After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC Paperback – 2006
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A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC
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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.
Mithen isn't our guide in this tour. He assigns that task to a figure named for a contemporary of Charles Darwin. "Victorian John Lubbock", as Mithen dubs him, wrote one of the earliest paleoanthropological works, "Prehistoric Times" - an attempt to describe what our ancestors were like. Lubbock coined the terms "Palaeolithic" and "Neolithic" to give order to a chaotic scene. In this account, the Time Traveller refers to his namesake's publication for comparison of what has been revealed today by Mithen's digging colleagues. What did your ancestors do during the day? What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? Time Traveller Lubbock tries to impart these questions and their answers with distant observation and active participation alike. The method, when the releaved evidence is explained, proves an excellent balance. You are there at the time of events and alongside the archaeologists as they sift through artefacts thousands of years old.
Human prehistory is probably science's most contentious field. For years, the story of how and when the Western Hemisphere was populated has been a simmering issue. Mithen, although giving passing attention to the "Clovis debate" and other questions relating to the human invasion of the America's, gently disentangles himself from the specifics. Instead, he focusses on how the environment affected the way in which societies formed here. This isn't just an evasion tactic. Mithen is more concerned with how humanity solved various problems facing them as they settled in uncontested lands. What adds to our interest is the comparison of such elements as the domesticating grains and animals here with that of Western Asian populations. Mithen meticulously describes how the genetic patterns of grains and animals alike were changed by human intervention.
It's easy to admit to a sense of wonder at reading this book. The scope is vast, fifteen thousand years of time and the entire globe. That one author could accomplish this feat is at least admirable, if not astonishing. Yet, Mithen's own sense of awe is clearly evident, if not infectious. He's not a classroom-bound academic and some of his own site visits are incorporated into the narrative. His passion for the science is clear and present - something that should prompt younger readers to emulate. The recent dates given for dig sites plainly indicate that real work remains to be done. And speed is critical - the number of sites discovered and worked under the threat of dam, highway and shopping mall building is too depressing to recount here. If you, or anyone you know is looking for a career in science, buy this book, read it and encourage a career in human prehistory. Mithen shows how rewarding it can be. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
If any book could so artfully show middle-range theory and analogy in an almost novel-like read, it is this one. Mithen has blown me away.
Dr. Mithen's plan is easily divined after reading just a few chapters. He gathered together all the field reports of all the major digs and selected the most important ones -- perhaps a hundred or so. For each dig, he listed exactly what was discovered. He also prepared a few paragraphs describing the scholars who made the discoveries. But this material lacked human presence. It was cold and technical; he needed something to bring it to life, something that would animate the bones and stones with real people living real lives. So he invented a fictional device in the form of John Lubbock, a modern-day avatar of a Victorian archaeologist. And that's where Dr. Mithen goes off the rails.
The avatar-Lubbock wanders all over the earth during the period under discussion. He encounters each of the sites while it was actually being used. Through Lubbock's eyes, we see the people working, eating, dancing, building their homes, and burying their dead. The concept is sound and, properly executed, it could have achieved its goal of bringing to life our ancient forbears.
Unfortunately, Dr. Mithen muffs the execution of his concept. He can't decide whether the avatar John Lubbock is an unseen ghost witnessing events or an active participant in those events. Most of the time he opts for the former, but occasionally he has John Lubbock pitch in to help the ancients in their daily tasks. He dances and sings with them, eats their food, and even steals their canoe on one occasion. So is he there or isn't he? One never knows. John Lubbock seems capable of hiking vast distances without needing food, but complains when the mosquitos bite too much. He shifts backwards and forwards in time willy-nilly. And sometimes he just watches it go by: "It was not until 9600 BC that the fog had lifted sufficiently for Lubbock to think it worthwhile to leave the cave." What patience Mr. Lubbock must have to wait decades for the fog to lift!
I'm no stickler for realism when fiction is afoot. It doesn't bother me when science fiction characters perform patently impossible deeds, or the time line in a story doesn't quite add up. Hey, fiction isn't simulation, and I'm willing to give an author some leeway if it's necessary to make dramatic sense. But Dr. Mithen's fictional device is a huge distraction, like a child demanding attention while I'm trying to watch a movie.
My second criticism of the book is that it's too long. There are too many sites listed, and they're too similar. I have developed a nervous tic whenever I encounter the word 'scatter', so overused it is. This book would have left readers hungering for more at half its length. Instead, I left the book unfinished; I couldn't bear to read another description of a scatter of stone flakes found amid a circle of postholes with a few graves under the floors and little in the way of grave goods to indicate social hierarchy among the inhabitants.
I'm not about to turn my back on Steven Mithen -- I have greatly enjoyed his other books. Let's just chalk this one up as one of his weaker performances.
Even if I was not interested in the subject matter, I would still find it interesting from a science history perspective. Of course the subject matter is fascinating (otherwise I would not have bought it). Its a book that covers many different "stories". Among my favorites are the influence of the Younger Dryas on the emergence of settlements in the Middle East, and (at last! ) a plausible explanation for the megafaunal extinctions in N.America.
One thing I especially like is that the author sticks to the facts, and tries to keep his own opinions from dominating the discussion. This way I can draw my own conclusions.
The author discusses one region at a time, and as a consequence the reader finds himself jumping back and forth in time, which can be confusing. Here, a detailed graph with timeline of main "events" covered would have been a real bonus.
This is one of those books that once read will remain close at hand for use as a reference. It is a book you can learn from. Reading it will leave you in awe that our ancestors managed to survive and (often) prosper despite what to me seems incredible hardship. It also left me with a strong impression of what an amazing species we all belong to.