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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 January 2009
A point of order to start: the real title of this book says "to the Present" - it's not a Big Present as Amazon seem to think. But everything else about the book is Big, starting as it says with the Big Bang that created the Universe, and then working through the Big Belch, the Big Birth, Pangaea (Big Land?), Animals on Land (Big Landing?), Mass Extinctions (Big Prang?) through to the late dinosaurs (T Rex - Big Fang?) before history even really begins.

There's all sorts of interesting stuff like the Standard Model of how the universe, galaxies, stars and planets were formed; the evolution of the limbic area of the brain, enabling self-regulation of body temperature, precipitating the bifurcation between cold- and warm-blooded animals; and ultimately the evolution of more sophisticated lifeforms in the Rift Valley (Big Lab?) culminating in the Big Apes (OK, that's enough with the Big Stuff).

Each chapter ends with a set of questions the answers to which mainly remain pure speculation, during one of which Stokes Brown namechecks one of my favourite books, The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker, citing his speculations on whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

Once people arrive on the scene we get to look at things like language, the domestication of dogs, cats and farm animals, and the development of agriculture leading, in diverse cultures, to the need to administer the distribution of food and protect surplus from predation through the foundation of armies.

This brings us to the formation of folklore (in the case of protecting food, the Epic Of Gilgamesh is the starting point), including the speculation that the story of Adam and Eve originated in Babylonia before 1000 BCE, and money, where the Sumerian use of silver money crosses over into another recent book, Niall Ferguson's The Ascent Of Money.

We then shift pretty quickly through a number of key periods such as the Pax Romana, the origination of world religions in what Karl Jaspers described as the Axial Age, Mongol invasions, and Industrialisation, to give but a sample.

At times there is the feeling that history is stampeding out of control, the facts coming helter skelter and leading to some occasionally irritating repetition, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not, as when the author informs us twice within the space of two pages that Arabs learned paper making from Chinese prisoners of war. Things are sometimes also necessarily compressed - the crusades are reduced to a paragraph - but sometimes clumsily, so the information that the French ceded Louisiana to the Spanish in 1763 is not a good story without knowing they took it back again in 1800, only to sell it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Other minor tics I noted were the use of the colloquial "Brits" in the chapter on Industrialisation (we're the only people who get this kind of treatment - there are no Yanks or Ruskies); the oxymoronic expression "ruling samurai" (a samurai was a retainer; she means, I guess, the shogun); and the sometimes dodgy grammar, with an apparent inability sometimes to square singular and plural words, and inappropriate preposition use. I also found it puzzling that there is no specific mention of the invention of the wheel. Isn't that kind of important?

Nevertheless, this is the kind of book I have always loved to read, bringing all sorts of things together, putting them in context, and giving origins: who knew for example that "horde" derives from the Mongolian word for court of the khan? And I like that the book uses BCE/CE rather than BC/AD when giving dates.

Also good to know some things don't change: Stokes Brown describes a game played in the pre-Colombian Americas at the end of which the captain of one of the teams was ritually sacrificed, a tradition which continues to this day at sporting events in Philadelphia.
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on 20 April 2014
just a fantastic read. a bit academic at times, but overall a nice cohesive narrative. thoroughly recommend this for anyone who wants to understand their place in space and time.
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on 13 February 2014
Easy to read and couldn't put it down (read it in about 3 days)
Well written with a mountain of information and ideas
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on 27 March 2015
I love this book.
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on 16 May 2014
Haven't finished reading it but love it so far. Concise and to the point without over elaborating on time or place when describing the events of our and earth's history.
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