Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Steven Mithen's 'After the Ice'

Happy new year all.

My publishing schedule for the next few days may be erratic since we are moving offices and the usual communication transfer problems are bound to occur. In any event I wish all a successful new year.

This seems to be a good time to discuss the book by Steven Mithen published in 2003, titled After the Ice - a global human history 20,000 - 5000 BC. The book itself is 500 pages in length plus a hundred pages of notes in fine print.

The book is an archeologist's survey of our human prehistory, almost site by site around the world. It is very comprehensive and pulls together as much as we know today and shows how a greater acceptance of the local antiquity of mankind is establishing itself. The author's real achievement was that he introduced a fictional avatar of early archaeologist John Lubbock as his traveling companion to see what is ultimately modern opinion. This is an excellent tool to take the reader into the life way of the peoples while maintaining a separate voice for the evidence itself.

A book that could easily have been monotonous and unreadable is made accessible to a less dedicated audience as it needs to be. I heartily recommend this book to those with any interest in the subject of our early progenitors.

The use of an avatar to describe and introduce opinion on culture is useful and has the power to access material not otherwise freely usable in an academic voice. It is an innovation that can be fruitfully used in similar work. The reality of archeology is that almost all the evidence available is in the form of small pieces of sharp stones. The Northwest Pacific culture showed just how extreme the wood component of that culture could be. I also suspect that European stone age culture was just as rich in its exploitation of wood, wherever it was possible to sit still. And cattle culture made that possible very early.

While an archaeologist must err on the side of caution when it comes to determining the nature of a culture, I consider it much more prudent to ask only one question. Could a static village of twenty or more people be established at a location with the resources available? If the answer is yes, then why not?

When you find villages in the tropics with the most limited tool kit imaginable, it is good bet that they have been at it for tens of thousands of years and that archeology will have the devil's own time finding any trace.

And of course it becomes obvious reading this book that often the best place to find archaeological sites happens to be just those places that are inhospitable to begin with.

And in spite of over one hundred year of effort, it is still early days in this field of study. A single archaeologist can properly inspect and excavate perhaps a few hundred square meters of land in his lifetime. He has to cherry pick on the basis of best guess. The reality is that we need thousands of archaeologists working. Thanks to enlightened land legislation this is sorting itself out in the developed world and will become universal at least were people already live.