Review: After the Ice; a Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC by Steven Mithen (2004) Assessment 8 out of 10

This is a big Book, one to return to, following up different locations and themes.

I read this book, impressed by two of Steven Mithen’s other works, “The Prehistory of the Mind” and “the Singing Neanderthals”. They advance theory on the evolution of the mind, language and music. “After the Ice” is different. Its subtitle,” A global human history 20,000-5,000 BC” may also be a misleading, as this isn’t narrative history.

In 52 chapters and 511 pages, plus colour plates, maps, notes and a bibliography, Mithen describes archaeological work on every continent from sites covering this long and crucial period. He seems to have visited them all. He includes descriptions of his own digs in the Near East and the Hebrides. He links detailed work on particular locations and, the (often slow) publication of such work with theory about what happened there and why.

Each chapter includes what Mithen imagines is seen by “John Lubbock”, a time-traveller. This may seem a conceit, but together with description of the archaeology and theory, builds a general picture of what is known about a locality at different dates. One chapter gives successive and conflicting views of what Lubbock has seen in the Oxana Valley, providing alternative interpretations for plant domestication in Central America. Mithen then comments on which of the alternatives he prefers and why.

Domestication of animals and plants and the continuation of hunter-gatherer lifestyles are big themes; how domestication occurred and to which species, whether it was spread by expansion or diffusion; that it occurred separately in a number of different localities covering different domesticates, how species are changed by domestication and differ from wild species, why domestication occurred in some areas but not others.Thus Australian aborigines, who retained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, were in contact across the Torres Straits over a long time span with garden-horticulturalists in New Guinea but never adopted their “more developed” culture.

The “agricultural revolution”, includes at least three elements, settlement in villages, adoption of agriculture and pottery, but the three weren’t necessarily adopted at the same time, nor in the same order. In the Near East the first farmers were preceded by hunter-gatherers living in villages, pottery coming later, with reversion to a dispersed hunter-gatherer life-style during the cold dry Younger Dryas. In Japan pottery (and lacquering) were adopted first and at an early date, then settlement and after a long gap agriculture. In China rice domestication and adoption of pottery seem to have gone together. On the Indus Plain a package of wheat and barley cultivation, goats and mud-brick architecture seems to have been introduced by immigrants from the Middle East. In Europe genetic evidence suggests adoption of agriculture by former hunter-gatherers.

Another big theme is climate and ecological change. Glacial melt occurred quickly leading to a rise in sea levels resulting in “coastal catastrophe” (and a loss of archaeological sites) on the Black Sea and Doggerland. Further north there was isostatic rebound. Instability of coastlines, climate and drainage resulted in changing ecospheres and therefore in the animals hunted. This in turn brought about changes in hunting technology.

In both Europe and Africa expansion of woodland meant change from hunting migrating herds to hunting individual animals. In Europe the change brought an end to a long tradition of cave painting. In southern Africa it accompanied adoption of the hunting bow, which may have resulted in extinction of a number of species. Mithen thinks hunting in North America, together with changes in ecology, resulted in the extinction of megafauna. He is less convinced that it explains extinction in Australia.

This is a big book summarising work in progress, which is certain to develop and change. Reading it from beginning to end, provides a view of what was happening in different localities, different cultures and in environments which changed at different rates and in different ways.

To mention one example. The Middle Eastern package of cereals , sheep and goats spread into Europe and South Asia apparently before it spread into the closer Nile Valley, where farming activity remained no more than supplemental to fishing, hunting & gathering. Genetic evidence suggests separate and early domestication of cattle in the Near East and in Africa. The wettest period in the eastern Sahara was around 9,000 years ago, with hunter gatherers living around lakes. which are now dry.Think scenes from that wonderful film, “The English Patient”. Domestication of wild cattle would have provided “storage on the foot”, milk and blood, with cattle only killed in dry periods of stress. Holocene fluctuations between wet and dry years may thus have been particularly favourable to domestication. Eventually. by 6,000 years ago aridity forced the former lake dwellers to abandon these sites , possibly moving with their cattle to the Nile valley

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