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St. Paul author’s ‘Fossil Men’ is a tale of discovery that’s anything but old and dry

27December 2020

In Ethiopia’s hot Afar region, Kermit Pattison watched with amazement as a fossil hunter spotted a quarter of a tooth the size of a pea in the middle of a dry field with little vegetation.

“I don’t know how he recognized it as a tooth,” Pattison said. “Finding this stuff on the ground takes a lot of skill. I followed these guys when we were walking and tried to see things on the ground. I turned out to be really bad at it. Some are really, really good. You don’t just find a nice skeleton.”

A nice skeleton, a very old one, was the reason Pattison lived with a fossil-hunting team in Ethiopia for several weeks in 2013 and 2016.

Pattison, a former Pioneer Press reporter who lives in St. Paul, was researching his first  book, “Fossil Men: The Quest for the Oldest Skeleton and the Origins of Humankind” (Morrow, $32.50).

The story begins in 1994, in a valley near the Awash river, when an Ethiopian graduate student named Yohannes Haile-Selassie found a tiny bone that is located below the pointer finger. It was the first of 110 pieces of a 4.4 million-year-old female skeleton the Middle Awash team of fossil hunters classified as Ardipithecus ramidus, nicknamed Ardi.

Ardi was 1.2 million years older than Lucy, the famous skeleton found in 1974 by Donald Johanson in Ethiopia, making her the oldest skeleton of a human ancestor found up to that time. (Pattison points out that Ardi is no longer the oldest species in the human family but she remains the oldest skeleton. There are now three older named species, but they’re represented by only fragmentary fossils.)

A copy of “Fossil Men” at Kermit Pattison’s St. Paul home. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

When Ardi was finally introduced to the public in 2009, she rocked the world of those who study human evolution. Pattison calls her “an inconvenient woman.”

“Ardi had parts that were missing from Lucy’s skeleton. Hers was a time in human history that was entirely blank and she filled that gap,” Pattison said. “What made Ardi unique is that her anatomy had a weird hodge-podge of features never before seen in that combination. She was a transitional creature, climbing with grasping feet but walking upright in a weird way. This combination of arboreal and bipedal features had never been seen before.”

As the discovery team later reported, “Ardi was so rife with anatomical surprises that no one could have imagined it without direct fossil evidence.”

“Fossil Men” is not only about old bones. It’s a fascinating and sometimes exciting story that’s praised by critics in national publications, which makes Pattison happy because he had no idea if his book would get any attention. Kirkus Reviews gave the book a starred review and Science News picked it for the list of favorite books of 2020. The New York Times said: “Despite ample opportunity, ‘Fossil Men’ never devolves into gonzo journalism. This is a function of Pattison’s uncanny ability to write evocatively about science. In this, he is every bit as good as the best scientist-writers. He describes the intricacies of the human wrist and foot with the skill of a poet. He breezes through the biomechanics of how chimps clamber and humans walk.” The Christian Science Monitor was enthusiastic, saying that “In his recounting of the characters and science involved in Ardi’s discovery and the controversies that followed it, Pattison reveals the imperfect, all-too-human nature of science itself….(weaving) the multiple intrigues of science, politics, and personalities into a masterly structured tale.”

This is not the book Pattison set out to write. He certainly didn’t expect to spend eight years researching and writing it. But everything about Ardi’s story grabbed his journalistic instincts.

“I was going to write a tidy little book about the evolution of human locomotion with a bit of background,” he recalls. “The more I learned, the more intrigued I got. First, Ardi led to a lot of revelations that undermined conventional wisdom of where we came from that disturbed the world of science. Then there was the sheer drama of the search and discovery of this skeleton, a story that was still mostly untold. There was the team’s difficulty working in the field during a civil war, and tribal conflicts in which people were literally being killed. That was eye-opening. It made me realize there was a lot more behind the science. So was the academic politics a revelation. I realized I should abandon the original idea and focus on Ardi’s story.”

Pattison ended up with a 420-page hardcover with a text complemented by maps, photos, drawings of skeletal parts and skeletons, and timelines. He combines the history of theories of when humans split from our ape relatives, explanations of which bones are important to researchers and why (with Ardi it was hands and feet), how the fossil hunters searched for tiny bone fragments in the desert where it can hit 100 degrees. Then there are the rivalries between these scientists with big egos. They argued about the meaning of the bones, which teams would get funded by the National Science Foundation, and who would be given access to fossil-rich turf controlled by the constantly changing attitudes of the Ethiopian government.

Pattison’s biggest challenge was understanding science well enough to converse intelligently with the scientists, which meant he had to spend years learning about the disciplines of (take a breath): anthropology, paleoanthropology, paleontology, anatomy, osteology (study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures), genetics, taxonomy, geology, stratigraphy (branch of geology concerned with the structure of a particular set of strata), primatology, and archeology.

After he absorbed all that knowledge, Pattison says he had to “disengage and write in a way that an intelligent lay person could read and comprehend. I had to span two worlds; making it a faithful look at science through a lens accessible to everyday readers.”

Many of his questions were answered by paleoanthropologist Tim White, one of the prominent characters in the book. An internationally-known fossil hunter, White gave Pattison permission to visit the team’s digs after getting approval from his three Ethiopian co-leaders. When Pattison began his research, White didn’t even want to meet with him. But like a good reporter, Pattison persisted until they finally got together in White’s office at the University of California, Berkeley. Pattison describes White as having “a reputation for … a razor intellect, hair-trigger bullshit detector, short temper, long list of discoveries and longer list of enemies.”

Pattison says his good relationship with White and other scientists happened gradually: “I engaged them about science and they realized I was seriously interested in all the things they were interested in and had devoted their careers to. I sort of trickled into their lives a little at a time, like water under a door. And I was still there years later, asking questions, which I think surprised them.”

Anyone who thinks  bones are boring will be surprised at the people Pattison met along the way, including Afar tribesmen.

Kermit Pattison at his St. Paul home. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

“That was one aspect of the story I found fascinating,” Pattison says. There was the Afar warrior Elema, who at first threatened the team because he wanted to show who was boss, then joined them as one of their most-trusted field workers. He was still there when Pattison visited 20 years later. And Gadi, a feared hunchback known as Zipperman because he was draped with zippers taken off the clothing of his victims. He, too, became a friend and protector of the team.

Pattison dedicated his book to his keen-eyed editor and wife, Maja Beckstrom, a former Pioneer Press reporter working as an associate producer at Minnesota Public Radio. Beckstrom pulled him back when he got too jargony and pointed out things that weren’t clear. The couple lives in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood with sons, Eli and Alistair, and daughter, Siri.

Pattison admits it’s “a little surreal” to finally have his book out in the world. “You work on it for so long in isolation, nobody really knows what you are doing,” he jokes. “It took so many years, people wonder, Does this guy really have a job?”

“Fossil Men” ends at the Ethiopian National Museum, Ardi’s final resting place. The museum stores so many unexamined fossils it will take years for scientists in many disciplines to pry out the meaning of all the bones.

Ardi, the strange creature who stood four feet high, is only another chapter in the ongoing search for human origins.

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