Customer Review

30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Time travelling paleontologist, 16 Mar. 2006
This review is from: After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 - 5000 BC (Paperback)
For someone who has been waiting for a compendium of everything paleontologists know to date about prehistoric Man, this book is a must-have. For the passing enthusiast, 511 pages on everything there is to be known about pre-Neolithic hunter gatherers can be a bit much.
The format chosen, however, makes the treatment of the subject matter less dry than it might have been. Perusing the evocative chapter titles gives a hint as to what is in store- Village Life in the Oak Woodland, In the Valley of Ravens, Islands of the Dead, Baked Fish by the Nile. Each features captured moments in time and place, vignettes of hunter-gatherer life as a paleontologist, John Lubbock, floats ghost-like across the millenia to happen upon prehistoric scenes just at the moment they leave their archaeological remains -- the infant in Southeast Europe just as his tribe buries him along with a jawbone under the hearth, hunters of arctic hare in 10,000 B.C. Australia as they cook, a cave painter as he paints. Each scene is followed by a scientific discussion of everything paleontologists have said about those remains.
There are revelations concerning some big questions in paleontology: the Earth did indeed suffer great flooding at the end of the last Ice Age; the transition to farming from hunter gathering was a traumatic one, forced upon humans by severe climatic change; Homo sapiens did indeed arise out of Africa; the Clovis hunters did indeed contribute to the extinction of megafauna; Just how long ago was early Man in the Americans? These are gems tucked into endless info on types of microlith (stone chippings used to make tools) and shapes of pottery bowls.
Being an archaeology nut, this is the sort of book where I would usually devour each and every footnote – it has a luscious 61 pages of ‘em -- underlining things in the book and making notes for future research. However, the book was just so long (did I mention? -- 511 pages), I was proud of myself just for getting through the text.
As the ghost Lubbock doesn't speak or understand Mesolithic languages (otherwise, he could just go up and ask the cave painter ‘Why did you put a red handprint next to your painting of that mammoth?’) we don't get treated to much dialogue or characterization. This can get a bit boring.
More problematically, the analysis can be a bit undialectical at points, following hypotheses suggesting that human societies did things for purely ideological reasons. At these points, the author’s anti-Marxist bias leads him to some silliness. Contenders for a woman ‘offer their head’ in some ritual fashion to be bashed in, for example. Most of the analysis is, however, sober.
An underlying sub-theme of the book is the dangers the earth and its creatures face from global warming. When you read about the disastrous consequences of that 7 degree warming 10,000 years ago, how much more afraid do we need to be about what we are doing in the 21st century? As the book is about paleontology, it naturally doesn’t suggest any political solutions- which makes the anti-Marxist bias even sillier.
A bit hard to get through, but worth it.
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