Skip to main content

After the Ice: A global human history 20,000 to 5,000 BC – Steven Mithen ****

If the sole determining quality of a book was scope, this would come top of the charts – it attempts to take in the whole world between the end of the ice age and the neolithic. It’s a noble attempt and in many ways very successful. (That sounds like a sentence that is going to be followed by a “but” – and there is a “but” later on, but let’s concentrate on what’s in it and why it’s good first.)
First, though, we do need to ask “why is this book here (on the Popular Science site) at all?” It is an archaeological history, and though archaeology is a scientific discipline, it is not normally classified as science – in fact the publisher’s classification on the back of the book describes it as history. Yet it has a lot to say about the origins of modern man, and as such we can probably classify it under our “human science” biological categorization – I can only assume that’s why it got listed for the Aventis Prize. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have appeared here, which would have been a shame because it’s a book that will stay with me for a long time.
The cunning trick Steven Mithen uses to take us into the post ice-age world, is to put a virtual observer, John Lubbock (named after a Victorian writer on the subject), who experiences first hand what is going on at prehistoric sites at the time they were occupied. Then Mithen pulls back from Lubbock’s “experience” and tells us about the actual finds that it is based on. This works marvellously well, rather like a reconstructional TV documentary like Walking with Dinosaurs, without anywhere as much of the guesswork presented as fact in those shows. Occasionally Mithen varies the technique, at one point bringing Lubbock forward to the 1970s to witness a particular discovery being made.
The only problem with this approach is that Lubbock’s nature varies. He appears to be human and corporeal – he eats – and he takes part in helping the people of the period, yet it said elsewhere that he can’t be seen. Despite his apparent humanity, at one point he stands in one place for 1,000 years. Now Mithen might argue it doesn’t matter what Lubbock does, it’s a fictional concept. Lubbock travels backwards and forwards in time, for goodness sake. But once you give flesh to a character like this, the reader has every right to expect some consistency, and to be thrown by the opposite. Perhaps Lubbock should have been a robot, like Marvin in Hitchiker’s Guide, who at one point stays in the same place for millions of years.
The other problem with the book as a whole is that it’s so long! There are 511 pages in smallish print before reaching the notes. Just occasionally you feel, like Lubbock, that you seem to have been in there for a thousand years. Especially as, after a while, it all gets rather the same. And sometimes you want to know what happened after. It might not have done what Mithen inteded, but it would have made a more readable book if he had concentrated on two or three areas, and followed through all of prehistory, stopping at the point recorded history was available for that area.
The length doesn’t stop it being a magnificent work, though – and that it certainly is.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Peter Wothers - Four Way Interview

Dr Peter Wothers is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He is heavily involved in promoting chemistry to young students and members of the public, and, in 2010, created the popular Cambridge Chemistry Challenge competition for students in the UK. Peter is known nationally and internationally for his demonstration lectures and presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, titled The Modern Alchemist, in 2012. In 2014, he was awarded an M.B.E. for Services to Chemistry in the Queen's Birthday Honours.. His new book is Antimony, Gold and Jupiter's Wolf.

Why chemistry?

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with chemistry from about the age of 8.  I built up quite a substantial home laboratory with all sorts of things that are (quite rightly) banned now (such as white phosphorus) and also used to go to second-hand bookshops to find chemistry texts.  Eventually I boug…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …