it to them and respond to stimuli from outside. What we do uniquely is remake the world in our heads and envision alternative possibilities. That is a very new acquisition.

How has the order of our discoveries of human fossils shaped the history of paleoanthropology?

Tattersall: The first human fossils we discovered were relatively recent, and the most ancient ones are the most recently found. So we kind of discovered the history of humankind in reverse order. That has certainly shaped our perceptions of it.

What are some of the recent, most exciting fossil discoveries in this field?

Tattersall: There have been many, and it’s been an exciting period in paleoanthropology in the last two decades. Most importantly, possibly, we pushed back the earliest hominids that we know about by a considerable period of time. Fifteen years ago, the earliest hominids we knew of weren’t over 3.5 million years old, but we now have a fossil record that goes back to around 7 million years. So we doubled the time length of the hominid record. We also found very early hominids outside of Africa. The human family was born in Africa and was confined there for a considerable time, but for a shorter period than we thought. Now we have hominids outside at 1.8 million years ago, which has changed our perspective on the spread of humankind throughout the world.

What do you hope people take away from these talks?

Tattersall: I’d like people to recognize that although human beings are very closely integrated with the rest of nature, we do interact with nature in a totally different way from any of our predecessors. This has enabled us to remake the world in many ways. It should be a sobering thought that we have this capacity with enormous unintended consequences—and we have to be very careful about the way we use this capacity.

Click here to purchase tickets for the Science Friday taping on March 28 or to Dr. Tattersall’s Museum lecture on April 2.

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