‘FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!!! WOW FUCK!! SHIT!!’ The language sounds spontaneous, even by the standards of email; or was it contrived pour épater les bourgeois? Tom Higham’s ejaculations seem disproportionate as well as ineloquent. He had just heard that a pile of ancient detritus from Denisova Cave in Siberia contained one bone, less than an inch long, that had characteristics of a human bone. Later he learned even more expletive-worthy facts: the sample was over 120,000 years old and shared DNA with hominin populations formerly classified as belonging to distinct species. At first the results baffled him, but like Ezekiel in the valley he spotted the right connections – or some of them, at least. The World Before Us connects the bone in question to a lot of other very old bones. It is a twofold book: in part, a report on the state of palaeoanthropological techniques and in part, in a style that will be familiar to readers of popular science, a memoir of the author’s role in the story.
Higham’s father is an archaeologist whose work I have long admired for evoking a whole civilisation from fragments of data. Higham inhabits a different world, transformed by technologies that have edged archaeology away from humanistic traditions. The machinery at diggers’ disposal is stunning. Mass spectrometry revealed the hominin nature of