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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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