"Just a Lonesome Traveler, the Great Historical Bum"
After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000–5000
B.C. Steven Mithen. xvi + 622 pp. Harvard University Press,
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.
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
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
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.