Twenty thousand years ago Earth was in the midst of an ice age. Then global warming arrived, leading to massive floods, the spread of forests and the retreat of the deserts. By 5,000 BC a radically different human world had appeared. In place of hunters and gatherers there were farmers; in place of transient campsites there were towns. The foundations of our modern world had been laid and nothing that came after - the industrial revolution, the atomic age, the internet - have ever matched the significance of those events. After the Ice tells the story of climate change's impact during this momentous period - one that also saw the colonisation of the Americas and mass extictions of animals throughout the world. Drawing on the latest cutting-edge research in archaeology, cognitive science, paleontology, geology and the evolutionary sciences, Steven Mithen creates an evocative, original and remarkably complete picture of minds, cultures, lives and landscapes through 15,000 years of history.… (more)
Despite that little bit of sensationalism, I have mixed feelings about After the Ice. The bad parts first:
*Author Steven Mithen adopts an annoying narrative device – that of a young modern man, John Lubbock, who is able to travel in time and wander invisibly around the various peoples of the Mesolithic and Neolithic. This starts out only slightly cute and becomes increasingly tedious. The wanderings of Lubbock add considerable useless bulk to an already thick book. Perhaps some readers will find this useful; not me.
*Nothing is tied together chronologically; instead the book is organized geographically – Western Asia to Europe to the Americas to Australia to South Asia to Africa, and even within a region Lubbock does not travel in time order, repeatedly bouncing from 20000 BCE to 6000 BCE and back as he enters different areas. If there was a chart somewhere that related the different sites – showing that the Middle Eastern Natufian culture was contemporary with the Ahrensburg site in Schleswig-Holstein, the Monte Verde site in southern Chile, the earliest Jomon of Japan and the Eland Cave site in South Africa (for example) – it would be better, but instead you have to depend on your memory and “John Lubbock”’s interior monologs.
*Mithen swallows the Environmental Litany hook, line, and sinker. Despite repeatedly pointing out in the text that the climate change from the last glacial maximum through the late glacial interstadial through the return of the ice during the Younger Dryas and the sudden end of that period was vastly greater than the worst imaginings of Al Gore, his final chapter is full of the usual stuff about carbon footprint and genetically modified food and overpopulation.
Mithen is careless and poor at explaining information from other fields. He repeatedly talks about “changes in the Earth’s orbit” – Milankovitch cycles – as if these were some sort of sudden and unpredictable event. In fact, these aren’t “changes in the Earth’s orbit” at all; they’re just as much a part of the Earth’s orbit as the annual revolution around the Sun, they just happen at a time scale outside human experience.
Now the good parts:
*The book covers a time period that tends to be ignored by popular works. There are lots of book on the origins of our genus in East Africa, and lots on the dawn of civilization in the Near East, but not much on what happened in between.
Along the same lines, Mithen shows that a lot of “perceived knowledge” about this period is just plain wrong. For years, the conventional wisdom was a gradual transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture to settled farming community to animal domestication to pottery to metal working to Reality TV. Mithen shows that there were lots of places where hunter-gatherers lived in settled communities, where pottery preceded farming, where people abandoned early agriculture to return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and so on. This is one of the advantages of the global scope of the book; archaeology has tended to focus on events in the Middle East and Europe. Farming is hard work, and people won't do it it if they don't have to. It was always a puzzle to European settlers in North America why the natives didn't immediately adopt European-style farming as soon as they saw it; the answer apparently is they didn't see much point in it. Our own view of what the transition to farming is "supposed" to look like is probably heavily colored by the way things went in "hydraulic" civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and early China. Lots of other cultures developed farming independently and in most cases it seems to have gone more like the transitional hunter-gatherer-gardener pattern than the extensive irrigation agriculture pattern. I wonder if a lot of academic preconceptions are influenced by the Marxist idea of historical inevitability? Marx was pretty convinced that the hydraulic civilization stage was a necessary part of his historic pattern.
The book is full of fascinating little tidbits of knowledge (just as an example, did you know that there was a Neolithic hunter-gatherer people in northern Siberia whose principal game animal was the polar bear?)
Mithen is willing to speculate about various controversies – was the late Pleistocene megafauna extinction in North America due to overhunting by the Clovis culture or to climate change or both – but is careful to distinguish speculation from what’s actually known. He especially and laudably distances himself from the archaeological tradition of explaining anything that isn’t understood as “ritual artifacts” or “ritual behavior” or “ritual structures”.
There are excellent maps, showing the extent of ice and the coastline at the last glacial maximum. There’s also a fine chart of oxygen isotope data from the LGM to the present, showing (although Mithen doesn’t draw attention to either) that the planet has been cooling since the temperature high at the end of the Younger Dryas, and that such controversial events as the Medieval Climate Optimum and the Little Ice Age are not even recognizable blips in the long term pattern (in terms of oxygen-18 data, the change at the transition from the last interstadial to the Younger Dryas was about nine time as much as the difference between the MCO and the LIA. Of course, this is only a proxy for global temperature, but till pretty interesting.)
So I suppose I’ll have to give this one three stars, with the understanding that parts of the book deserve five and parts one.