Kurtén was born at Vaasa.
In Not from the Apes (1971) Kurtén argued that man's development has been separate from the apes since the Miocene, and that man did not descend from anthropoids, but rather the reverse:
In the course of this book, Kurten discusses seven “theses” dealing with human evolution. One such thesis is that man did not descend from the ape. By calling Propliopithecus a hominid, Kurten argues for a straight line from Propliopithecus to Ramapithecus and on to the “Dartians.” Since Propliopithecus predates the Dryopithecines, and the Dryopithecines were apes, our ancestors bypassed the apes in the early Miocene.
He was also the author of a series of books about modern man's encounter with Neanderthals, such as Dance of the Tiger (1978, 1980). When asked what genre these works belonged in, Kurtén coined the term paleofiction to describe his oeuvre. This genre was popularized by Jean M. Auel in her Earth's Children series of books. He received several awards for his books popularizing science, among others the Kalinga Prize from UNESCO.
In the 1980s, Kurtén also hosted a 6-part TV series about the ice age, co-produced by several Scandinavian TV channels.
- Istiden (The Ice Age) (Forum, 1969)
- Den svarta tigern (1978) (Dance of the Tiger, 1980)
- Mammutens rådare (1982) (Singletusk)
- De skuldlösa mördarna (1987) (The Innocent Assassins, Columbia University Press, 1991)
- The Cave Bear Story: Life and Death of a Vanished Animal (Columbia University Press, NY, 1976)
- The Age of Mammals (Columbia University Press, NY, 1973)
- Not from the Apes (Pantheon, 1971)
Kurtén also published some fifty scientific works, two of them in cooperation with the Spanish paleontologist Miquel Crusafont Pairó.
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