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"After the Ice" by Stephen Mithen is subtitled "A Global Human History: 20,000 - 5000 BC" and that explains the subject of the book with admirably succinct clarity.
Mithen sets out his intentions with the book in a short preface, mainly that he intended "a good read" for those interested in our past, while at the same time maintaining the highest levels of academic scholarship. Happily, this book is very much a good read and one senses that the archaeological evidence cited and analysed is indeed of the highest quality.
After a couple of brief introductory chapters that give us a sense of the world at the end of the last ice age, the book is divided into sections that analyse every continent in turn from 20,000 to 5000 BC (or thereabouts, depending on the available evidence). This helps parcel out the huge time spans discussed into manageable chunks and Mithen's approach works very well, as we gradually build up a world wide picture, piece by piece.
Throughout the book, Mithen uses the technique of having an imaginary modern man, who he names John Lubbock (also the name of the author of the revolutionary Victorian-era history "Prehistoric Times") travel through the prehistoric landscapes that he describes. If this sounds unbelievably dumbed-down, then don't worry as it is done exceptionally well and lifts the book up to a whole new level of engagement. Often chapters begin with our imaginary time-traveller Lubbock arriving out of the darkness and happening upon the camp or village that Mithen is about to write about, and observing or perhaps joining in the activities unnoticed. This work of imagination helps hugely with reconstructing the places and people of the past that this book is all about, and we have the flickering of camp fires and the smell of goat cooking and children splashing about in rivers made vividly real. It genuinely brings what could be dusty descriptions of post holes and flint chips alive and Mithen is extremely talented in this regard (I'm sure he could write a popular pre-historical novel if he wanted to, and in fact I wish he would).
But for all the imagination put into bringing scenes to life, this is absolutely a work of intellectual rigour and I trusted the description and analysis throughout. There is a lot of information in these pages, with a lot of dates and facts and figures to take in. At times it is quite dense and in depth for a popular book, but that is no bad thing and it is clearly often necessary to give us a full picture (there are over 100 pages of notes and bibliography). Put simply, he clearly knows what he is talking about. Mithen is also generous in his praise of other archaeologists and invites us to recognise good archaeology over bad, and freely admits when there is not enough evidence to draw firm conclusions (which is most of the time) and refrains from doing so. Luckily for us, he does give us his personal leanings a lot of the time.
Mithen's writing is very clear and concise and he manages to pack in a staggering amount of information within a relatively short space (around 500 pages). It might recall Chris Morris' interview with Andrew Morton to say it but this book actually looks and feels bigger than it is. At times though, nearing the end, I became a little bored of the repeated descriptions of tiny settlements or camps found here and there that seemed to be coming thick and fast and I began to lose interest somewhat. I felt that Mithen would have been better served at times to have concentrated on fewer examples and for longer, if at all possible.
As for the illustrations, there are no drawings or diagrams of the various dig sites within the pages of the book. I'm not sure that I missed them greatly and I think their omission is not detrimental in any way, as a few grey lines and circles don't often help much in these sorts of books anyway. There are, however, very helpful and illuminating maps at the start of each continental section that show the various areas described in that section. I love maps and liked seeing how the areas related to each other geographically. There are two sections in the book with glossy colour photographs. These show mostly the dig sites and general landscapes for some of the main digs discussed. There are only a few images of pottery and skeletal remains and some sketches of cave art, but then we are talking about a very long time ago and not much actual "stuff" survives. Still, they do exist and I would have liked more photographs of artefacts, but the landscape pictures really did help set the scene.
I will definitely be reading this book again cover to cover at some point. Since reading it, though, I have used it many times to dip into, to read a chapter or two about a time or place that might have cropped up elsewhere, say when a new dig reveals something so unusual that they have it on the national news. It is a great book to own and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and especially of course pre-history. I think it would even win over a few potential converts and would be a great gift to an interested teenager. I bought this full price for £12.99 and it was worth every penny, and if you can get it for less, say second hand, then I would snap it up.
The sub title of this book is an ideal summation of the books subject and at the same time an audacious claim, "A Global Human History 20000-5000BC." That is a long period of time to condense into one volume, even one like this that runs to over 600 pages. The advantage of looking at this period though is that unlike mans more recent development this period is a simpler time. There are no borders or countries, no politics, little evidence of religion beyond tribal custom and superstition, no money and no large-scale war. What the book then is left with is the growth of hunter-gatherer communities across the world and when viewed in these more specific terms is a much more manageable task. The parameters of the book are not just some arbitrary boundary but in themselves delineate a key stage in mans history. 22000 years ago puts us at the end of the high point of the last Ice Age, from here on global warming meant that the receding glaciers would give back the lush planet to mankind and a point from which the rise to modern urban civilization can be followed. The end point of 7000 years ago is the beginning of the age of metal working, copper and bronze were being experimented with and agriculture was in its early stages and these and other developments meant that the life of the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer was being superseded by a fixed farm and crafting existence. So with an understanding of the start and end points of the journey Steven Mithen explores that great journey from mobile hunter to settled village farmer.
Rather than set down a basic introduction of common denominators the book gets down to business almost straight away. Divided up into sections along continental lines each chapter takes a location and examines the examples that it offers up to further our understanding of mans development with in the fifteen thousand years of the books scope. This makes the book accessible from more than one angle. If you are looking for an overall understanding of the global development of the period then the book can be read from cover to cover. If you are interested in a specific aspect, be it spiritual beliefs in Catalhoyuk, the colonisation of the Arctic lands or horticulture in New Guinea, then it is also very easy to cut to your area of interest.
What makes this book so easily usable is that Mithen has managed to cover a massive amount of ground in a jargon free and easily understandable text. But in moving away from the scholarly approach he has also avoided over-simplification. The rise of history on T.V. has often resulted in authors trying to cash in on this popularity by churning out superficial and inaccurate books that do nothing to further the general understanding of history in the long run. Mithen manages to find a middle ground that makes the book both highly readable and massively informative. One of the ways that he manages to bring his subject to life is through the very interesting approach of having an imaginary guide to visually introduce the site that is being discussed. Seeing the past in purely visual terms through human eyes really lifts the locations off of the page. Vivid descriptions of walking into a clearing and seeing the wood smoke rising from a hunters camp as it bustles with activity counts for a lot more than pages of dry superstition and analysis. At no point does Mitten ever try to push assumptions on the reader via these descriptions they are just there to set the scene before getting stuck into the more academic side of things.
It is this combination of clarity through description and an easily accessible text that make the book a bench mark in the mission to open up history to a wider audience. The period that the book covers has never been one that is an obvious catch for budding historians, but Mithen manages to really bring to life a period that has for a long time been treated as an information wasteland and instils it with a vibrancy and life that catches the imagination. It is a large and wide-ranging study but will deliver everything that you will ever need to know about the early prehistory of mankind.
620 pages Phoenix Books £10.99 in paperback (bought mine for about £8.00 through the History Guild Book Club.) Secondhand copies on e-bay and Amazon may be as low as a fiver.