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Steven Mithen


A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The last ice age reached a peak, the Last Glacial Maximum, in 20,000 BC and there followed a period of global warming, interrupted only by a short return to cold in the interlude called the Younger Dryas. Between 20,000 and 5000 BC human beings changed from living in small groups as hunter-gatherers to a quite different type of existence as agriculturalists in villages and later towns. This is the story that Mithen tells here.

To help him do so he resorts to the literary device of sending an observer into the past. The observer is named John Lubbock, after the Victorian writer who introduced the terms Palaeolithic and Neolithic into archaeology. The modern Lubbock travels in both time and space to all the continents, where he watches the people at work and play. He takes part in their activities although they cannot see him.

This literary device works quite well, though it is difficult to picture Lubbock "borrowing" people's canoes or helping with their work without anyone's noticing. It could become tedious if it were over-used, but Mithen employs it only intermittently as a method of scene-setting; much of the text consists of discussion of the evidence and Mithen's own description of visits to sites and excavations he has undertaken. There are also extensive end-notes and references.

The areas we are taken to are Western Asia, Europe, the Americas, Greater Australia and East Asia, South Asia, and Africa. Coming to terms with this vast expanse of geography and time demands quite a lot from the reader, even though Mithen is a fine writer with a gift for vivid description, so the book is best taken in small chunks, otherwise the amount of detail can become overwhelming. But there are many passages that bring even non-human scenarios to life in a quite touching way. For example, of the pygmy hippos on Cyprus he writes that they behaved like pigs:

They were good swimmers but seemed happier scurrying through the undergrowth, feeding on leaves and shoots. The hippos had drunk from fresh-water springs on the cliff-tops. In cold weather they had sheltered in coastal caves, being adept at climbing up and down steep slopes. The caves may also have been used for giving birth, nursing the young, and as a place to die once their hippo life was done.
The underlying theme of the book is humanity's adoption of pastoralism and agriculture and the consequent huge increase in population. To the Victorian Lubbock these changes were unquestionably progress. To his modern namesake, and to Mithen, whose mouthpiece he is, the balance of benefit and loss is less self-evident. He discusses this in an Epilogue, where he points out that our history has arisen from accident as much as from design and its course could not have been predicted. (In this respect human history seems like a miniature version of evolution as a whole.)

Global warming was crucial to the changes that occurred in our condition after 20,000 BC and it is going to have a similar importance now. All we can be certain of is that by the end of this century our world will be quite different from how it is today, and perhaps as different as the world of 5000 BC was from that of the Last Glacial Maximum. Whether it will be better is largely in our hands, but Mithen does not sound optimistic.

Our politicians might devise both the will and the means to curb pollution, to distribute resources fairly throughout the world, to provide new homes for displaced populations, and to preserve the natural world. They might do all these things. But they probably won't.
Like a number of other scholars today, Mithen attempts to straddle the gap between popular and academic. To a considerable extent he has succeeded here.

19 August 2007

%T After The Ice
%S A global human history 20,000-5000 BC
%A Mithen, Steven
%I Phoenix
%C London
%D 2003, 2004
%G ISBN 0 75381 392 0
%P x + 622pp
%K archaeology
%O paperback
%O illustrated

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