Steven Mithen - After the Ice

Although the subtitle of A Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC seems rather daunting for a single book, Mithen delivers a wealth of information that is sure to enlighten and alter the perspectives of the vast majority of people who know little or nothing about the humans who lived during the time period. Mithen covers all parts of the world including the Americas, Australia, Japan, Africa, the Polar regions, and the more commonly covered areas of the Middle East and Europe. The book also includes dozens of color pictures and over a hundred pages of small print footnotes. The amount of content is truly staggering.

Rather than be just a book of stated facts, Mithen splits time between discussing what archaeologists have found, how the findings have been interpreted, and he juxtapositions this with a fictional John Lubbock who gets to travel through time and space to witness the events firsthand for us. The real John Lubbock wrote Prehistoric Times in the 19th Century, introducing the terms Palaeolithic and Neolithic. (p. 398)

There are so many fascinating topics in this book it is hard to know where to begin. At the same time, there are so many unanswered questions that one is left somewhat unsatisfied. You'd almost think that these people did nothing but make stone tools, build fires, and occasionally bury their dead by looking at much of the archaeological record since those are the items that tend to get preserved. There are other items, too, of course (like paintings, butchered animal remains, pottery, and the like) but truly getting into the minds of those people from the things left behind, that didn't completely parish, seems impossible.

Mithen doesn't tend to wax philosophical or environmental, but some of his discussion can serve as a reminder that Mother Nature is not completely forgiving. For instance

"Soil exhaustion and erosion had devastated the farming economy of 'Ain Ghazal. Not a single tree remains within walking distance of the town. Its people had travelled further and further every year to plant their crops and to find fodder for their goats. Yields declined, fuel became scarce and the river polluted with human waste... Such is the story of all PPNB [PrePottery Neolithic B] towns of the Jordan valley -- complete economic collapse." (p. 87)
Overall, After the Ice is a real eye opener. You'll look at the world a little differently after a reading. Then share it with someone who still thinks that the first humans were a couple named Adam and Eve who walked the earth in 4,000 BC.

from the publisher:
20,000 B.C., the peak of the last ice age--the atmosphere is heavy with dust, deserts, and glaciers span vast regions, and people, if they survive at all, exist in small, mobile groups, facing the threat of extinction.

But these people live on the brink of seismic change--10,000 years of climate shifts culminating in abrupt global warming that will usher in a fundamentally changed human world. After the Ice is the story of this momentous period--one in which a seemingly minor alteration in temperature could presage anything from the spread of lush woodland to the coming of apocalyptic floods--and one in which we find the origins of civilization itself.

Drawing on the latest research in archaeology, human genetics, and environmental science, After the Ice takes the reader on a sweeping tour of 15,000 years of human history. Steven Mithen brings this world to life through the eyes of an imaginary modern traveler--John Lubbock, namesake of the great Victorian polymath and author of Prehistoric Times. With Lubbock, readers visit and observe communities and landscapes, experiencing prehistoric life--from aboriginal hunting parties in Tasmania, to the corralling of wild sheep in the central Sahara, to the efforts of the Guila Naquitz people in Oaxaca to combat drought with agricultural innovations.

Part history, part science, part time travel, After the Ice offers an evocative and uniquely compelling portrayal of diverse cultures, lives, and landscapes that laid the foundations of the modern world.