When We Became Humans: Our Incredible Evolutionary Journey (Review)
Updated: Nov 21
Interest Level: Ages 8 and up
Author: Michael Bright
Illustrator: Hannah Bailey
Retail: $19.95, Hardcover
Summary: A large-format, illustrated account of the evolution of the human species, archaeological evidence for early human behavior, and the development of culture. Includes a speculative section about the future of human evolution. Includes a table of contents and index.
What does it mean to be human? This book starts with the earliest known human ancestors and tells the story of how we came to be what we are and what makes us different from other animals. The story is complicated, and new evidence continues to come to light. Where data has not yet been found we learn about how scientists use indirect evidence to make inferences. In some cases, we learn that the answers we seek may never be known.
I have yet to see a children's book that presents human evolution with as much accuracy and readability as this one. Author Michael Bright is a producer for the BBC, specializing on natural history programming. He has also written many books, his skill in writing about science for a popular audience is apparent. The book makes good use of current trends in presenting non-fiction to younger readers. Most of the chapters consist of a single spread or page with a main idea of theme, examples, and detail illustrations or maps where needed. Text blocks are kept short to avoid overwhelming the reader. Pronunciation guides are given where needed.
The actual mechanisms of evolution (natural selection, mutations, etc.) are not covered in this book. Instead we learn mostly about morphological changes over time and their implications for the development of human behaviors and characteristics. (Genetics are briefly addressed). When We Became Humans also provides thought-provoking information about the development of language, agriculture, technologies, and methods of cultural expression.
Illustrator Hannah Bailey uses pencil sketches, stencils and ink detailing to compose the images used in this book. The illustrations mesh extremely well with the text. They are simplified as they should be for a children's book, but the images of extinct hominids are well-researched and have a lot of detail. The earthy color palette and matte finish are good choices for the subject matter.
This book would have been made even better had select sources been included at the back. In particular, we hear about specific discoveries, but there are no references to indicate the names of the sites where they were found, nor the identities of researchers involved. I was also left thirsting for more information (my last physical anthropology course was over 20 years ago), but there are no suggestions for further reading. A child might wonder, how does canine size tell us whether fathers helped take care of their children? Why do scientists think Lucy spent 1/3 of her life living in trees? How would we know that all European cattle descended from a single herd of 80 animals? Hopefully these questions will inspire young readers to learn more.
I highly recommend this book for home, classroom and library use.