After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC

by Steven Mithen

Hardcover, 2004



Call number

GN740 .M58


Harvard University Press (2004), 664 pages


"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." "Part history, part science, part time travel, After the Ice offers a portrayal of diverse cultures, lives, and landscapes that laid the foundations of the modern world."--Jacket.

User reviews

LibraryThing member eriktrips
Most of this book actually is written in the footnotes: while the narrative itself is a clear synthesis of archaeological data into a readable account of various world cultures after the last Great Ice Age, the footnotes provide a guide to the academic literature as it is listed in the huge bibliography and are an invaluable help in finding the best scholarship on prehistoric cultures. Maybe I spent too much time in school, but I found the back of the book to be the most valuable part of this volume. I used it mainly as a springboard to research the Neolithic Revolution in Europe, and I have to say I was very lucky to have picked up After the Ice first, as it functions nicely as a door into archaeological research of the Paleolithic and early Neolithic. Highly recommended, whether you elect to read the footnotes or not, but try them out for at least one chapter and maybe you will find them as rewarding as I have.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
A very good overview of late Pleistocene and early Holocene history. It is not usually part of the context we have when we think of the past. We know we started in Mesopotamia but where and why did civilization get its start there. That is one of the questions to which this book gives background to. At first I thought the inclusion of the all seeing time traveling ghost John Lubbock was frivolous. But it did add a binding and explanatory element to the narrative.… (more)
LibraryThing member thcson
This is an enjoyable book. The authors starts with archaeological remains of selected prehistoric settlements and uses a little creative freedom to construct a picture of what daily life may have been like for the people who lived there. Unlike some of the author's other books, the speculative part is actually restricted by archaeological evidence in this work, and personally I thought he balanced these two aspects very well. Of course his interpretations go far beyond what scientific archaeology would allow but they work well in a book which clearly is intended for a broad audience. I would imagine this to be the kind of book which might kindle a lifelong interest in prehistoric archaeology in some persons.… (more)
LibraryThing member crop
While interested in the subject matter, I had to abandon this book half way through. Much of it is presented in a fictionalised narrative, speculating what a particular time traveller sees when visiting the various times and places detailed by this book. While this is done, no doubt, because some editor thought it would pep up a dry text and connect better with the reader, it has the opposite effect on me, bringing the text to a grating and irritating halt. If I wanted hand-holding reenactments, I'd watch the history channel. (Note that my problem here is with the technique itself, not the particular use of it here; a biography on Tesla was similarly ruined for me using this style.) The author also visited many of these places himself and writes about those experiences. These are less jarring, but still mostly unnecessary, with lots of "I imagine I see". Who cares? The bits about actual research are great, but slogging through so much other cruft made me not care.… (more)
LibraryThing member ljhliesl
Interesting information (how climatic pressure as the last ice age receded affected human development), but not good reading. Withen puts an invisible modern man at the various archeological sites to observe the then-action that paleoanthropologists hypothesize from whatever remains after 20000 years (phytoliths: people are clever). To flesh out humanity from charcoal, pollen, and stone flakes is a fine idea but Mithen fumbles the narrative technique. Jared Diamond he is not.… (more)
LibraryThing member avarisclari
A fantastic journey into the past. I felt as though I was hiding in the grassy fields of ancient Europe, looking over the wild steppes, and even feeling the pain of making my own Flint tools with unskilled hands. Truly marvellous.
LibraryThing member setnahkt
People are first amazed, then terrified as rising sea level caused by global warming – 7° C in 50 years - overwhelms coastal plains, turning lowlands to scattered islands, then drowning those island. Entire ecosystems disappear or are modified beyond recognition. Savannas change to desert, alpine valleys are covered by forests, and most of the world’s megafauna go extinct – 36 large mammal species in North America, 46 in South America, 15 in Australia, 7 in Europe, 2 in Africa. Familiar plants and animals disappear along with their habitats. It is an ecological catastrophe beyond the imagination of the people who witnessed it. Which were not very many, because we’re talking about the end of the Younger Dryas period, around 9600 BCE.

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.
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Original language


Physical description

664 p.; 6.13 inches


0674015703 / 9780674015708



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