When We Became Humans

When We Became Humans
Michael Bright, illustrated by Hannah Bailey
Words & Pictures

Here’s a large format, illustrated book that provides an accessible overview of human evolution from our earliest primate ancestors right through to Homo sapiens.

Having explained such terms as hominids, hominins and haplorhins, the author takes readers back to our earliest primate ancestors – tiny rodent-like mammals – of some 65 millions years back; then moves on 35 million years to the monkey-like ape ancestors that were starting to bear a greater resemblance to the apes we know today. (Here, I was fascinated to read of the theory of the parallel evolution of primates and fruit trees).

Then comes a spread on how scientists study fossil evidence and the kind of information this can yield.

Next is a look at the move to bipedalism and how this enabled early hominins both to see further across the plains and to grasp and carry tools, food and even babies.

Bright presents the theory that a number of different hominid species lived at the same time, as well as stating that as DNA analysis shows, Neanderthals and modern humans interbred.

There is just so much absorbing information packed between the covers. In addition to exploring physical changes,

the author includes a look at the stages of cultural development, tool use and its modification.

I was particularly fascinated by the cultural spreads such as the look at health care, and jewellery, (Neanderthals and humans both wore it),

trinkets and charms.

The book ends with the question of whether or not humans are still evolving, plus a visual presentation of chronology and migration routes.

Hannah Bailey’s plentiful illustrations are excellent, making the considerable amount of information feel much less challenging to primary school readers.

A book I’d thoroughly recommend adding to family shelves or a KS2 collection for supporting both the history and the science curriculum, as well as for interested individuals.

A Brief History of Life on Earth

A Brief History of Life on Earth
Clémence Dupont
Prestel Children’s Books

Wow! This story of life on earth truly does unfold in dramatic concertina style – to the length of one of the dinosaurs included herein, a triceratops. That though is getting ahead of things for the book begins around 4.6 billion years ago in the Hadean Age when the Earth was mega-hot and very young, the first eon of Earth history.

Thereafter comes a whistle-stop tour of the fifteen subsequent geological periods, each of which has a factual paragraph and a superb illustration.

It’s at the end of the Proterozoic Age, in what’s called the Ediacaran Period, the first (soft-bodied) organisms appeared.

Next, the Cambrian Period was when aquatic life exploded around the coastlines of continents and evolution of life gave rise to a huge variety of forms including some with a skeleton, digestive system, eyes and gills.

Aquatic life developed a-pace through the Ordovician Period (-490 to 445 million years ago) and plant life began to move onto the mainland in the form of mosses and fungi.

Then came the Silurian Period and the Devonian period, the latter being a time of extreme heat during which life diversified even more. The first sharks appeared and animal life began to make the move towards land.

We’ve now reached the Carboniferous period with its great trees, huge insects and a wealth of plant life, which eventually became buried and over 1000,000s of years compressed to form deposits of coal.

By the Permian Period, the land masses had come together creating a vast super-continent when reptile-like mammals roamed only to die out and become replaced in the Triassic Period by mammals, the first amphibians and the soon-to-be dominant dinosaurs.

Did you know that the continental split began in the Jurassic Period, the golden age of dinosaurs including Diplodocus, Ankylosaurus and Archaeopteryx. The Jurassic and Cretaceous periods saw a further drifting apart of continents and the appearance of Tyrannosaurus as well as bees and flowering plants.

Moving forwards to the hot, humid Paleogene Period, there was a huge diversification of birds and mammals around the globe; then again the climate cooled and during the Neogene Period apes, ancestors of the elephant appeared, and ungulates became widespread.
Humans evolved into their modern form during the Pleistocene Epoch becoming hunters and fishers; they also began to develop language and artistic expression.
We’re now in the Holocene Epoch, which began 11,700 years ago and readers will recognise the modern landscape shown on this penultimate spread.

Phew – such astonishing changes and so beautifully presented in this zigzag style book. A-MA-ZING!

When the Whales Walked / Rivers

 

When the Whales Walked
Dougal Dixon and Hannah Bailey
Words & Pictures

By means of thirteen case studies, readers can discover how for example, dinosaurs evolved into birds and how whales were once four-legged creatures that walked on the land. These are just two of the fascinating evolutionary journeys told through a mix of annotated illustrations by Hanna Bailey, superbly illustrated scenes and family trees.

Did you know that way back in time snakes too had legs and crocodiles were warm blooded?

Written by evolution and earth sciences specialist, Dougal Dixon, this is a book that will broaden the horizons of dinosaur mad readers and, with evolution now a topic in the KS2 science curriculum, it’s one to add to primary school collections.

Rivers
Peter Goes
Gecko Press

In his follow up to Timeline, Belgian illustrator Peter Goes takes readers by means of a series of large size maps, on a continent-by-continent tour of all the world’s great rivers.

Those featured flow across  predominantly monochromic double spreads that are illustrated with images of iconic structures – bridges and buildings, vehicles, people, deities, monsters, wildlife and physical features.

Factual information – historical, geographical, biological, mythical, cultural – is provided in snippets (the book is translated from the original text by Bill Nagelkerke) through and around which each river meanders from source to sea.

I’ve visited relatively few of the rivers featured (though various parts the River Thames have always been part and parcel of my life and I’ve visited locations along the Ganges). Some including the River Onxy in Antarctica that flows only in summer, I’d never heard of.

This super-sized book has made me want to do some more river exploring; perhaps, like its creator I’ll start closest to home, in Europe.

A fascinating book for young would-be travellers and school libraries in particular.

Moth

Moth
Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egnéus
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Interestingly this is the second picture book introducing adaptation and natural selection to children I’ve seen in the past few weeks – could a new trend be starting. I was first taught about these scientific ideas with reference to the Peppered Moth, the particular example used in this story, when doing A-level zoology donkeys ages ago, and now they’re part of the KS2 science curriculum – quite a thought.

‘This is a story of light and dark. Of change and adaptation, of survival and hope.’ So says science writer, Isabel Thomas in the opening lines of her narrative, a narrative that seamlessly interweaves both science and social history.

In the nineteenth century almost all Peppered Moths had light grey patterned wings that blended with the tree trunks and branches it frequented.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution also came air pollution blackening buildings, monuments and trees alike.

In this new environment, the light-coloured moths became easy to spot and were gobbled up by birds.
Darker forms of the insect were less conspicuous and more likely to escape predation and to breed whilst the lighter form became extremely scarce.

With the advent of the Clean Air Acts in the mid-twentieth century air pollution from smoke and soot was greatly reduced, trees and buildings were no longer stained. Now the dark moths were more conspicuous and less likely to breed successfully, though both forms of the moth can still be found.

All this, Isabel Thomas recounts in her dramatic, sometimes lyrical text that ends with hope. A hope which, as we hear in the final explanatory pages, might lead to other living things being able to adapt to the changes, including climate change, that we humans inflict upon our planet.

Daniel Egnéus’ illustrations are as lyrical as the text, embodying at once arresting beauty and veritas, and instilling a sense of awe and wonder. It’s rare to see such an eloquent science-focused book that also embraces the arts side of the curriculum.

How the Borks Became

How the Borks Became
Jonathan Emmett and Elys Dolan
Otter-Barry Books

Who better to introduce the concept of evolution and Darwin’s theory of natural selection to primary age children than author Jonathan Emmett and illustrator Elys Dolan?

So let’s take a journey to a distant planet, quite similar to earth, named Charleebob, home to a species going by the name of Borks.

When we arrive a group of llama-like Bork mothers has just given birth to a large brood of Borklings, long-necked, shaggy, yellow creatures, each one slightly different.

They didn’t always look that way though: long, long ago their appearance was altogether different: their fur was short, smooth and blue and their necks short and thick, at least that’s how most of them were. A few exceptional ones had shaggier fur – not ideal for hot weather but when the chilly time arrived later in the year, they were the ones that survived.

Over the next couple of generations, more changes took place; first instead of all the offspring having blue fur a few were bright yellow.

This meant that the latter blended in with their surroundings so that when a Ravenous Snarfle was on the lookout for its lunchtime feed, the blues were hastily consumed

leaving the yellow-furred few to thrive and breed the next Borkling batch – all yellow, the majority with short necks, a few with long skinny ones.
You can guess which ones survived the drought that year, saved by their ability to feed on the thick leaves high up in the Ju-Ju-Bong trees. And that’s it – evolution in just four generations of Borks.

Clearly changes don’t happen that fast, but artistic licence on behalf of the book’s creators demonstrates how three key environmental factors – climate, predation and food availability brought about evolutionary changes with only the fittest surviving by natural selection.

The combination of Emmett’s brilliant, quirky rhyming narrative and Elys Dolan’s wonderfully witty, whimsical illustrations is an enormously enjoyable amalgam of science and storytelling, which offers a perfect starting point for the KS2 evolution topic.

(At the end of the book it’s explained that the Borks’ evolution story is a hugely speeded up account of what really happens: evolution happens at a much, much slower rate and the changes are smaller and more gradual so that an earth animal could take millions of years to change.) While you’re looking at the back matter, do check out the quirky end papers.

Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure

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Charles Darwin’s Around the World Adventure
Jennifer Thermes
Abrams
In this introduction to the work of Charles Darwin, the author focuses on his five-year long voyage aboard HMS Beagle, the ship on which he served as naturalist. Before that though we’re given brief details of his earlier life leading up to his departure on the ship whose mission was making maps of South America.
The young man was absolutely fascinated by the sights and sounds around. He kept a journal, writing in it detailed daily observations of what he saw and heard –‘big observations about the tiniest of creatures’ we’re told.

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So delighted by the wild life was he that Charles would often choose to remain on land while the Beagle sailed up and down the coast. This delight is portrayed in Thermes’ detailed watercolour portraits of the young man at work, work that set his imagination on fire and would later contribute to his ideas and writings on evolution. Her narrative fills in other details, particularly that of Darwin’s observations on individual creatures: ‘He saw a rare bird called a rhea that used its wings to steer as it ran, but could not fly’, and later in Tierra de Fuego, on the interconnectedness of all wild-life, indeed all of nature itself.

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The stop on the volcanic Galápagos Islands particularly amazed Charles with its 200 pound tortoises big enough to ride on, but most notably the different kinds of finches he came across.

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In addition to a detailed cross-section of the departing Beagle, there are large, colourful maps charting the exciting voyage for readers to enjoy …

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Further information is given about Darwin’s life and work, and other related facts in the two final spreads.
All in all this does a very good job of capturing the excitement not only of the voyage, but of the wonders of nature as a whole. Definitely one for the primary school bookshelves and for individuals interested in wildlife in general.