‘Another week rolls around’, I say to our newsagent as I hand over the strip of Guardian subscription vouchers.  In the pause that follows I suspect we’re both doing a fast rewind through memories of the past seven days.

Weeks, years, even decades –  we can manage those.  They’re palpable slices of time.  But what of thousands of years, those great slabs of time the millennia?  Or tens of thousands of years?  Recently a friend passed a book on to me – After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 – 5,000 BC by Steven Mithenthat fearlessly faces up to the task of peering into the great crevasse of time.  It’s a fat paperback of over 600 pages that, in the words of the jacket blurb, ‘tells the story of the human race during one of the most momentous periods of change the earth has ever seen’. Reading it took up a sizeable chunk of November and early December, but it was time well spent.

The starting point Mithen has chosen for his story is significant in human history: around 22,000 years was the peak of the last Ice Age and over the next ten millennia a period of global warming meant that the ice sheets receded, giving way to habitable woodlands, grassy plains and fertile river valleys that afforded humankind the opportunity to begin to build permanent settlements.

Thus began the slow shift from a hunter-gatherer way of life to the beginnings of agriculture – the domestication of animals, the planting and cultivation of crops – alongside the emergence of art and crafts like pottery, and the appearance of priestly elites. So Mithen has chosen to begin at the point from which the rise to modern urban civilization can be traced.

His end point of 7000 years ago marks the beginning of the age of metal working – copper and bronze were being experimented with, while developments in agriculture meant that the life of the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer was being superseded by a fixed farm and crafting existence. This is the journey – from peripatetic hunter to settled village farmer – that Mithen explores.

Books of this nature either simplify to the point of banality or are swamped in bewildering and impenetrable details of archaeological sites.  Mithen avoids both these pitfalls, covering a massive amount of ground in a jargon free and engrossing text. If you want to explore the latest scholarly advances, this book will provide you with a launch pad; if you just want a highly readable,  informative and stimulating account of the transformation of human circumstances in this period, Mithen succeeds in spades.

One of the ways that Mithen manages to bring his subject to life is by having an imaginary time traveller who treks on foot through the lost landscapes of these millennia, spending time as an invisible watcher observing work, leisure and rituals in the communities that have left their traces at sites which archaeologists now explore. By this technique, which allows us to see the past through human eyes really brings the archaeological locations to vivid life.

Mithen’s time traveller is John Lubbock, namesake of the Victorian baronet and amateur historian whose  Prehistoric Times was a standard archaeology textbook in the late 19th century: it was the book which introduced terms such as Palaeolithic and Neolithic. (Older readers may remember Eric Lubbock, who achieved a dramatic by-election victory for the Liberal Party at Orpington in 1962 – he is John Lubbock’s grandson.)

Time traveller Lubbock carries with him a copy of Prehistoric Times, a clever device by Mithen which makes it possible for him to discuss how much our knowledge of the past has changed in the last century and a half, along with the Victorian attitude, expressed in Lubbock’s pages, that non-white people and hunter-gatherers were primitive savages with child-like minds. In his introduction, Mithen states:

Victorian John Lubbock’s insights were matched by an appalling ignorance. He knew little about the date and duration of the Stone Age; his evidence for ancient lifestyles and environments was scant; he had never heard of Lascaux, prehistoric Jericho and innumerable other sites that are known today as milestones of the human past.

Mithen, Professor of Early Prehistory at the University of Reading, justifies his use of the time traveller technique like this:

I make use of John Lubbock to ensure that this history is about people’s lives rather than just the objects that archaeologists find. My own eyes cannot escape the present. I am unable to see beyond the discarded stone tools and food debris, the ruins of empty houses and the fireplaces that are cold to the touch. Although excavations provide doors to other cultures, such doors can only be forced ajar and never passed through. I can, however, use my imagination to squeeze John Lubbock through the gaps so that he can see what is denied to my own eyes, and become what the travel writer Paul Theroux has described as a ‘stranger in a strange land’.

So we are able to accompany Lubbock as he walks into a clearing and sees wood smoke rising from a hunters’ camp as it bustles with activity, helps fashion tools or joins a hunting party. At no point does Mithen fall into the trap of presenting a speculative, semi-fictionalised picture; Lubbock’s descriptions are meticulously grounded in the evidence unearthed by archaeologists in the excavations which Mithen carefully describes in each chapter.  The time traveller device is totally successful, even if it feels slightly weird at times.  While Lubbock appears to be human and corporeal – he eats and he takes part in helping the people of the period – he can’t be seen, can trek on foot for tens of thousands of miles across empty and difficult terrain, and at one point stands in one place for 1,000 years.

As Richard Fortey wryly observed in his review of Mithen’s book for the LRB

Archaeology is rubbish. The evidence for the transformation of humans from just another species to masters and despoilers of all they see comes from what our ancestors threw away or built into the foundations of their new villages. The scientist who probes these piles of waste is rather like one of those sad souls who riffle through the trash bins of the rich and famous to discover the secrets of people they will never meet. The tiniest fragment can be crucial; the discovery of the domestication of cotton literally hung on a single thread. No bog is too fetid to dig, no material beneath contempt. There are even those who tease out the husks of seeds washed from the remains of ancient faeces so as to determine what our ancestors had for breakfast. Only deliberate burial … faithfully preserves a morsel of a whole culture.

I learned an enormous amount about the techniques that archaeologists use to extrapolate knowledge and  understanding from the detritus of the millennia, how archaeological theories have developed in the light of evidence from recent fieldwork, and how the latest chemical and analytical techniques, employing cutting-edge technology, have revealed the secrets in our ancestors’ rubbish.

Starr Carr deer antler

Antler headdress from Star Carr

Mithen brings to life sites across the globe that represent small steps forward in the human story. He begins in  western Asia and Europe, discussing sites such as Star Carr in North Yorkshire, a place he says as significant as the painted cave of Lascaux or the tomb of Tutankhamun, a lost world of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers of Europe. It is one of the earliest-known Mesolithic settlements in the whole of Europe (and, as Mithen explains, his own decision to become an archaeologist stems from an early visit).

I found Mithen’s account of the successive rise and fall of Jericho particularly fascinating.  People have continued to live in Jericho, a settlement established some time around 9600 BC, right up to the present day. The first settlement, a small village, was found by archaelogiusts who had to dig their way through the remains of the houses, storerooms and shrines built by successive generations, who used pottery and bronze and ultimately entered the annals of Old Testament history.  This is how Mithen describes time-traveller Lubbock’s first sight of the settlement in 9600 BC:

John Lubbock stands in the evening shadow of the Palestinian hills, looking towards a cluster of small round houses in the valley below. They have flat thatched roofs and are intermixed with brushwood shelters. The latter are not dissimilar to those he had seen at Ohalo at 20,000 BC, but the houses are completely new. Willows, poplars and fig trees surround the village, evidently fed by a local spring and growing luxuriantly in the new warm, wet world of the Holocene. Beyond, there are marshes that reach to the edge of Lake Lissan – known today as the Dead Sea. Many trees have been felled to provide building material and to create small fields for barley and wheat. Whether such crops are biologically domestic or wild seems quite unimportant, as the new world of farming has certainly arrived. John Lubbock looks upon Jericho, a village that marks a turning point in the history of western Asia, perhaps the history of the world.

Tell es Sultan Jericho

Tell es Sultan, Jericho

The remains of that first settlement at Jericho lie beneath the mounds of Tell es Sultan.  Mithen describes his first sight of ‘the oldest town in the world’: ‘It looked like an ancient quarry, even a bomb site.’  That’s because, of course archaeologists have been digging at the mound since the mid-19th century, searching for the walls destroyed by the trumpets of Joshua’s Israelites.  It wasn’t until the archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon began to dig here in the 1950s that the most ancient buildings – with floors of mud, not plaster, and rounded, not straight, walls were discovered.  Tell es Sultan is precisely, as Fortey put it in the London Review of Books, a mound of rubbish, the debris of 10,000 years of human history.

Tell es Sultan

Tell es Sultan, Jericho

Like Fortey, I was moved by Mithen’s account of an excavation, made in 1975 near the town of Vedbaek in Denmark, which revealed the body of a tiny child laid to rest in the embrace of a swan’s wing. Next to the skeleton was the child’s young mother, dead in childbirth, her remains decorated with snail-shell beads and pendants and her face dusted with red ochre, perhaps to make her seem alive. This is how Mithen describes the site, through the eyes of time-traveller John Lubbock as he approaches a narrow inlet:

Many small settlements are scattered around its shore; Lubbock chooses one to visit and finds it recently deserted – fireplaces are still smouldering and a tethered dog has just been fed.

Its people are gathered in a cemetery on a low knoll behind their cluster of brushwood huts. Squeezing between them, Lubbock watches a tiny baby boy being lowered into a grave next to his young mother. She looks no more than eighteen years of age; it had most probably been the first as well as the last child she carried. Lying on her back, she looks resplendent – her dress has ringlets of snail-shell beads and a host of pretty pendants. A robe, similarly decorated, has been folded to make a pillow across which her blond hair is splayed. Her checks burn brightly, having been dusted with red ochre; her pelvis has also been made red – perhaps a reminder of the blood that flowed.

The little blue body is laid beside her, not on the ground but in the ultimate soft embrace of a swan’s encircling wing. A large flint blade is placed on the body, just as it would have been had the baby boy grown up and died as a man. Lubbock watches as powdered red pigment is blown from a wooden bowl to float down upon the child’s dead body.

When excavated in 1975, this burial was simply designated as ‘Grave 8’ of the B0gebakken cemetery, located while a car park was being built. Sixteen other graves were excavated; almost all the bodies had been identically positioned – on their backs with feet close together and hands by their sides. The graves were in neat parallel rows. The swan’s wing within Grave 8 may have been much more than a comfortable resting place for the nearly-child. Among the nineteenth-century Saami people of northern Europe, swans and wildfowl were the messengers of the gods. Such birds could, after all, walk on the land, swim on the water and fly in the air – adept at moving between different worlds. Perhaps the Mesolithic people had similarly revered their swans and let one fly that poor child away to their afterworld where he could have the life denied to him on earth.

Vedbæk mother with child.

Vedbæk mother with her child laid to rest on a swan’s wing

Mithen and his doppelganger Lubbock traverse the world.  In the Americas, he explores the evidence for early human colonisation that heralded the age of the Clovis culture eleven thousand years ago. The Clovis tribes were hunters of such efficiency that they may have exterminated the mammoth, the mastodon and the giant sloth, and several dozen other species besides. Mithen takes us to Australia, showing how its early inhabitants were extraordinarily adaptable in the face of hostile climates and scant diets. He travels to eastern Asia, where the taming of wild rice gave the world its major food crop, and returns to Africa, from which the human species had originally emerged to begin its slow but insistent expansion across the globe.

As well as being a highly readable prehistory primer, After the Ice is instructive for another reason.  Throughout the text, and especially in an epilogue, Mithen makes a case for the importance of global warming being a determining factor in the fortunes of humans. During the 15,000 year period that is his concern, global temperatures rose dramatically (though not as fast as they are doing now), and many of the changes in human patterns of development revealed in the archaeology can be linked, he argues, to the environmental changes that were taking place.

Mithen’s key point is that we should not be so sanguine about the inevitability of continued human progress as were the Victorians, including the 19th century John Lubbock who, in Prehistoric Times, extolled the ‘blessings of civilisation’ over the life of a savage, one who was a slave to his own wants, his own passions’. Mithen does not dispute the progress wrought by scientific advances since Lubbock’s day.  But, he cautions:

When one sits upon a hilltop in southern England and looks across the devastated landscape that modern farming has delivered, one must be less sanguine than Victorian John Lubbock. At 12,500 BC southern England had been an ice-age tundra frequented by reindeer, snowy owl and Arctic hare; by 8o0o BC it was smothered in lush woodland within which red deer browsed and wild boar rooted on the forest floor. Even in 1950 it had been a richly textured landscape of woods and fields, of ponds, paths and pastures. But in 2003, there are vast expanses of southern England where hardly a tree or bush exists, from which wild animals and birds have been almost entirely expelled by the industry of modern farming. There are very few hills from which traffic below and aeroplanes above cannot be heard.

Its polluted air requires one to ponder the circularity of history. Farming and industry were products of a history brought about by global warming. Now they themselves are the cause of renewed global warming that has already had a sizeable impact upon the world and will condition the future history of humankind. Mass deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels have increased the level of greenhouse gases and planet earth is becoming hotter than nature intends. During the last few decades, glaciers on all continents have receded, snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has reduced dramatically, and the Antarctic ice shelf is on the verge of collapse.

Still, we press on, taking things one day at time, oblivious to the long term.  Perhaps that’s the limitation of being human: we can only think in measures of days, weeks or, at best years.  We’re an inventive, ambitious lot but, as songwriter Guy Clark, put it, we’re too busy just getting on with things:

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

See also

  • After the Ice: reviewed by John Rissetto in PaleoAnthropology, Journal of the Paleoanthropology Society
  • Archaeology is Rubbish: review of After the Ice by Richard Fortey (London Review of Books)

One thought on “After the Ice: the blessings of civilisation?

  1. The seeming inevitability of all this reminds me of the film ‘Melancholia’, where we just sit and accept our fate, or rather our children’s or grand-children’s fate, and fail to see our role in it all. Maybe that’s the purpose, we will suffer something catastrophic and the next generation or so will have the nous and the power to change course, learning from our mistakes. Adapt or die as they say.
    On another note, on your recommendation I bought Mr. Eggers book, ‘Zeitoun’ and am reading it with a ‘screenwriters’ eye (amateur), making notes at critical points as I go along. I imagine the rights have been snapped up as so far it has a cinematic scale on a personal level, which can be universally expressed. So thank you for that.

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