There are many “M” words to describe this work. Here are a few that I find particularly appropriate; Magnificent, Marvellous, Monumental.
Steven Mithen has created a masterpiece, to use a fourth. His history has a huge scope (and consequently it’s a big work, but it never reads like a cumbersome book, though it often feels like it while commuting around London). Covering the period from 20,000 BC a “time of global economic equality where everyone lived as hunter-gathers in a world of extensive ice-sheets, tundra and desert” to a period where many people lived as farmers, growing sometimes wheat and barley, but just as often rice or other foodstuffs. At the end of the period, not only had farming arrived, but the domestication of animals, trade and permanent towns and villages. What had also arrived of course, was the beginnings of inequality - the next thousands of years of human society would be dominated by class divisions.
But this is beyond the scope of the work. What Mithen does, is to take the reader on an odyssey through different parts of the world – the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa to show the similarities and the differences of the people who first lived there. His method for doing this, I have seen described in other reviews as “Sci-Fi” like. But this isn’t fair. He transplants a modern traveller into the past, a traveller who can interact with the physical world, yet remains unseen by the people he is sharing time and geography with. This traveller visits the different campsites, caves and villages that have since been found, picks up their tools, helps gather berries and hunt with Polar Bear or Antelope and describes what archaeologists can best imagine life was like.
At times this is tremendously fascinating. Time and again I found myself thinking – “we can’t possibly know that” about some ancient activity, only to find on the next page, Mithen explaining how we do actually know quite a bit about 10,000 year old sandals from a cave in Arizona, or how much archaeologists have found out about the precise methods for making an spear head.
Occasionally though the approach annoyed me – not least because Mithen is unwilling to let his imagination run riot too much, so we often get descriptions of our traveller leaving before finding out exactly how something happens. It seems a strange thing to do – put a traveller back in time to describe the surroundings that we know about, but remove him when we get close to describing something we don’t know about. Such are the perils of the use of time-travel in a serious work of archaeology I suppose!
Nevertheless, I recommend this book unreservedly to anyone with an interest in the far past. You will be surprised to find out exactly how much we do know, and certainly the next time you see a collection of flint knives or spearheads in a dusty cabinet in some musty museum, you’ll be able to imagine a little bit more about the complex people who made them.
Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals
Mithen - To the Islands