Logo IMG


"Just a Lonesome Traveler, the Great Historical Bum"

Douglas K. Charles

After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000–5000 B.C. Steven Mithen. xvi + 622 pp. Harvard University Press, 2004. $29.95

After the Ice offers a fascinating whirlwind tour of an underappreciated segment of human history. Author Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory and head of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences at the University of Reading, has created a complex, multilayered account of life from 20,000 to 5000 B.C., during the late Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods.

The seeming highlights of the rise of Homo sapiens are well-known: the appearance of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in Africa sometime around 150,000 years ago, and our species' subsequent expansion out of Africa; replacement of the Neandertals in Europe by Cro-Magnons; the production of the spectacular cave art that followed in the same region; and the domestication of plants and animals in the Near East, leading to writing and the first appearances of urban life. But this is not the story that Mithen tells.

The Koster site in Illinois...Click to Enlarge Image

Before the end of the Upper Paleolithic, the world endured the last major ice advance, which peaked around 22,000 years ago at the Last Glacial Maximum. It is in those trying times that Mithen begins his history, documenting how our ancestors managed to survive—and even prosper—and setting the stage for the rapid cultural developments that followed the end of the Ice Age nearly 12,000 years ago. At that point, around the time of the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, a rapid warming began the shift toward modern climatic conditions. Farming, towns and civilizations originated over the next 5,000 years. By 5000 B.C., Mithen tells us, "the foundations of the modern world had been laid and nothing that came after—classical Greece, the Industrial Revolution, the atomic age, the Internet—has ever matched the significance of those events."

Mithen develops his narrative by weaving together four threads. Guiding us across space and time is John Lubbock, a fictional modern time traveler Mithen has created, who is named for the 19th-century polymath who wrote the classic Prehistoric Times. Through the experiences of the 21st-century Lubbock, Mithen (re)constructs the appearance and actions of the people and the sights, sounds and smells of various locations—in sum, aspects of life that an ethnographer might record but archaeologists can only imagine. At 10,800 B.C., Lubbock visits the site of Pedra Pintada in the Amazon basin, which until recently was assumed to have been uninhabited for at least another 6,000 years after that time:

In the cave's airy interior there are at least ten people standing in a circle admiring the catch. They wear few clothes and are reminiscent of today's Amazonian Indians—stout, with copper skins, straight black hair and elegantly painted faces. The floor is covered with mats made from enormous leaves; there are baskets and bags stacked along a wall; spears, fishing rods and harpoons are propped in a corner. Wooden bowls at the rear of the cave contain lumps of red pigment that have been crushed and mixed with water. Along another wall there are bundles of soft grass, tied with plant fibres into cushions. In the middle, a small smouldering fireplace next to which the fish lies magnificently on the ground.

A woman crouches and with a stone knife removes the fish's head. This is offered to a young man, the fish bearer, who takes it with a grin. He sucks at each eyesocket in turn while blood and juices trickle down his chest. With that preliminary over, the fish is taken outside and gutted.

Lubbock spends the next few days with the people of Pedra Pintada, helping to gather freshwater mussels and collecting a bewildering assortment of fruits, nuts, roots and leaves. . . .

Interwoven with Lubbock's observations is the authoritative voice of the archaeologist explaining the science of archaeology on which Lubbock's experiences are based. Mithen's voice also provides an occasional third thread, as a first-person travel guide describing his own visits to particular sites. Finally, for the truly inquisitive, the author has provided detailed notes explaining his interpretations, along with an extensive bibliography. Despite this complex structure, the prose is lively and evocative as Mithen unfolds a compelling story.

Lubbock travels across six continents and 15,000 years in 50 chapters covering 500 pages. Thus only brief impressions are possible at any one location, but in part this is Mithen's intent—to convey the dizzying diversity of human cultures that emerged as people first contended with the end of the glacial period and then reacted to the effects of the post-Pleistocene global warming that characterized the first half of the Holocene. Lubbock visits well-known sites in the Near East, Europe, the Americas and Australia, such as Jericho, Çatalhöyük, Star Carr, Mas d'Azil, Folsom, Koster, Monte Verde and Kow Swamp. But perhaps even more intriguing are the sites in East and South Asia and in Africa, which are not familiar even to most archaeologists.

The book is not without shortcomings. Three large sections of photos and line drawings are included, but these images are not referred to in the text; also, the captions are minimal and do not refer back to the text other than by mentioning site names.

Theory and interpretation in archaeology are highly contested at present, and for the most part this is not evident from reading After the Ice. As Mithen's academic titles suggest, he takes a very "scientific" approach to archaeology. Anglo-American archaeology is still in the throes of its own postmodern critique, and aside from a few comments in the notes, Mithen ignores these controversies. He predominantly presents his history as a struggle of groups to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Others would emphasize change driven by ideology, gender differences, human agency or competition among individuals and lineages for elite status. The epilogue confronts the downside of the Neolithic revolution, but chiefly in environmental rather than social terms.

In the one chapter that covers a site and region with which I am very familiar—Koster in the Illinois River valley—some of the details are off the mark. For example, Lubbock looks out across the valley and sees "a wide, fast-flowing silvery river bordered by marshes and meadows." In fact, the Illinois has one of the lowest gradients of any major river in the world. When Marquette and Joliet paddled their canoes up the river, it was so choked with vegetation that they barely saw it. The sluggish river and the consequently "gentle" annual spring floods created the levels of natural productivity that made the sedentary life at Koster possible millennia before the appearance of agriculture.

Elsewhere, Mithen refers to a "traders' settlement," contemporary with Koster, at the present-day location of Chicago. He admits that the existence of this specific community is "pure speculation," but more problematic is the positing in the first instance of such "a place of manufacturing and exchange with people coming from all directions, and where the population will soon be expanding too fast for the hunter--gatherer ethics of equality and sharing to be maintained." His supposition goes beyond, and even against, the evidence for the nature of economic complexity that exists for this period.

These criticisms are relatively minor, however, and the cumulative effect of this book should be a profound new appreciation of a largely unknown and crucially important period of our past. If you want to find out what you don't know about the grand sweep of human history, there is not a better place to start.

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: On the Origin of Origin Stories

Book Review: O Pioneer

Book Excerpt: Cypherpunks Write Code

Subscribe to American Scientist