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Interesting subject, flawed account
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.