Wij, de mens
An exploration of what makes us human
In We, Hominids, one of Holland’s leading narrative non-fiction writers hunts down answers to anthropology’s most fundamental questions: Who are we? What makes us different from animals? Using an ancient skull as ingress, traversing the globe, excavating the history of humankind and holding up evidence to the light, this investigation is a compelling mixture of reportage, travelogue and essay.
Westerman takes the reader, and sixteen reportage students from Leiden University, on a roving philosophical field trip. Setting out from the convent village of Steyl, home of the pink-clad Sisters of Holy Spirit Adoration, our guide leads us into the marl caves along the river Maas before taking us further afield, to Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. Here, the first skeleton of the tiny Homo floresiensis, one of the book’s central objects of curiosity, was discovered in 2003.
Drawing parallels between the geographical sites, and delving into the pioneer years of (paleo)anthropology, Westerman describes the search for the first human being — the missing link, man-ape or ape-man. He drinks in the world of skull hunters, leading experts of our fossil ancestry and hardcore Darwinists, subtly dissecting the scientific premises that have underpinned their theories. Illustrious anthropologists are examined in all their greed and ambition, their bad luck, good luck and jealousy.
Westerman is stunned by the multiplicity of origin hypotheses, examines the influence of new DNA technology, and the rise of female scientists, who have broken through a macho culture.
Building on earlier works, Ararat, Engineers of the Soul and Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse, Westerman deepens his search for the pivotal moment when dreams turn into nightmares. When does remembering become forgetting? Which graves do we want to investigate and which would we rather leave undisturbed?
The search for the first human also picks at the dividing line between normal- cy and anomaly. Any description of who we are and where we come from is col- oured by the zeitgeist. The constantly changing theories of human evolution show that we are doomed to continuously review what we think we know. Still, Westerman emphasises the importance of hard facts: ‘The facts cling to me and I cling to the facts. I will continue to pick them up, turn them around and illuminate them with the headlamp of my imagination.’