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on 13 February 2012
The author is a Cultural Historian who has used his undoubted talent as compiler and synthesiser to tackle a challenging project of comparative Anthropology, underpinned by an ambitious overarching theory of cultural evolution.The stated purpose of his work is to contrast the "Human Experience" in the Old World and the New.The crux of his thesis is simple enough and follows directly from the previous work of both Jared Diamond and Brian Fagan.They have separately stressed in their books the centrality of the geographical and environmental factors as well as the bioecological landscape as main determinants of the Religious and Socioeconomic development of Human Societies.The basic idea of environmental determinism has been around since Aristotle and Herodotus but the considerable archeological and paleoclimatological modern findings add great interest to the theory.

In his quest to explain how Humans interact with Nature in different environments the author deliberately focus on the differences and ignore the similarities between the two populations.This leads him to overlook for instance the fact that despite their totally contrasting environments the New World Civilisations share with Ancient Egypt religious activities like Pyramid building,the worship of animals and Mummification associated with the cult of deceased kings.He admits though that the Aztecs had in common with the Egyptians a distinction between Noble and Commoner speech and a hieroglyphic script.Human sacrifices were not confined to the Mesoamerican religions. In the Old World, historical societies like the Chinese of the Shang dynasty indulged in it and so did the Carthaginian worshipers of Moloch.What about the Roman Circus displays of Gladiators' contests and the public watching the slaughter of war captives and first Christians?These latter Mediterranean Cultures incidentally came after the so called Axial Age that supposedly witnessed more humane moral religious developments in the Old World heralding the end of animal and human sacrifices.

To construct this highly selective thesis of dichotomous historical scheme, he ends up lumping together the myriad Cultures of the Old Eurasian Continent across a vast temporal and geographical scale, into a single entity. The terms of comparison are artificially contrived to stress solely the differences.In his description of life in the New World the Pre Columbian MesoAmerican civilisations take centre stage followed by the Andean Civilisations of Peru and Bolivia.He omits to explain why the main civilisations evolved in the least hospitable landscapes of the continent i.e.the rainforests of Meso America,the Andean highlands and the deserts of the South Pacific coast.In fact there is little or no mention of the Native populations in the North American Plains, the NorthWest Pacific Coast, Patagonia and the Amazon basin.Although they were exposed to the same cataclysmic Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Volcanoes and El Nino events ,they did not necessarily express beliefs in angry Gods placated by human sacrifices to ensure survival.In the long run despite their more primitive state of material and political development ,they proved more adaptable than the better known Aztec and Inca civilisations.Sacrifice may have its origins as a response to catastrophe but it was maintained and raised to ritual frenzy by the Noble and Priestly elites in the stratified sophisticated civilisations of the New world, a counterpoint to the "Environmental" explanation he propounds.Another point to dispute is that the Nether world is not unique to the American mythologies as he suggests. Most mythologies of the Old World place Hell in the underworld.

To my mind the text contains a number of superfluous chapters specifically on Western Civilisation which add very little to the main thrust of the argument.They serve mainly as digressions into debatable Intellectual History and detract from the relevant aspects of the narrative he outlines to describe the effects of Climatic changes on the human perception of supernatural forces in the way they shaped the great diversity of religious experience and sense of personal destiny. The work contains fascinating information about the diverse fauna and flora of both worlds.The Author asserts the crucial importance of the domestication of large mammals on the course of History in the Eurasian continent (which incidentally should incorporate the North African coast).He is particularly taken by the historical contrast between the Shaman of the New World and the shepherd of the Old World thus representing the two cultural poles of World history.An interesting but arbitrary choice of metaphor which excludes the Horseman or Camel rider! His account of the use of Hallucinogenic drugs in Shamanistic practices is enlightening and so is his description of the central role of the jaguar and serpents in the mythology and iconography of the New World religious cultures.

No one is left in doubt at the end of an intellectually strenuous journey about the vast scope of the Author's Knowledge across so many disciplines. However no historical model as the one he proposes, rooted in environmental determinism,can be all embracing,unbiased and devoid of inaccuracies. A model is no more than a constructed heuristic device to help our understanding of the complexities of the Human condition and not" Human Nature" as the book is subtitled.I wish he had produced a more punchy and less indulgent slimmer volume! but it would be too stingy to award 3 stars.
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on 19 June 2012
Had Darwin written his Origin of Species entirely within his study walls, never venturing out into the garden to observe earthworms and pigeons, nor to travel the world to fill his head with the wonders of nature and distill the why's and wherefores of nature, he might have written a book like The Great Divide.
It's a great subject, and the second half of the book that tackles history rather than prehistory, makes some progress. The horrors of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations are linked to the saturation of these cultures in hallucinogenic drugs (100 used kinds compared with 20 in Eurasia), a claustrophobic and limited geographical territory plus earthquakes and volcanoes and unquiet weather. Compared with this, the Old World had more scope in area and habitats, the gods sent down less catastophes and universal drug-taking was not embedded in everyday life.

I found the style rather wordy and repetitive - a bit like trying to put a relational database in a linear format, and I missed some personal input or a glimpse of the author in all this. He isn't always accurate - as just one example he says the watermill was invented in the 6th century AD when the Greeks and Romans had it 600 years earlier.

However, by and large, so far, so good. But the first half of the book - which would have been much better as the second part - lets him down. He's way out of his comfort zone, and no wonder where he hops from stone age ecology, climate, geology, human migrations and archaeology and more. Here it goes pear-shaped. He plays fast and loose with dates: on page 8 he says the genetic individuality of native Americans 'clustering around the 16000-15000-year mark ...when the vast glaciers of the Last Ice Age reached their greatest extent' and then on page 123 'as the ice age came to en end, between 40000 and 20000BC, say, when the glaciers and permafrost retreated'.

He also confuses the greatest-extending ice age with the last ice age, whose glaciers didn't get as far. Unfortunately his vegetation and climate knowledge of the Pleistocene are equally sketchy. The rainfall over north Africa hasn't declined in a straight line for 10,000 years: for starters there was the 8200 BP great jolt to rainfall and everything else (from the release of the melted north American ice into the oceans) that killed off the 'Green Sahara' And much more.

This first half is a lot of facts and authors and opinions (these often not those I would have chosen, but that's his choice). It's not writing that pours out of the head from being out there, walking the walk, living in and with nomads and prehistoric cultures, comparing seaside routes with straight lines inland, thinking about food 24 hours a day.... It's an indoor exercise about the outdoor history of our species with a scope that very few scientists are qualified to tackle. A great pity one of these scientists didn't step in to negotiate reducing the scope.
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on 27 December 2012
I have found reading this to be quite easy and entertaining! I would recommend it to anyone who loves history, anthropology, archaeology, or just liked to get a better understanding of how the world was formed. I would definitely suggest a book like this for parents to buy for their teenagers as it's written in such a way that doesn't bore them to tears and gives them a better option to be able to learn by reading without the, "Being bored bit". Excellent! Thank you!
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on 12 February 2012
Well writen and well researched. A fascinating thesis based on the reality that two communities of humans located respectively in the Old World and the New World developed in isolation and in different climatic environments after their land bridge across the Bering Strait was submerged by rising sea levels as the ice sheets melted 15,000 years ago.
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on 31 March 2015
Great and provocative overview.
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on 29 January 2016
Brilliant service! 10/10
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