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Books: Human History in a Nutshell Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004
by Julia M. Klein

You can't fault historian Michael Cook's ambition. In less than 400 pages, he gives us A Brief History of the Human Race (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003; $26.95) from the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago to the present. Along the way, he attempts a synthesis of archaeology, geology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, geography, anthropology, linguistics, and history. If this weren't enough, Cook manages to move from broad descriptions of cultural development on six of the world's continents to a formidable array of specific analyses including Chinese ancestor worship, Greek vases, Mesoamerican calendars, and the Indian caste system.

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A specialist in Islamic history, Cook acknowledges that his ambitious effort was inspired in part by Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997). Diamond explains the overarching patterns of human history as the product of environmental conditions that gave some regions a head start in domesticating plants and animals.

With this in mind, Cook begins each chapter with a rundown of a continent's geophysical traits, sketching out how environment would come to influence the course of history. In Africa, for example, Cook points out that deserts and dense rain forests limited interaction between the northern and southern halves of the continent.

But Diamond's geographic determinism is just Cook's starting point. A Brief History also emphasizes what the author calls "the unique cultural agility" of modern humans--our ability to adapt to different circumstances that makes us such a successful species. Cook says he has no "Grand Unified Theory" of history to posit, but he does raise questions about varieties of cultural interaction and points to some inevitable shortcomings of archaeology. He notes, for example, that by focusing on a culture's most durable artifacts, archaeology may unwittingly distort that culture's values. Attic vases, he suggests, have become more important to us than they were to the ancient Greeks who made them.

Cook anticipates critics by conceding in his introduction that his book is "both deliberately sketchy and involuntarily patchy." No argument there. That sketchiness will doubtless leave some readers unsatisfied. But on balance, A Brief History of the Human Race is an immensely readable, whirlwind tour (de force) of cultures and eras.

Julia M. Klein is a freelance cultural reporter and critic based in Philadelphia

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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