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review 2019-12-02 06:41
Ice Maiden by Johan Reinhard
Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes - Johan Reinhard

TITLE:  Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes


AUTHOR:  Johan Reinhard




FORMAT:  Hardcover


ISBN-13:  9780792268383



"Half a millennium ago, a party of Inca priests and a young virgin climbed more than 20,000 feet to the summit of the  Andean peaks of Ampato.  At the climax of their ceremony, the girl was sacrificed and buried along with sacred offerings of textiles, food, and figurines of silver and gold; there the Inca Ice Maiden would remain undisturbed for 500 years, until Johan Reinhard found her in 1995.  It was a stunning discovery that made headlines all over the world - but it was just the beginning of this fascinating tale of adventure, high-altitude archaeology, and ground-breaking scientific accomplishment.


In his first-hand account, Reinhard, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, chronicles more than two decades of challenging research that led him on over 200 climbs of some fo the world's highest mountains, and culminated in two seasons of unprecedented finds - first the ice maiden on Ampato, and four years later on Llullaillaco, where three Inca children lay frozen in a state of near-perfect preservation.  Dead for centuries yet still alive in their startling humanity, they are mute yet eloquent witnesses to ancient Inca civilization and custom, yielding everything from statuary and ceremonial clothing to DNA samples - each a new piece in the cultural puzzle that is Reinhard's life work.


A mesmerizing blend of mountaineering adventure and archaeological quest, The Ice Maiden boasts everything from live volcanoes and deadly lightning storms to grave robbers and fierce academic rivalries that threatened Reinhard's team as they raced time and the weather to compelte their demanding task.  Every reader will feel their tense mix of excitement and anxiety, and share their exhilarioation as they unearth long-buried treasures that exceed even their most hopeful dreams.


This extraordinarily vivid eyewitness account documents two of the most important discoveries in the history of South American archaeology.  A riveting tale that takes the long forgotten and makes it unforgettable, it represents at once a momentous scientific achievement and a pricelss contribution to the cultural heritage of the Incas' descendatns in Peru and Argentina."




This book describes Johan Reinhard's personal experiences in climbing various Andes mountain peaks; leading archaeological expeditions to find Inca mummies and artifacts; all the "fun" interpersonal/ inter-university/ inter-organisational politcs that preserving and studying important archaeological artifacts entails, and the importance of these discoveries (especially when considering looters' habits of theft and dynamite usage).  Reinhard provides the reader with a  fascinating look at how the Ice Maiden (and other ice mummies) were found, the difficulties encountered on expeditions to extreme (and sometimes not so extreme) locations, as well as organising (and finding funding) for special permanent storage containers and facilities for these ice mummies. The author provides a brief description of Inca culture, with an emphasis on their high altitude (as far up the mountain as they could possible go) child sacrifices and their beliefs in Mountain gods.  I found there was a bit too much about the author and not enough about the Incas in general and the finds specifically.  However, this book was well-written with numerous black & white photographs, as well as a section of colour plates. 








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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-07-22 10:45
The Walking Whales by J.G.M. "Hans" Thewissen
The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years - J. G. M. "Hans" Thewissen

TITLE:  The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years


AUTHOR:  J. G. M. "Hans" Thewissen



FORMAT:  Hardcover

ISBN13:  9780520277069

"Hans Thewissen, a leading researcher in the field of whale paleontology and anatomy, gives a sweeping first-person account of the discoveries that brought to light the early fossil record of whales. As evidenced in the record, whales evolved from herbivorous forest-dwelling ancestors that resembled tiny deer to carnivorous monsters stalking lakes and rivers and to serpentlike denizens of the coast.

Thewissen reports on his discoveries in the wilds of India and Pakistan, weaving a narrative that reveals the day-to-day adventures of fossil collection, enriching it with local flavors from South Asian culture and society. The reader senses the excitement of the digs as well as the rigors faced by scientific researchers, for whom each new insight gives rise to even more questions, and for whom at times the logistics of just staying alive may trump all science.

In his search for an understanding of how modern whales live their lives, Thewissen also journeys to Japan and Alaska to study whales and wild dolphins. He finds answers to his questions about fossils by studying the anatomy of otters and porpoises and examining whale embryos under the microscope. In the book's final chapter, Thewissen argues for approaching whale evolution with the most powerful tools we have and for combining all the fields of science in pursuit of knowledge.
This is a delightful book:  full colour illustrations, diagrams, maps, beautifully detailed science writing and an author who assumes his readers are intelligent and interested.
This book reads something like a detective novel.  The author starts off with one of his (presumably failed) fossil finding expeditions in Pakistan, 1991, what he found there, the implications and what happened next.  Thewissen manages to include biographical "stories" without coming across as self-important (he is humble and rather amusing), and gives credit where credit is due.  All these biographical anecdotes are from his field expeditions and the people he dealt with - essentially where he went, why, what issues he had, what he found and why this was significant - fit into the whole book and the science sections quite well.  These anecdotes were quite interesting and I looked forward to reading them. You get to find out what a paleontologist does when he has made an important fossil discovery but doesn't have enough funds to fly it back the laboratory; and what happens when said paleontologist gets too impatient to dig out a fossil and yanks it out of the ground instead.
Besides the enlightening anecdotes, Thewissen discusses the specifics of whale evolution using fossil, biological (physiologica, cladistic and DNA where possible) and chemical evidence, usually in the order in which the discoveries were made.  All the relevant science from different fields is nicely explained withouth being tedious or overly technical (except the anatomy parts, which can't really be helped). The author is also careful in spearating speculation from what can reasonably be assumed from the evidence.
Thewissen has summarised the remarkable progress that has been made in terms of our understanding of whale origins - with many "intermediate" fossils, clear-cut functional links, and the beginnings of the molecuar mechanisms that drive it all.  Thewissen takes the reader on an mystery-solving adventure that eventually helps us understand the evolution of whales from small hooved, land animals that resembled mouse deer and requiring fresh water for drinking, to our current salt-water, fishy-shaped giants with flippers.
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-07-15 12:46
The Invaders by Pat Shipman
The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction - Donna Postel,Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews

TITLE:  The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction


AUTHOR:  Pat Shipman


NARRATOR:  Donna Postel




FORMAT:  Audiobook


ISBN-13:  9781494563097




"Approximately 200,000 years ago, as modern humans began to radiate out from their evolutionary birthplace in Africa, Neanderthals were already thriving in Europe-descendants of a much earlier migration of the African genus Homo. But when modern humans eventually made their way to Europe 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals suddenly vanished. Ever since the first Neanderthal bones were identified in 1856, scientists have been vexed by the question, why did modern humans survive while their evolutionary cousins went extinct? The Invaders musters compelling evidence to show that the major factor in the Neanderthals' demise was direct competition with newly arriving humans. Drawing on insights from the field of invasion biology, Pat Shipman traces the devastating impact of a growing human population: reduction of Neanderthals' geographic range, isolation into small groups, and loss of genetic diversity. But modern humans were not the only invaders who competed with Neanderthals for big game. Shipman reveals fascinating confirmation of humans' partnership with the first domesticated wolf-dogs soon after Neanderthals first began to disappear. This alliance between two predator species, she hypothesizes, made possible an unprecedented degree of success in hunting large Ice Age mammals-a distinct and ultimately decisive advantage for humans over Neanderthals at a time when climate change made both groups vulnerable."





I do not have a good relationship with audiobook - I tend to wool gather or fall asleep while listening to them. So I might have missed something and couldn't flip back to check.




This book is something of a detective/mystery novel where the author tries to find out why the Neanderthals went extinct.  Her hypothesis makes use of ecological theory to suggest that modern humans have the same effect on the environment as any other invasive species competing with native animals for the same/similar resources - thus Neanderthals and other megafauna could have survived the cold climate at the time but could not survive the climate and the additional competition with modern humans and their pet wolves/dogs.  The changing climate, changing food sources, other animals in the area, generic invasive species and their effects, hunting techniques, the arrival of modern humans, competition for the same/similar resources, as well as the domestication of wolves/dogs is discussed. The title of the book doesn't really fit with Shipman's hypothesis though, as according to the text, Neanderthals were already on their way out before homo sapiens (aka modern humans) migrated into Eurasia and the semi-domesticated wolf-dogs only arrived (according to available fossil evidence) after the Neanderthals were gone.  The dogs only make an appearance about 3/4 through the book, if anyone is looking specifically for that information. 


I'm not entirely convinced by her argument.  The timing is a bit erratic, with Neanderthal populations declining before modern humans arrived and a large time gap between Neanderthals and domesticated wolves.  She also doesn't take into account that dogs were domesticated from an extinct species of wolf that might not have behaved in the same way as the Grey wolves used in her study (she generally ignored all the other canid species and their interactions with humans).  The author admits that there isn't enough evidence currently to say whether her hypothesis is correct or not, and that new advances in dating and additional fossil sites are required to either prove/disprove her hypothesis.  Shipman's hypothesis of why modern humans domesticated wolves/dogs and Neanderthals didn't, is fairly interesting and new information seems to provide some confirming evidence.  There is also some issue with her stating that Neanderthals ate only meat and didn't change their diet (especially in comparison with brown bear diet changes), when other studies state that some Neanderthals ate meat, others a mix, and some others ate mostly vegetables and thus changed their diet.  There is also no mention of Denisovians (probably due to lack of evidence at time of publication).  The DNA data on Neanderthal-Modern Human hybridization/interbreeding is also out of date.  This makes me wonder what else is out of date and how that effects the hypothesis.


Pat Shipman helpfully makes a point of differentiating between speculation and inferences from hard, empirical evidence.  There is a lot of space dedicated to dating of specific finds and analysis of particular fossil evidence.  She does however, tend to repeat herself too often and harp on the same theme far too much (I got that humans are an invasive species after the first paragraph, I didn't need a whole chapter on the subject and several reminders throughout the book). 


An interesting, but flawed, book.



NOTE ON AUDIOBOOK:  Postel has a pleasant voice, narrates well and at a decent speed.


Humanity's Best Friend: How Dogs May Have Helped Humans Beat the Neanderthals

The Evolution of Puppy Dog Eyes

Some Neanderthals Were Vegetarian — And They Likely Kissed Our Human Ancestors






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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-07-05 10:33
Extinction by Douglas H. Erwin
Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago - Douglas H. Erwin

TITLE: Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago


AUTHOR:  Douglas H. Erwin


DATE PUBLISHED:  2015 Updated Edition - New Preface (first publication 2006)


FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  9780691165653




"Some 250 million years ago, the earth suffered the greatest biological crisis in its history. Around 95 percent of all living species died out--a global catastrophe far greater than the dinosaurs' demise 185 million years later. How this happened remains a mystery. But there are many competing theories. Some blame huge volcanic eruptions that covered an area as large as the continental United States; others argue for sudden changes in ocean levels and chemistry, including burps of methane gas; and still others cite the impact of an extraterrestrial object, similar to what caused the dinosaurs' extinction.

Extinction is a paleontological mystery story. Here, the world's foremost authority on the subject provides a fascinating overview of the evidence for and against a whole host of hypotheses concerning this cataclysmic event that unfolded at the end of the Permian.

After setting the scene, Erwin introduces the suite of possible perpetrators and the types of evidence paleontologists seek. He then unveils the actual evidence--moving from China, where much of the best evidence is found; to a look at extinction in the oceans; to the extraordinary fossil animals of the Karoo Desert of South Africa. Erwin reviews the evidence for each of the hypotheses before presenting his own view of what happened.

Although full recovery took tens of millions of years, this most massive of mass extinctions was a powerful creative force, setting the stage for the development of the world as we know it today.

In a new preface, Douglas Erwin assesses developments in the field since the book's initial publication."







Erwin provides us with an entertaining, informative and somewhat technical "whodunit" detective story, examining the "culprits" that may be responsible for the end-Permian mass extinction.  The author examines the various geological and paleontological evidence for what happened, when and what effects this may have had; and then tries to piece together which of several hypotheses are the more likely culprites of the extinction and which are just effects. 


The six major hypotheses that show some supporting data, and which Erwin focuses on, are as follows:

(1) an extraterrestrial impact of the some sort;

(2) extensive volcanism that produced the Siberian flood basalts (possibly triggered by an extraterrestrial impact), that radically changed the global climate and geochemistry;

(3) continental drift (plate tectonics) with the formation of Pangaea that caused an extensive reduction in biome types;

(4) extensive glaciation that caused a combination of global cooling and a drop in sea levels;

(5) a decrease in oxygen in shallow and deep seas due to one of several possible causes; and

(6) the "Murder on the Orient Express" hypothesis suggesting that a combination of several or all of the other already described events occurred nearly simultaneously


Erwin very helpfully comments on the strenght or weaknesses of the various hypotheses, and finally provides his conclusion based on the evidence.  Erwin also takes a look at the recovery of organisms AFTER the extinction, which is something few authors do.  However, the book was originally published in 2006, so some of this information is outdated or been superseededby additional information.  Erwin does discuss the new findings in his 2015 preface, for an up-to-date examination of the end Pemian extinction.  Despite new research into this topic, it seems like the author's "Murder on the Orient Express" hypotheses, where a variety of factors are responsible for the mass extinction, still seems to be valid.



Other useful books:


-When Life Nearly Died:  The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton

-The Worst of Times:  How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions by Paul B. Wignall

-Life on a Young Planet:  The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll

-The Goldilocks Planet:  The Four Billion Year Story of Earth's Climate by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams

-The Ends of the World:  Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses by Peter Brannen

-The Emerald Planet:  How Plants Changed Earth's History by David Beerling





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review 2019-06-24 13:18
Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres by: Donald R. Prothero
Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres - Donald R. Prothero

TITLE:  Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres


AUTHOR:  Donald R. Prothero






ISBN-13:  9780253008190 



"A book for everyone fascinated by the huge beasts that once roamed the earth, Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of the Indricotheres introduces a prime candidate for the largest land mammal that ever lived--the giant hornless rhinoceros, Indricotherium. These massive animals lived in Asia and Eurasia for more than 14 million years, about 37 to 23 million years ago. They had skulls 6 feet long, stood 22 feet high at the shoulder, and were nearly twice as heavy as the largest elephant ever recorded, tipping the scales at 44,100 pounds. Fortunately, the big brutes were vegetarians, although they must have made predators think twice before trying to bring them down. In this book for lovers of ancient creatures great and small, Donald R. Prothero tells their story, from their discovery by paleontologists just a century ago to the latest research on how they lived and died, with some interesting side trips along the way."




Interesting and thorough overview of ancient rhinoceroses, starting from the biographies of all the fossil hunters who dug up ancient rhino bones to rhino evolution, location, habitat, and speculation of their eventual demise. I found the 3 chapters dealing with the fossil hunter biography tedious, but the rhino portions of the book were interesting, if a bit bland. Sketches and an extensive bibliography are present.


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