Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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How did we become human? Some anthropologists say it's our bipedal stance, others our linguistic gifts. Some cite tool use, and still others our big brains. Pat Shipman, a biological anthropologist at Penn State University, argues instead that our unique history is a reflection of our connections to other animal species. In her book The Animal Connection (W.W. Norton, $26.95) Shipman builds an interesting but somewhat shaky case that our relationships with animals—eating them, working with them, and caring for them—motivated the evolutionary and cultural shifts that made humans what we are today.

By eating the flesh of animals, an unusual strategy for a primate, our ancestors were able to evolve massive, energy-hungry brains. Hunting big game encouraged our predecessors to disperse across the globe in search of prey, and honed cognitive skills such as memory and attention. "Our ancestors came under selective pressure to pay more attention to other animals and gather more information about them," Shipman writes. The first toolmaking was also part of the animal connection. Early tools were primarily used to butcher and process meat, she points out. Next, language enabled us to share information about animal habits. Early art—a proxy for linguistic and symbolic capabilities—is almost entirely devoted to depictions of creatures, further evidence of animals' significance in the human mind.

The Animal Connection is an absorbing read. Shipman is a good storyteller, capturing how relationships between humans and animals can transform both species—even in the simple act of teaching a dog to sit. "In that glorious instant when a human and an animal converse respectfully ... something magical happens," she writes. Shipman provides thorough, readable accounts of current archaeological scholarship on animals and early human tool use, language, and art, and debates about domestication, with interesting digressions such as recent findings that dogs may have first been tamed more than 32,000 years ago. By the end of the book, however, her provocative thesis is not argued clearly enough to be satisfying. Ultimately, her account of who we are and how we got this way still feels speculative, a compelling idea in need of convincing proof.