Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution

January 2nd, 2012

Wood B, ed. (2011)  Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 1264 pp., $560.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-4051-5510-6; $449 (E-book), ISBN 978-1-4443-4247-5.

Reviewed by:  Ian Tattersall, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York NY 10024, USA.  E-mail address: iant@amnh.org


In the preamble to his new two-volume Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, the indefatigable Bernard Wood offers us the observation that, while paleoanthropology has over the past sixty years or so become an almost impossibly complex multidisciplinary enterprise, it has up to now lacked a single reference source to which diverse researchers in the field may turn for information on areas outside their subspecialties. Those paleoanthropologists with a copy of one of the editions of the almost equally voluminous and sprawling Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory (Tattersall et al., 1988; Delson et al., 2000) nestling on their shelves may be a little surprised to hear this; and they may be yet more so to learn that Wood instead places his very diverse Encyclopedia in a strictly fossil-oriented genealogy that begins with Quenstedt and Quenstedt’s (1936) Hominidae Fossiles, and continues through such works as Michael Day’s Guide to Fossil Man (1965), and the British Museum (Natural History)’s multivolume Catalogue of Fossil Hominids (Oakley and Campbell, 1967; Oakley et al., 1971, 1975), together with its more recent supplements from the Société Royal Belge d’Anthropologie. Given this definitely stated if counterintuitive claimed line of descent, the same readers might find it equally curious that Wood omits from his recitation of fossil-centered works the more recent Human Fossil Record series from his very own publisher (Schwartz and Tattersall, 2002, 2003, 2005; Holloway et al., 2004). Still, despite such pettifogging cavils, Wood’s implicit claim that paleoanthropology has recently lacked a bang-up-to-date general reference work is plainly true. And it’s every bit as true that, at least for the nonce, his remarkable new Encyclopedia of Human Evolution fills that lacuna as comprehensively and as authoritatively as anyone could reasonably wish.

To undertake this vast compilation Wood recruited an impressive editorial board of over 50 associate, advisory and other editors, supplemented by an equal number of contributors. Under Wood’s orchestration, this huge team has somehow assembled over 5000 alphabetically-arranged entries, ranging from “a” (in the sense of “annum”) to “zygomaticomaxillary step.” These entries range from less than a column-inch to a couple of pages in length (with a bias toward the shorter formats), and they cover the entire waterfront of paleoanthropology. Your reviewer is grateful to our colleague Eric Delson for quantifying their amazing diversity: 675 of the entries are dedicated to morphology, 228 to archaeology, 200 to behavioral topics, 329 to geology, 383 to genetics and molecular biology, 210 to ecology and evolution, 93 to morphometry, 184 to systematics, 54 to life history subjects, and so on. Of the 1177 entries on specific sites and fossils, 599 are devoted to Africa, 253 to eastern Asia, 314 to Europe as far to the east as the Caucasus, and 10 to sites in central Asia. New World aficionados will be disappointed: only Clovis gets an article. But there are 88 biographies of paleoanthropological luminaries, including, bravely, several who are still alive. The ever-self-effacing editor has thoughtfully excluded himself, which should help to mollify any neglected egos.

So much for the numbers, which are frighteningly impressive just in themselves. But what about reliability? Unusually for a printed encyclopedia, the individual articles are unsigned. Responsibility for their content is collectively assumed by the entire corps of editors, plus some unspecified outside reviewers. Still, in a welcome difference from Wikipedia we know who those editors are, and we know that they are shrewdly chosen and may be trusted. What’s more, according to Wood each entry was reviewed by a number of different qualified individuals, reducing the chances that errors or problematic statements will have slipped between the cracks. The result is a reference work that is of both high utility and high reliability. Inevitably, as he browsed your reviewer found a few interpretations from which to demur. But he stumbled over remarkably few errors of fact (although “Gabounia” is not as claimed a spelling mistake to be crowed over, but rather the French transliteration from the Georgian of Leo Gabunia’s family name), and typographical errors are remarkably rare (“Cercopithicinae” somehow crept through, but not many others). Alphabetization is sometimes quirky, though: one is mildly surprised to run across “Isernia la Pineta” a couple of pages before encountering “interbirth interval.”

The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia’s overall comprehensiveness is assured not only by the very ecumenical view of paleoanthropology’s scope that is so amply reflected in the volumes’ diverse coverage, but by the division of the extensive subject-matter into a huge number of snappy bite-sized pieces. Indeed, given that the Encyclopedia is both immensely expensive and physically unwieldy, perhaps it is just a tad more comprehensive than it really needed to be. In a work devoted broadly to paleoanthropology but more specifically to the human fossil record, do we really need entries on such subjects as “syntax” and “in silico,” especially where the entries concerned are so brief and telegraphic as to be essentially pro-forma? But these are ungenerous quibbles (reminding one of the Emperor’s alleged “too many notes” injunction to the hapless Wolfgang Mozart), and Wood has clearly been at pains to err on the side of inclusivity. You will rarely be disappointed by these volumes when you delve in them for a paleoanthropological term – or even for information on a paleoanthropological institution, although why Bucharest’s Institutul de Speleologie “Emil Racoviţa” is included while Paris’s venerable Institut de Paléontologie humaine is not must – like many other things in paleoanthropology – remain a bit of a mystery. And of course, as Wood disarmingly remarks in his Preface (which is repeated in both volumes, as are the topic entry list, the bibliography, and the elegant Foreword by Francisco Ayala), perfection in any enterprise as complex as his Encyclopedia is an unrealistic goal.

As its staccato structure suggests, the manner throughout the two volumes of the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia is brisk, businesslike and succinct. Entries occasionally get a little schoolmarmish, as when we are sternly though a little oddly admonished (on obscure and highly technical grounds) that “you cannot classify an individual fossil,” but basically there is little room here for the discursive or the circuitous. Even the longest entries are strictly declarative. To counterbalance this, a comprehensive system of references leads the reader to a reasonably extensive and up-to-date bibliography of works in which the information presented in the entries is more discursively fleshed out. An index has been omitted in favor of a long “Topic Entry List” that is organized under the rubrics of “Anatomy,” “Archeology,” “Behavior,” “Biology,” “Cognition,” “Demography,” and so forth. Once you get the hang of it, this Topic List is quite an effective guide to how information is distributed within the volumes, and helps in the occasionally tricky process of navigating toward material of interest.

Entries of the same general kind are standardized in format, so that information is comparable from one to the next. For example, data on each of the chosen hominin fossils from Olduvai Gorge (OH1, and nineteen others through OH65) are presented under the headings of Site, Locality, Surface/in situ, Date of discovery, Unit/horizon, Bed/member, Formation, Group, Nearest overlying dated horizon, Nearest underlying dated horizon, Geological age, Developmental age, Presumed sex, Brief anatomical description, Announcement, Initial description, Photographs/line drawings and metrical data, Detailed anatomical description, Initial taxonomic allocation, Taxonomic revisions, Current conventional taxonomic allocation, Informal taxonomic category, Significance, and Location of original. Several hundred other hominin fossils are similarly described, plus or minus a few headings as appropriate. The text within each such entry is typically run-on, with the headings themselves underlined in the continuous text. As a result, in some of the shorter entries most of the words end up being underlined, which can be a bit disconcerting. But in longer entries this calling-out of headings makes the lengthy paragraphs a lot easier to navigate. Much more importantly, almost every hominin fossil you might care to inquire about is here, making this unquestionably the best quick reference around.

On the other hand, if you want to know what those fossils actually look like, this is not the place to turn. There is not one illustration in either of the Encyclopedia’s two volumes (the most striking of the few features that do indeed place this work in the tradition of the Catalogue of Fossil Hominids). Since the primary evidence of paleoanthropology is to a large degree visual, this lack of illustration might legitimately be viewed as a major drawback. After all, seeing the fundamental data for yourself allows you to draw your own conclusions, while text alone limits you to what others have concluded. Not that this is anything new for plaeoanthropologists. The omission of figures actually reflects a tradition of exclusion from the primary evidence (and consequent reliance on secondary interpretation) that students of human evolution, unlike their brethren in other areas of paleontology, have been trained to meekly accept. Tradition aside, though, the absence of diagrams in the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia really does enhance the difficulty of presenting and discussing more abstract topics such as the geological timescale and orbital tuning.
Still, your reviewer would venture to guess both that the decision to omit figures was a very deliberate one, and that the editor and his publishers agonized over it at length. Certainly, an illustrated treatise would have been a very different creature (albeit a more useful one) from one that has appeared; but it would have necessarily been much longer, trickier to assemble, and even more expensive. As it is, one is forced to admit that the lack of visuals imparts a certain austerity to these volumes; and, in a bizarre way, it adds to their gravitas. Despite the flashes of humor in Wood’s short Preface, this is clearly Serious Paleoanthropology.

Truth in reviewing: your reviewer has not read every word of these two remarkable volumes. And nobody else is likely to, either. But you will find the words you do choose to read very useful, not only because the entries are authoritative, numerous, and comprehensive within those tight space limits, but also because the topic list, in combination with generous cross-referencing, makes the encyclopedia fairly easy to find your way around. It is sad that even at half the price the hardbound edition of this work would be far too expensive to make it on to every paleoanthropologist’s desk, but in his Preface Wood offers hope of a less expensive paperbound printing, and of an abridged version for student use. More interestingly, though, the declared intention is to update the electronic version every six months. Anybody who has ever tried to update an encyclopedia, let alone one with a hundred contributors, knows what a monumental task that would be; and the prospect of tackling this Sisyphean project biannually would certainly make your reviewer blanch. Still, in the unlikely event that Wood and his team manage to realize this ambitious goal, they will go far toward justifying the hefty initial investment in the E-book format, already marginally less expensive than the hardbound. For the rest of us, it would certainly make keeping up much easier.


Day, M. H. 1965. Guide to Fossil Man: A Handbook of Human Palaeontology. Cassell, London.
Delson, E., Tattersall, I., Van Couvering, J. A., Brooks, A. S. 2000. Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory. Second Edition. Garland/Taylor and Francis, New York.
Holloway, R. L., Broadfield, D. C., Yuan, M. S. 2004. The Human Fossil Record. Volume 3: Brain Endocasts: The Paleoneurological Evidence. Wiley-Liss, Hoboken NJ.
Oakley, K. P., Campbell, B. G. 1967. Catalogue of Fossil Hominids. Part I: Africa. British Museum (Natural History), London.
Oakley, K. P., Cambell, B. G., Molleson, T. I. 1971. Catalogue of Fossil Hominids. Part II: Europe. British Museum (Natural History), London.
Oakley, K. P., Cambell, B. G., Molleson, T. I. 1975. Catalogue of Fossil Hominids. Part III: Americas, Asia, Australia. British Museum (Natural History), London.
Quenstedt, W., Quenstedt, A. 1936. Hominidae Fossiles. W. Junk, The Hague.
Schwartz, J. H., Tattersall, I. 2002. The Human Fossil Record. Volume 1: Terminology and Craniodental Morphology of Genus Homo (Europe). Wiley-Liss, New York.
Schwartz, J. H., Tattersall, I. 2003. The Human Fossil Record. Volume 2: Craniodental Morphology of Genus Homo (Africa and Asia). Wiley-Liss, New York.
Schwartz, J. H., Tattersall, I. 2005. The Human Fossil Record. Volume 4: Craniodental Morphology of Early Hominids (Genera Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Orrorin), and Overview. Wiley-Liss, Hoboken NJ.
Tattersall, I., Delson, E., Van Couvering, J. A. 1988. Encyclopedia of Human Evolution and Prehistory. Garland Publishing, New York.

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