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Steven Mithen's book After the Ice, is really one of the most readable books on the topic of Mesolithic and Neolithic life I've ever read. Generally speaking I don't care much for the narrative approach to an historic or prehistoric topic. Putting words into characters' mouths, let alone inventing the characters themselves, smacks too much of historical romance fiction for my taste. Here, however, the author has based his narratives on archaeology, limiting his visions of the time to what can be confirmed by archaeology, paleobotany, zoo-archaeology, earth history, sedimentology and paleoclimatology. He carefully links the physical evidence to what his imaginary modern day time-traveler John Lubbock, can see.
Mithren's fictional character is based upon an historical gentleman scientist, John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, a Victorian author interested in the stone age. At that time the existance of the prehistoric period had only just been discovered. Prior to that time--and Darwin--the possibility of such a past was inconceivable. Lubbock--the real man--wrote a very intelligent summary, entitled Prehistoric Times, of what had been discovered by the adventurers and archaeologists of his day. It is to this compendium of what was known of post-glacial lifeways that the imaginary John Lubbock referred during his journey through time. By this means, Professor Mithren adds an historical component to the overall story by comparing what was know by the Victorians to what is known today about many of the stone age sites throughout the world. He not only highlights the gain in information over the recent 150 years, but the methods through which it was gained. He also incidentally illustrates that at least some of the more thoughtful scientists of the Victorian era were considerably less racist and more objective in their evaluations of hunter-gatherer and prehistoric people as some of the explorers whose personal travelogues were used to compile the information.
While some readers have a thorough knowledge of early stone age culture and find artifacts of immense interest in and of themselves, most of us don't. Many professional books and journal articles on post-glacial culture are mere catalogues of stone made tools and weapons, discussions of flinting technique, and photos or drawings of the site, it's location, and the articles discovered there. These dry descriptive works frequently leave the non-professional a little glazed. Most of us just want a visual image of life during the time. Professor Mithen's book is therefore a marvelous source book for both types of reader. For those with a more serious interest, it describes the archaeological sites of several different areas throughout the world, the various excavators of these sites and their personal credentials--and occasionally their weaknesses-- the physical remains discovered, the first interpretations of them and often later interpretations based on further excavation and/or the introduction of newer methods of evaluation of older data. For the rest of us, John Lubbock's trek across the globe in pursuit of knowledge is more rewarding.
The physical remains of cultures are placed into a world setting defined by information drawn from scientific studies on the topic of climate, vegetation and faunal changes done by scientists in disciplines other than archaeology. The book therefore pulls together a vast amount of research in order to present a very realistic portrait of life between 20,000 and 5,000 B.C., material that would require the average person years to get through even without the effort given to interpretation. For those with an interest in the "dry details" however, the book has an extensive set of notes on the topic of specific sites, artifacts and interpretive methods at the back of the volume, and a very lengthy bibliography for anyone who wants more specific information from the original source. This is a plus for ANYONE DOING A PAPER on a particular subject, as it helps provide a starting point in the professional literature on the topic, while for the truely uninitiated, it provides a more picturesque glimpse of what's "out there" to assist in selecting a topic to follow up for a paper, often the most difficult part of the procedure.
Uniquely, Professor Mithren also provides alternative interpretations of the periods where there are more than one, having his Lubbock character observe the life of the time according to first one authority and than another. When there is very little information on human activity in the area, the Lubbock character sees just fleeting glimses of people or perhaps no one at all. This lends a unique insight into the sometimes frustrating process of archaeology. The author also tells the reader what his own opinion of conflicting or limited information is, and his private analysis is often very insightful. In any case the reader comes away with a definite sense of having "been there."
Lubbock travels from 20,000 to 5000 BC on each of the continents on which human populations are known to have existed and visits specific occupation sites in each area. Often he sits in one place to view changes in the human settlement and cultural patterns through time, giving the reader a "fast forward" sort of view of history. In general I found that much of life during the 15,000 years covered could be distilled down to a simple story of hunter gatherer life ways developing into settled ones, followed by a collapse brought on by climatic change and a return to gathering until climate again favored settled existence. The overview certainly reveals how chancy human existance has been. It also reveals how small choices over time in response to individual challenges have shaped the direction of human history as it has occurred. It is much a case, as the late Steven Jay Gould pointed out, where replaying events might easily have lead to a different world rather than to the one we know today.
By the last quarter of the book, I was beginning to feel the weight of repetition. The people lived similar lives in similar environments, often using similar techniques to harvest the natural products in their environment, floral and faunal. The final chapter was worth the read, however, as it brought the issues of our own world's vulnerability to the fore. While settled hunter-gatherers had the option of returning to a more nomadic lifestyle, most of the modern world simply is not able to do so. While small numbers of people--100 or 200 in a area, even a 1000--may well have suffered extinction by massive changes in environment particularly along the coast, now the numbers at risk are in the millions. The author's pessimistic view of society's ability to respond to a major climatic challenge is disturbing and certainly worth thinking about.
A very timely book on climate and its effects on the human condition.