This is a 21st Century Learning Initiative sort of book, a masterly synthesis which, like the work of the Initiative, brings together research from a broad range of disciplines to examine one of the fundamental big questions“Where do I come from?”

E O Wilson says that Wade has “pulled together the explosion of discoveries in diverse fields of biology and the social sciences on the origin of our species”. Wade uses the work of modern geneticists in the last few years to build on the solid foundation laid by paleo-anthropologists, archaeologists, anthropologists and many other specialists, to create a new and far more detailed picture of human evolution, human nature and history. He writes “There exists no video of how apes slowly morphed into people, but a sequence of salient events can for the most part be reconstructed. There is no map that records the dispersal of the new humans from their ancestral homeland, but researchers can now follow the path they took out of Africa into the world outside.”

In this book we are taken on a journey, perhaps the most exciting journey of all, beginning with our ancestors 5 million years ago when all we have to guide us are battered skulls and stone tools. We leave Africa, face the fearsome Neanderthals to embark upon a journey to find a new home 50,000 years ago. Some travel east and others north and west. All we have learned from early research in archaeology and anthropology, much of it fragmented and contradictory, is challenged and illuminated by the work on the human genome whose full sequence of DNA units was first known only in 2003. This is cutting edge thinking bringing studies and disciplines together. Data from the human genome, genes with some advantage, and genealogies which allow ancestors to be traced through the Y or mitochondrial chromosomes, enable the geneticists to throw new light onto the continuity from the ape world of 5 million years ago to the emerging human world.

No fossils may exist from 5 million years ago but we can learn much from studies of the chimps and bonobos. We can see the footprints of Australopithecus 4.4 million years ago in Tanzania, follow the archaic Homo Erectus as they head from Africa to go east into Asia and the Neanderthals as they moved into the Near East and Europe. Then 50,000 years ago our own ancestors burst out of their African homeland and began a colonisation which would lead at last to the human society we know today. “By daring so much they gained the whole world” writes Wade. As they spread and settled each population developed cultural characteristics, language, religion, lifestyle, and distinct genetic characteristics too, as each responded to climate, ecology and social arrangements.

And what a range of insights Wade brings to the journey on which he takes the reader. “It seems that our human ancestors had decided to dress up for the occasion” he writes of the leaving of Africa! We can work out when clothes were invented from the DNA of lice for a second family, body lice, evolved from head lice when humans began to wear clothes. How do we know? The body lice had claws to grasp onto fabric. We know they began to speak at about the same time too. We learn the significance of the Ice Age, understand how nomadic family groups became settled communities He sheds new light upon the loves and lives of Gengis Khan and Thomas Jefferson. He re-examines the history of the Icelanders and the Jews. We see the human adaptation to cultural practises like cattle herding and cannibalism. Britain’s history is presented from the genome’s perspective.

An Englishmen who has lived and worked in the United States since the 1970s Nicholas Wade is a science reporter who uses the breadth of his understanding from diverse fields to apply new knowledge to long disputed topics, even the genetic basis of human nature “The biological framework of human origins and nature is beginning to emerge with surprising clarity. With the information now streaming forth from the sequence of the human genome, a new understanding has dawned. In the long search to understand ourselves: our obscure origins, our strange and contradictory nature, and the fragmentation of the once united human family into different races and warring cultures speaking thousands of different languages, we can begin at last to comprehend the long darkness before the dawn. “

Accompanying us on our travels with our ancestors is Charles Darwin, whose extraordinary insight first hinted at the story of how the human line split from the apes in his “On the origin of Species” published in 1859 and “The Descent of Man” in 1871. Darwin gave us the outline and now with Wade we can “begin to trace the finest workings of the grand process”. Quotations from the works of Darwin begin each chapter of the story. ”Had he not been subjected during primeval times to natural selection, assuredly he (man) would never have attained his present rank” he wrote. And ”We must however acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his mobile qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origins.”