After the Ice – Steve Mithen

That evening Lubbock sits with the hunters and their families in the mouth of a large cave that is to be found among limestone crags on the southern side of the lake. Small walls have been built in the cave mouth to keep out the wind that persists throughout their summertime occupation. There is a spectacular northward view across the water to the distant peaks, once snow-capped but now fading silhouettes as the day draws to a close.

An absolute epic of a book, although to be fair, the tagline gives it away: A Global Human History 20,000 to 5000 BC.

I have to admit this was a slog to read, an enjoyable slog to be honest, but still a slog. Mithen has an absolutely mind blowing amount of information from an incredible amount of sources, which he references and sometimes expands upon in the abundant foot notes. But don’t be put off, this is far from a dry thesis of history, he creates a fictional character called John Lubbock, based on a Victorian archaeologist, and sends him travelling around the worlds continents throughout the end of the Ice Age when humans migrated, hunted, and eventually farmed around the world.

Mithen draws the landscape, the flora and fauna, climate and changes to geography and how this affected the relatively small human population that strived to survive in changing, sometime inhospitable and other times completely unknown territories.
Breaking the book down continent by continent, the slog comes from rifling back to the footnotes (which you don’t necessarily have to, but there is more information tucked in there and in fairness to Mithen, he’s taken the time to extract and put them in, if you’re interested enough to read the book, you may as well read it all) but he paints such interesting pictures you can at times see the landscape before you, and you can’t help but feel what it would be like to be his John Lubbock, to travel back to this practically unblemished land, to know you could travel kilometre’s from where you were born and end up somewhere that no human had been before, or had been for thousands of years.

About half way through I wondered if reading this front to back was the right way to go. I had previously dipped in to the America’s section to look at the history of central and south america, but the sections on each continent are obviously fairly large, so you would need to read a section at a time and in the end I just waded through it.

There were a lot of phrases I had no idea about, ‘a sexually dimorphic size differentiation’ anyone? And the same could be said of the considerable list of references and archaeologists mentioned throughout the book, but so they should be, they have done some incredible work to bring the past to life, to help us understand, enjoy and even learn. Which is what I did here.

The parts containing Lubbock keep the book far from dry and certainly fire the imagination, despite what seem harsh, even horrific conditions compared to today, I would love to even spend a day somewhere and sometime where Lubbock travelled, to wake up and look out of a cave, across uninhabited landscapes populated by flora and fauna and to watch how our ancestors lived by their hard earned knowledge and experience, and that made this beast of a book well worth the read.

As this species was absent from the bone collections of Holocene date, it seems likely to have become extinct when global warming altered the landscape, providing the type of moist grass that favours eland, impala and gazelle. When writing in 1997, six years after announcing his discovery of a new species in the journal Nature, Marean thought it was still ‘premature’ to give this small extinct antelope a species name; perhaps it was, but 20,000 years does seem an extraordinarily long time to wait.


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