Book on ape evolution wins W. W. Howells Award

September 29, 2009

For the second time, Penn State scientists Alan Walker and Pat Shipman together have won a national book award. A book they coauthored, "The Ape in the Tree, A Natural and Intellectual History of Proconsul," published by Harvard University Press, has been awarded this year's W.W. Howells Book Award, which is administered by the biological anthropology section of the American Anthropological Association. In 1997, this husband-and-wife team won the prestigious Rhone-Poulenc Award for another of their coauthored books, "The Wisdom of the Bones," published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

Written for a general audience, The Ape in the Tree offers a unique insider's perspective on the unfolding discovery of a crucial link in our evolution: a fossil ape whimsically named "Proconsul" after a once-famous performing chimpanzee called Consul. "The Ape in the Tree" is written in the voice of Alan Walker, whose involvement with Proconsul began when his graduate supervisor analyzed the tree-climbing adaptations in the arm and hand of this extinct creature. Today, Proconsul is the best-known fossil ape in the world.

The history of scientific ideas surrounding Proconsul is set against the vivid adventures of Walker's fossil-hunting expeditions in remote regions of Africa, where the team met with violent thunderstorms, dangerous wildlife and people isolated from the Western world. Analysis of the thousands of new Proconsul specimens the scientists recovered provides revealing glimpses of the life of this last common ancestor between apes and humans.

"The attributes of Proconsul have profound implications for the very definition of humanness," Shipman said. "This book speaks not only of an ape in a tree but also of the ape in our family tree."

A Royal Society and MacArthur fellow, Walker is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He also is an Evan Pugh distinguished professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State. Shipman is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is the author of 10 books. She also is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State.

The W. W. Howells Book Award has been given annually since 1993 to honor books that achieve the highest standard of scholarship and readability while bringing findings in biological anthropology to a wider audience.

For more information, contact Walker at 814-865-3122 or; contact Shipman at 814-231-1549 or; or contact Barbara K. Kennedy at 814-863-4682 or

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  • Penn State scientists Alan Walker and Pat Shipman.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated January 09, 2015