Thursday, 21 October 2004

Steven Mithen: After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 - 5000 BC (2003)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003
Review number: 1268

In the last few years, the understanding that professional archaeologists have of life in the prehistoric world has advanced rapidly, but the new ideas have generally been quite slow to filter through to the level of the interested amateur, apart from the odd newspaper article when a particularly sensational story has been unearthed, such as the disproving of the "Clovis first" theory about the earliest inhabitants of the American continent, or the exposing of the Philippine's Tasaday tribe as a hoax perpetrated by the Marcos regime for its own reasons. In After the Ice, Steve Mithen provides a popular account of the current state of archaeological knowledge and theory, a worldwide survey of the story of 15,000 years - a period which basically extends from the height of the last Ice Age to the earliest agricultural cultures.

In this sort of account, the difficulty is to make the past come alive - to turn the trenches back into huts, the bones into people - while being able to show the reasoning behind the reconstruction, the boundaries between knowledge and supposition, and also to explain something of the scientific techniques used in modern archaeological investigation. Mithen uses a particular device to overcome this difficulty: he writes about what would have been seen by a time traveller he names John Lubbock, named after a famous Victorian historian, who in his own book Prehistoric Times did something similar to After the Ice, although right at the start of the study of the prehistoric past: this was the book which introduced terms such as Palaeolithic and Neolithic. John Lubbock carries a copy of Prehistoric Times around with him, which makes it possible for Mithen to discuss just how much our ideas about the past have changed in the last century and a half (and also our attitudes to non-white people). This generally works quite well, only occasionally becoming irritating; far less so than a description of the device makes it sound.

Apart from those with an interest in the past for its own sake, why should anyone read After the Ice? Mithen makes a case for this by considering global warming. Through this fifteen thousand year period, global temperatures rose dramatically (though not as fast as they are now), and many of the changes in the archaeology can be linked to the environmental changes that were local effects of this. The drastic move to agriculture - it should be noted that the early farmers had poorer nutrition than the hunter gatherers they replaced - has had amassive (indeed, incalculable) social impact. This is some food for thought as we look to the next century, when global warming is likely to impact a world containing thousands of times as many people.

One minor irritation occurs in connection with the footnotes. A lot of the more technical detail is relegated to notes at the end of the book, and there are many readers who, like myself, will want to follow them as they progress through the main narrative. The problem is that there are frequent errors in the numbering of the notes which can make this a frustrating process. To take an example, in the last chapter the note referenced as 2 in the text appears as 6 in the endpapers, with the notes in between also incorrect (3-5 become 2-4). I hope this will be corrected in later editions.

After the Ice is a fascinating book, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the prehistoric past. Maybe in a decade or two it will be out of date; and in a century and a half it may well seem to be a naive, forgotten relic of the past like Prehistoric Times has become. But for now this is the history book of the year.

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