Asia has recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, been the source of some of the most exciting, and bemusing, discoveries in human evolution. In the context of the history of human evolution, or even the history of the study of human evolution, “recent” is a relative term; these developments date back to the first years of the new century when the discovery of Homo floresiensis, “Flores Man” aka “the hobbit”, put Asia back on the evolutionary front burner.
It’s not that Asia ever entirely fell off the map: Java Man was found at the end of the 19th century and Peking Man a generation or so later. Both are now classified as Homo erectus. But they always seemed a bit of a dead-end: it was established that Homo erectus evolved in Africa, spread to Asia (which is perhaps not as extraordinary as it as first sounds; after all, lots of mammals also spread around Eurasia), and then little of much note happened until they died out and modern man arrived considerably later.
Homo floresiensis was, therefore rather a shock: it was tiny, with a much smaller brain than other humans, and seems to have existed well past the time when such relatively primitive humans were supposed to have vanished; it might even have overlapped on what is now the Indonesian island of Flores with Homo sapiens.
“The scenario of repeated contact and interbreeding among these populations,” Kawabata writes, “fires my curiosity.”
Hiroto Kawabata outlines this research in Lost in Evolution, recently translated from Japanese. The book’s main virtue is that it tells the Asian chapter of the human story as a largely stand-alone story, thus providing focus that is missing from the broader narratives in which Africa (with good reason) takes center stage. In addition to running through recent discoveries and developments, Kawabata also places these in the context of the century and a quarter-old work on Java man, work which continues. Far from being static, Homo erectus continued to evolve in Asia, with some changes—the diminution in teeth size—happening sooner in Asia than in Africa.
Homo floresiensis is rightly the pivot of the book. Not only was it a new species, it also seems to have evolved from Homo erectus in the “wrong direction”: smaller, with a smaller, almost chimpanzee-size brain, so small that doubt has been expressed whether it could function as human, yet stone tools have also been found. Kawabata runs through the current theories; the best guess now is “island dwarfism”, a process in which a lack of resources and predators results in larger animals shrinking (so as to speed up reproduction) and small animals growing. Flores seems to have been populated by giant rats and miniature elephants just 1.5m high. Homo floresiensis’s peculiar anatomy aside, it’s a mystery how it got to Flores, on the far side of the Wallace Line; it was never connected by land to the rest of Asia. And although the dates are still in some dispute, it seems to have survived there into the period normally assigned to Homo sapiens, even in Asia. Kawabata also makes passing reference to the discovery in 2018 of Homo luzonensis in the Philippines which seems to have undergone something similar.
Then came “Penghu Man”, based on a mandible that was dredged from the sea floor by fisherman in 2008, but not described until 2015. It’s place on the evolutionary tree has not yet been established: it is so-called “archaic Homo” but not necessarily Homo erectus. Asia, then, was far from evolutionarily static.
Kawabata mentions, but does not devote many pages to, the Denisovans, related to but distinct from Neanderthals, who first came to light in in Siberian cave in 2010, whose DNA is, for reasons as yet unknown, most prevalent in present-day peoples of Australia, New Guinea and Melanesia. “The scenario of repeated contact and interbreeding among these populations,” Kawabata writes, “fires my curiosity.”
The translation has also all the references meant for the original Japanese readership, a reminder of how much scientific narrative is based on Western cultural touch-points.
Lost in Evolution will, for English-language readers, be a somewhat curious book. All science writers need to work out how to present complex information to non-specialists in a way that is readable but without dumbing it down. Kawabata, as do others, combines travelogue and musing with charts and terminology. This he does well; particularly interesting is his discussion of tephrochronology, a dating method based on volcanic eruptions, a technique in which Japan (for unsurprising reasons) is apparently a world leader.
The book is however presented in large part as a conversation, often literally, with the renowned Japanese researcher Yousuke Kaifu of Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science, listed as “technical advisor” but who seems to have rather more than that. The long passages of dialogue can read at times like the transcript of a television documentary.
The translation, fluent and readable, has also kept all the references meant for the original Japanese readership; the first dates for Homo floresiensis are placed “just before the dawn of the prehistory of the Jomon period”. The result serves as a reminder of how much scientific narrative is based on Western cultural touch-points.
In the fight between early man and dinosaurs for space in popular imagination, Lost in Evolution has Homo erectus fighting back.
It is hard to know what to make of this story. Homo erectus survived in Asia far longer than apparently anywhere else. Some branches may even have even coexisted with modern humans. Yet, despite the discovery of new branches, the line (some speculation from Kawabata notwithstanding) still seems to have gone nowhere: however much evolution may have taken place in Asia, they were all replaced by a new wave of humans emanating from Africa. Kawataba muses:
The question of whether our ancestors, H. sapiens, were directly involved in exterminating H. erectus troubles me no end. Just thinking about the scenario of H. sapiens fighting and eradicating H. erectus makes my heart ache…
Kaifu attempts to soothe him by describing how the “common dandelion has outcompeted the native Japanese variety.”
Early man may not have fought the dinosaurs, but the two struggle today for space on bookshelves and in popular imagination. Dinosaurs had been winning. Lost in Evolution has Homo erectus fighting back.