Book Review: The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack by Ian Tattersall

Three weeks ago, I reviewed my first ever Ian Tattersall book, Masters of the Planet. As I said then, Ian Tattersall is the curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s Spitzer Hall of Human Origins. He’s been involved in paleoanthropology since the 60’s, and his books combine his undeniable expertise with just enough of his own evidence-based opinions and a dash of wit.

If you read my last review, then you know that I loved Masters of the Planet so much that I went straight into Tattersall’s next book straight after. The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution isn’t necessarily a sequel, but it fills out what was missing from Masters of the Planet, and it seems that the reader will only get the full experience from Rickety Cossack after having read Masters of the Planet. But as I did this myself, I didn’t find it to be nearly as complementary to—or as good as—Masters of the Planet as I had expected.

For context, Masters of the Planet was a wonderfully elucidating story of human evolution starting with some of our oldest fossils, like the 7-million-year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis and taking the reader all the way to the lives of Neanderthals and their eventual loss to the emerging Homo sapiens. Notably, the book went in chronological order of the epic of human origins itself. Tattersall streamlined this story by excluding most names of scientists and all but the most crucial bits of paleoanthropological drama.

In the preface to Rickety Cossack, Tattersall says,

As the writing [of Masters of the Planet] progressed I realized that if I was to provide a narrative of human evolution that would make ready sense, I would have to omit any substantial mention of the convoluted histories of discovery and ideas in paleanthropology. This was a serious omission since, given the sheer weight of paleoanthropology’s historical burden, it left a huge gap in the story. It is that gap that led to the book you are holding now, which is in effect a complement to the earlier one.”

I’ll cut right to it. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this book made an ideal complement to Masters of the Planet. Sure, there were parts of it that showed the human side of the field rather than just cold scientific facts (or conjectures, rather). The beginning of the book told the story of Darwin, Huxley, and their contemporaries as they navigated the idea of evolutionary change and confronted the first ever Neanderthal fossils found in the 1860s. This story was entirely novel, but as the book went on, it became more and more repetitive of Masters of the Planet.

I respect that Tattersall tried to write one book on the scientific understandings in human evolution and another on the people who made them. I think Masters of the Planet was brilliant, and it was (and is) crucial that those beginning studies in paleoanthropology can be caught up to speed with the academia without interruptions. But this field is so wrought with controversy and politics that it can be hard to avoid, and so bits and pieces ended up slipping into Masters, only to be repeated in Rickety Cossack.

What’s more, Rickety Cossack ended up having a lot more science and technical writing than I, and several other readers, expected. Not only did it become so repetitive with the book that I had just read a week before that the second half was barely worth reading, but it wasn’t the tale of silly human foibles that one might have expected from the title. The strange case of the rickety Cossack refers to some Neanderthal fossils which, in the 1860s, had been assumed to be those of a Russian Cossack soldier who suffered from rickets, cranial injury, and arthritis in life and who had crawled into a cave to die during the Napoleonic war in 1814. Sure, it’s funny because it is so miserably wrong and now so painfully obvious that it was not a modern human at all, but there are still 190 pages following the memorable story that have nothing to do with Cossack soldiers or rickets in the least.

Still, The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack was a very informative read, even considering the amount that I already knew. Ian Tattersall is clearly a very brilliant man. He has a lot of strong opinions about paleoanthropological politics, and hearing him make judgments on what were, in his eyes, obvious mistakes, kept the book interesting. An easy theme to recognize is that Tattersall is what paleoanthropologists would call a “splitter”. A “splitter” is the opposite of a “lumper”, and both refer to how one classifies species. For example, a “splitter” might see three different species represented in a collection of fossils where a “lumper” might see only one.

Now, classifying entire extinct species based on little more than fragmentary fossils seems like it may be an impossible task, so it’s understandable that virtually no one can agree on anything. But I felt that I could trust Tattersall’s judgment, and even when he made claims that contradicted what I had learned from Donald Johanson’s Lucy, I thought Tattersall’s conclusions were better supported, and I’m starting to lean more in his direction.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about this book. It was pretty repetitive with Masters of the Planet, but at the same time, the reader might be lost without the context that comes from reading that first. But what did you think? Have you read either of these two Ian Tattersall books, and if so, which do you prefer?

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack by Ian Tattersall

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