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The World Before Us

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The category-killer book on the period some 40,000 years ago when not just us, but a number of human sub-species roamed the world.

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Tom Higham


40,000 years ago, we were not the only species of humans in the world. There were at least four others that we know of, and three of these have only become known to us in the last twenty years. These included the Neanderthals, our close cousins, who occupied Europe and the Near East and parts of Eurasia, and the enigmatic ‘Hobbits’, Homo floresiensis from the island of Flores, discovered in 2003. In April 2019, Homo luzonesis was added to the list, a hominin found in the Philippines, and even more diminutive than the Hobbits at less than four feet high. Finally, another addition to our human family – the focus of this book – was discovered in 2010 and only exists in physical form at the site of Denisova Cave in Siberia. The book will also explore whether afifth species, Homo erectus, might also have survived into this period. 40,000 years ago, the world was a veritable ‘Middle Earth’. The human family was ‘we’ rather than just ‘us’.

The World Before Us will take us on the extraordinary journey that scientists have undertaken to make these discoveries, with the focus on Denisovans identified from tiny fragments of bone and teeth from a cave in Siberia. It delves into the cutting edge science, research and techniques that have transformed our understanding of the human story and gives us a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be a leading scientist at the forefront of these world- changing discoveries.

This is the story of us, told for the first time, with its full cast of characters.


‘The application of new genetic science to pre-history is analogous to how the telescope transformed astronomy. Tom Higham, one of the world’s leading scientists in the field, brings us to the frontier of recent discoveries with a book that is both gripping and fun. And the results are astonishing. It matters: understanding our evolutionary origins reveals our innate strengths as a species’
Paul Collier, author of The Future of Capitalism

‘A brilliant exposition of the way in which archaeology and science are completely changing our understanding of early humans. This is a fast-moving story written with verve and enthusiasm by one of the scientists deeply involved in tracking down the evidence. Essential reading for all interested in our early ancestors and the sheer excitement of their discovery’
Barry Cunliffe

‘Opening up entirely new perspectives on the early history of humanity, this exciting book shows that we now have a revolutionary new tool for reconstructing the human past: DNA from minute pieces of tooth and bone, and even from the dirt on the floor of caves. Everyone studying history should be taking a course in DNA’
David Abulafia

‘Our knowledge of where humanity came from has been revolutionized in the last ten years, and Tom Higham has been in the front lines for many of the biggest breakthroughs. The World Before Us is a fascinating and entertaining account, which tells us not only of how we began, but also where we might be going. If you read one book on human origins, this should be it’
Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules – For Now

‘The who, what, where, when and how of human evolution, from one of the world’s experts on the dating of prehistoric fossils. Tom Higham blends evidence from archaeology, palaeontology and genetics to reveal a rich family album of our closest relatives, a cast of characters including cave-dwelling Neanderthals, mountain-adapted wanderers and island-living Hobbits, which thrived before Homo sapiens took over the world’
Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

‘A brilliant distillation of the ideas and discoveries revolutionising our understanding of human evolution. Tom Higham, one of the leaders of the revolution and the cutting-edge science on which it is based, introduces us to a complex world of many human species, whose genes and deeds live on in us today’
Chris Gosden, author of The History of Magic

‘From lab bench to trench, The World Before Us offers a personal tour of the newest science in palaeoanthropology. Higham’s three decades working on some of the most important and remarkable fossils ever found imbues his account with fascinating detail’
Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred

‘Tom Higham has been at the pulsating centre of the close collaboration between archaeologists and geneticists that in the last few years discovered our previously unknown cousins – the Denisovans – and revealed the lost world in which they, Neanderthals and modern humans interacted and interbed. His thrilling book gives us a court-side view of this scientific revolution’
David Reich, author of Who We Are and How We Got Here

‘A bang-up-to-date insider’s review of a critical period in the emergence of modern humans. It also provides fascinating, intelligible and authoritative glimpses into a wide variety of new technologies’
Ian Tattersall, co-author of The Accidental Homo sapiens: Genetics, Behavior, and Free Will

‘Tom Higham introduces us to the Denisovans and their contemporaries in a beautifully written introduction to the world of today’s palaeoanthropology. The World Before Us ventures far beyond fossils and archaeology into the realm of today’s multidisciplinary science. Higham paints a vivid portrait of Neanderthal contemporaries in a far more diverse world than we imagined even a generation ago. This brilliant book on our forebears – and, indeed, our own world – makes cutting-edge science easily understandable and is profoundly entertaining at the same time. This is a magnificent tour de force by a leading expert written for you and I’
Brian Fagan, author of World Prehistory