Before the Dawn


Nicholas Wade




Date Reviewed:

January 5, 2007

his book is fascinating. I would have awarded it a five star rating except that I thought one of the later chapter on tracing the branches of language was a bit boring, but all the other information was terrific.

This book is a summary of what scientists have recently learned from studying the DNA of human populations. It is amazing how much can be gleaned from the genetic code. For example, it appears almost all humans are descended from a small tribe that was perhaps as small as 150 individuals that lived in Africa as recently as 50,000 years ago. Although “anatomically modern” humans walked the earth as early as 100,000 years ago, it wasn’t until 50,000 years ago that “socially modern” humans appeared. It is likely that the mutation that allowed language occurred in the 50,000 year time frame. Appearing concurrently with language, was the concept of religion, which is shared universally among all people.

One interesting idea is the point that language may be built into our genes, the idea of grammar and syntax is present when we are born. A baby can learn to speak any language, the baby merely has to be placed in an environment where it can hear adults speak. However, the language learning skills must be exercised in the first few years of a child’s life - Wade tells of a girl who was locked in a house without any communication from her imprisoning parents. Although eventually rescued, the child could never articulate beyond a broken syntax. Wade also makes the argument that religion arose at the same time that language did. Language was a powerful tool for deception in the social group, while religion is the force that impels the individuals to obey rules and avoid behaviors that would hurt the group.

It is great to read about the speculations of the human spread from Africa. About 50,000 years ago, the fierce Neanderthals were present in modern day Israel, so the fragile humans could not expand from Africa via Egypt. However, that era was an ice age; so much water was locked up in glacial ice that the sea level was a lot lower than modern levels. The distance from the horn of Africa (Ethiopia) to the Arabian peninsula across the Red Sea may have been as little as 12 miles. The theory is that one tribe of humans managed to cross the sea, and slowly expand eastward toward India. As population pressures increased, the growing humans spread into Asia, down to Australia and eventually across the land bridge into the Americas. Using their language skills and organizational abilities, the humans all spread west and north into the territory dominated by the physically superior Neanderthals. For 30,000 years, the humans and Neanderthals engaged in territorial conflict, until finally the last of the stand of the Neanderthals in Spain ended in defeat. It wasn’t a concerted campaign by humans to extinguish the Neanderthals, but competition for hunting resources would have led violence between the species.

I was fascinated to read about how the domestication of the wolf (the first animal that was domesticated, the wolf became the dog) gave those humans such an advantage. Dogs can hunt, dogs are loyal, but most importantly, dogs can stand guard and bark when intruders try to sneak up. Thus, owning dogs allowed the building permanent, secure settlements. Also in this book Wade tells us that humans settled down BEFORE the invention of agriculture, not after it. Dogs also gave humans the concept of property, because a dog definitely belongs to one master.

There is a ton of great material in this book. The author brings up the famous Guns, Germs and Steel, and says Jared Diamond’s bold theory (about geography being so crucial to human civilization) places too much emphasis on environment and not enough on genetics. Humans have changed quite recently, becoming lactose tolerant or sickle cell anemic. Indeed, we are still evolving. In the last chapter Wade speculates that we eventually insert a 24th chromosomes to help repair defects such as diabetes. I highly recommend this book. I have recommended this book to three friends, and they have all agreed it was a terrific read, so add it to your list!