the observer Sat 03 April 2010
This is the history of humanity's great diaspora. It began 100,000 years ago when our ancestors left Africa and ended with Homo sapiens in control of an entire planet. Alice Roberts originally presented a TV version of this grand travelogue last year and came over as an engaging companion on her hunt for evidence of man's global spread: part hippie, part the girl next door.
Her series was often illuminating and engrossing, exposing unexpected vignettes of our global spread. However, the programmes were sometimes gimmicky and intellectually vacuous, with Roberts all too often adopting a daft, let's-find-out-for-ourselves approach. Thus she would stumble on precious pieces of ancient human anatomy as if by chance as she wandered around the savannah. On other occasions, we were expected to believe she was at risk of being swept to her death while she was being filmed on a raft.
Her book therefore offers Roberts a chance to redeem these and other faults and bring a bit of respectability to her role as a science communicator. And by and large, she succeeds. There is a sober exposition of the key finds that revealed the path we took on our African exodus, including visits to the 70,000-year-old settlement at Pinnacle Point, South Africa, where humans made jewellery, sophisticated tools and artwork, and to the cave where the fossil remains of the tiny hobbit folk of Flores were first discovered.
The earliest known skull of the modern human is described vividly and its discoverer, Richard Leakey, is this time given proper attribution for his work. (He got no mention on TV.) Similarly, the dates of our first African exodus are here pushed back to a more plausible 100,000 years before present and not given as 70,000 years, another error committed by the screen version.
In essence, this is a story of genes, bones and stones. It could be a stark affair but is given flesh and warmth by Roberts, who stresses the human side of our progress round the planet. In doing so, she has produced an easily digestible introduction to a complex but fascinating story.