A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Beginning around 20,000 B.C., when receding seas, advancing ice sheets, and withering drought posed challenges for human survival, people did not merely adapt. Through cycles of warming and freezing over the next 15,000 years, their curious minds conceived of ways to tame wild animals and plants, and to organize in settlements. Their day-to-day decisions cumulatively transformed their natural and social worlds and lay the foundation for civilization today. "Indeed, by 5000 B.C. there was very little left for later history to do; all the groundwork for the modern world had been completed," Stephen Mithen boldly proclaims in his ambitious tome After the Ice: A Global Human History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004; $29.95). This chronological, intercontinental journey samples the rich archaeological record of Stone Age human ingenuity. Mithen, a British archaeologist, provides evocative, informative accounts of discovery at scores of sites around the world, from Chile's Monte Verde to Koster, Illinois, and Pushkari in Ukraine.
After the Ice aims to be a narrative of ancient lives rather than a compendium of artifacts, so Mithen places the reader in the company of a time-traveling observer, John Lubbock, who brings on his adventures a copy of Prehistoric Times, the influential textbook by his Victorian namesake that introduced the terms "Paleolithic" and "Neolithic."
Lubbock visits each inhabited continent, sometimes moving back and forth in time, and occasionally takes stock of simultaneous cultural achievements in different regions, allowing the reader to ponder why, for instance, farming flourished early in New Guinea but never took hold in prehistoric Australia. But because he asks no questions and interacts with no one, he is a traveling companion of limited use. Mithen should have dispensed with this narrative device and had faith in his own ability to weave a compelling reconstruction based on archaeological analysis, as he does when conjuring a celebration at the Mesolithic hunting camp of Star Carr in Yorkshire: "That night the people may have danced and sung, full of venison and intoxicated with herbal drugs. I could imagine some dressed in hides and antler masks, moving their bodies sensuously, deer-like, to the music of chants, drums, and flutes made from reed."
One recurring theme involves climate change as a potent cultural and historical force. It explains the sudden eclipse of Europe's cave-painting tradition--in a warming world with smaller game, the information conveyed by cave art was no longer relevant--as well as the emergence of the Neolithic era around 9600 B.C. after a thousand-year cold spell triggered by the melting North American ice sheets. It forced newly sedentary peoples in western Asia to experiment with alternative social groupings and intensified plant cultivation.
Such human resilience in response to rapid environmental change provides a background for Mithen's most urgent take-home message. He notes the irony of America's crucial role; the last continent to be colonized "as a consequence of the natural global warming...is now the one doing most to make vast areas of the world uninhabitable...."
Blake Edgar is coauthor of From Lucy to Language.
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