Ian Tattersall

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Ian Tattersall (1945- ) is a paleontologist who currently serves as curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His research interests include human evolution, particularly the recognition of species in the human fossil record and the determination of their relationships, as well as integration of the human fossil record with evolutionary theory.

His work suggests that human evolution was not a gradual linear process; rather, it was an eventful story of evolutionary experimentation, with new species constantly generated, and regular extinctions taking place. In fact, Tattersall believes it is an unusual thing for Homo sapiens to be the lone hominid in the world today.

Born in England and raised in East Africa, Tattersall has carried out fieldwork in countries as diverse as Comoro Islands, Mauritius, Borneo, Nigeria, Niger, Sudan, Yemen, Vietnam, Surinam, French Guiana, Reunion, and the United States. He trained in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University, and in geology and vertebrate paleontology at Yale, where he received his PhD in 1971.

Research

Tattersall has concentrated his research over the past quarter-century in two main areas, in both of which he is an acknowledged leader: the analysis of the human fossil record, and the study of the ecology and systematics of the lemurs of Madagascar.

Believing that existing literature was not a good resource for comparing human fossils because the standards of description and terminology varied widely, Tattersall and research associate Jeffrey Schwartz set out to document the major fossils in the human fossil record. The resulting three-volume work, Human Fossil Record, employs a consistent descriptive and photographic protocol, making it possible for the first time for colleagues, students, and others to make necessary comparisons without extensive travel needed to consult the originals, which are in institutions all over the world. This compilation also serves as a database for this museum's own analyses of hominid systematics, the revision of which is clearly needed as the human fossil record rapidly expands.

Tattersall maintains that the notion of human evolution as being a linear trudge from primitivism to perfection is totally wrong. Whereas the Darwinian approach to evolution might be viewed as a fine-tuning of characteristics guided by natural selection, Tattersall takes a more generalist view. Individual organisms are mind-boggingly complex and integrated mechanisms: they succeed or fail as the sum of their parts, not because of a particular characteristic. When it comes to human evolution, Tattersall says it was more a matter of new species going out into the environment and competing with other life forms, and succeeding or failing and going extinct.The history of diversity and competition among human species began some five million years ago. Two million years ago, for example, there were at least four human species on the same landscape. We are now the sole surviving twig on a big branching bush produced by this process of evolutionary experimentation. This would differ from the view that homo sapiens are the pinnacle of a ladder that our ancestors laboriously climbed.

Tattersall is also continuing his independent inquiries into the nature and emergence of modern human cognition. He completed a book of essays on the subject, The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human.

Dr. Tattersall has over 200 scientific research publications, as well as more than a dozen trade books to his credit. As curator, has also been responsible for several major exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, including “Ancestors: Four Million Years of Humanity” (1984); “Dark Caves, Bright Visions: Life In Ice Age Europe.”

Selected Bibliography

Journal articles

  • Tattersall I. (2000) Paleoanthropology: The Last Half-Century Evolutionary Anthropology 9: 2-16.
  • Tattersall I. (2000) The Human Chin Revisited: What Is It and Who Has It? Journal of Human Evolution 38: 367-409.
  • Tattersall I,.Schwartz J. Hominids and Hybrids: The Place of Neanderthals in Human Evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, U.S.A. 96:7117-7119.
  • Tattersall I. (1986) Species recognition in human paleontology. Journal of Human Evolution 15:165-175.

Books

  • The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE (2000) New Oxford World History.
  • Human Origins: What Bones and Genomes Tell Us About Ourselves (2007) Texas A&M University Press. (With co-Curator Rob DeSalle)
  • The Human Fossil Record Terminology and Craniodental Morphology of Genus I Homo/I (2002-2005) John Wiley & Sons. (With J.H. Schwartz) Four volumes.
  • The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human (2002) Harcourt.
  • The Human Odyssey: Four Million Years of Human Evolution (2001) iUniverse.
  • Extinct Humans (2000) Westview Press. (With Jeffrey Schwartz),
  • Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness (1998) New York: Harcourt Brace.
  • The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relative (1995) MacMillan. (republished by Westview Press, 1999).
  • The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution. (1995) Oxford University Press.
  • The Primates of Madagascar (1982) Columbia University Press.

Professional Affiliations

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • American Association of Physical Anthropologists
  • American Society of Primatologists
  • International Primate Society
  • Society of Sigma XI
  • Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
  • Fellow of the Linnaen Society of London

Editorial and adjunct appointments

  • Editorial Advisory Board, The Anatomical Record (The New Anatomist)
  • Editorial Board, International Journal of Primatology
  • Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, Columbia University
  • Adjunct Professor, Program of Anthropology, Graduate Center, CUNY

Other professional honors

  • W. W. Howells Prize of the American Anthropological Association (for Becoming Human), 2000
  • Monuments Conservancy Perennial Wisdom Award, 1999
  • Institute of Human Origins Lifetime Achievement Award, 1993

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