book reviews / Born in a Treacherous Time / research

Book Review: Meeting Prehistoric Man

early manMeeting Prehistoric Man

by GHR Von Koenigswald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Meeting Prehistoric Man (Thames and Hudson 1956) by GHR Von Koenigswald is a journey in discovery of early man as paleoanthropologists understood him circa 1950. Research was well-established in places like East Africa’s Olduvai Gorge  and South Africa’s Witwatersrand, so Koenigswald traveled elsewhere in search of our roots:

  • to Java where a 1.8 million year old skullcap of a young boy was discovered in 1936 (Mojokerto child). The youngster suffered a violent death—the hind part of the skull was crushed by a mighty blow and in places the bones were not broken, but telescoped one over the other as is only possible with fresh bone growth. The upper jaw was also broken. Scientists speculate he might have been killed by Gigantopithecus (a pre-human species). This was followed up by Eugene Du Bois’ discovery of Pithecanthropus erectus, or Java Man, what DuBois considered the missing link but turned out to be a wonderful representation of Homo erectus.
  • to China where he discovered 1.8 million year old bones of Gigantopithecus, a giant pre-Australopithecus early man. This is also where the 800,000 year old bones of Lantian Man were discovered in the Shaanxi province vorak
  • to South Africa where the 2 million year old bones of an Australopithecine were found in a limestone cave called Sterkfontain Cave. Dubbed Mrs Ples, this is the world’s most complete skull of Australopithecus africanus, and were discovered by Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson in April 1947.
  • To Europe
    • to Sussex Forger and Lascaux Cave
    • More recently, Gran Dolina in Spain has been a site of an 800,000 year-old shelter inhabited by Homo antecessor. These representatives of early man present some spectacularly “modern” characteristics, particularly its face, together with other traits which are similar to those of Homo ergaster.
  • to East Africa where a plethora of early man’s bones have been found over time. These include:lucy
    • Turkana Boy (1.6 million year old Homo ergaster. This early man had no apelike reliance on trees. His narrow pelvis and barrel-like chest emphasize bipedalism. A narrow pelvis in females implies a constricted birth canal, limiting the amount of brain growth before birth, and prolonging infancy, as in modern humans. A reduced digestive tract indicates a diet containing more meat and tubers.
    • Nariokotome Boy–the 1.6 million year-old skeleton of a 10-12 year old individual (generally considered male). The teeth are unworn. Shovel-shaped incisors. S/he was 5’3″ (168 cm) and may have reached 6’0″ (183 cm) at maturity. His/her cause of death is unknown but there are no signs of trauma or toothmarks that might be due to death by a predator. S/he may have died from septicemia following an infected jaw, and fell face down into a shallow swamp at Nariokotome, on the western side of Lake Turkana, in Kenya. Omo River at that time was flowing in a huge braided stream over the area. The specimen is considered by some as ergaster, but to most as erectus. The relative completeness of this specimen led to many influential ideas about this species.
    • Chellean Man—1.2 million year old fairly complete braincase (size approx. 1050 cc) of Homo erectus discovered
    • Pinhead—800k year old Homo erectus skull found in Olduvai Gorge.

Some of my favorite quotes from this book include:

  • Man did not address his inquiries to the earth on which he stood until a remarkably late stage in the development of his desire for knowledge. And the answers he received to the questions ‘Where do I come from?’, ‘What is man?’, although they made him poorer by a few illusions, gave him in compensation a knowledge of his past that is vaster than he could ever have dreamed. For it emerged that the history of life was his history too.
  • As late as 1650, Archbishop Ussher of Ireland said that our earth was created on Oct. 4, 4004 b.c.
  • Today, hippos are confined to Africa, but as fossils they also occur in Europe, India and Java.
  • A single discovery may change the whole state of affairs
  • To judge by the thigh bones, Peking Man was about five feet two inches tall in the case of the male with the female some five inches less
  • After all this, there could be no doubt that the orangutan, which is today confined to Borneo and Sumatra, was originally a native of China as well.
  • the region of Borneo was somehow connected with Asia. Java itself lay beneath the sea until towards the end of the Tertiary.

As an aficionado of early man, I found this book highly readable, detailed enough to learn from without the complicated jargon that only a PhD in paleoanthropology can understand.

More on my early man:Homo erectus--searching for Lucy and Raza

Origin of Humankind

In the Shadow Of Man

Runaway Brain

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. 

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Meeting Prehistoric Man

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  4. It is a never ending question, I have had since a child about how we evolved and then my daughter has the same interest only she delves further into how languages came about. We live in such wonderful times where we can get answers to many of lives great questions. Thanks Jacqui great post.


    • The evolution of language is fascinating. The experts really can’t agree on Neanderthal language capabilities–despite knowing so much about their brain and throat. I can spend hours looking into that.


  5. Pingback: Book Review: Meeting Prehistoric Man | Time To Replace Myself

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