Jared Diamond has written several books about early humans and civilizations, including the highly-praised-and-awarded The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and The World Until Yesterday. Yet the origin of the human species remains mysterious and controversial. Why did we develop language? How did we make it out of Africa? Why agriculture? The following books often disagree, but they are all thought-provoking.
Nicholas Wade relies heavily on genetics for Before the Dawn. According to Wade, a group as small as 150 people moved eastward out of Africa 50,000 years ago. Life was nasty, brutish, and short until the ability to trust others than your family group developed, and religion developed along with agriculture. Race is a biological fact, maintains Wade, and polygamy was the original family structure. Controversial, yes, but the author explains genetics and his reasoning clearly.
Sex, Time, and Power by Leonard Shlain takes an entirely different tack. Women developed menstruation and veto power over sex as larger-headed babies made childbirth more dangerous. Menstruation also gave humans the concept of time and mortality. Men hunted because women needed iron-rich food to combat blood loss from menstruation. Language developed so that humans could negotiate sex. Families evolved so that men could have a feeling of immortality through their children. Patriarchy arose because men wanted to control women's bodies and reproduction and therefore men's posterity. While not as scientifically grounded as some of the other books mentioned here, Shlain's book does provide food for thought.
Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is a classic of the genre. Based much on game theory, Dawkins holds that genes will try to propagate themselves and their closest relatives in order to survive to the next generation. The idea of a thinking gene is a metaphor, but Dawkins holds that the gene is the end point of evolution. Mankind however has developed social versions of genes like traditions beliefs that Dawkins calls memes that separate us from the rest of the biological kingdom. Not light reading, and Dawkins' activities outside of pure science may put one off, but important to understand one of the modern theories of evolution.
Edward O. Wilson is a giant in the field of zoology, based mostly on his studies of social insects like ants. In The Social Conquest of Earth, he holds that humans, in particular homo sapiens, thrived because they were that rare class of creature, social animals. In the early days, humans competed individually to reproduce and in larger groups than just kin for resources. Culture, religion, and art are all products of the evolutionary conflicts between individuals and groups. This position of course directly conflicts with Richard Dawkins' theories and therefore makes necessary reading. Fortunately, Wilson is a good explainer, so it won't be terribly hard to get a view of the controversy.
Have other books that tackle early humans? Tell us about it in the comments.