Customer Reviews: After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC
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on November 14, 2005
Steven Mithen's book After the Ice, is really one of the most readable books on the topic of Mesolithic and Neolithic life I've ever read. Generally speaking I don't care much for the narrative approach to an historic or prehistoric topic. Putting words into characters' mouths, let alone inventing the characters themselves, smacks too much of historical romance fiction for my taste. Here, however, the author has based his narratives on archaeology, limiting his visions of the time to what can be confirmed by archaeology, paleobotany, zoo-archaeology, earth history, sedimentology and paleoclimatology. He carefully links the physical evidence to what his imaginary modern day time-traveler John Lubbock, can see.

Mithren's fictional character is based upon an historical gentleman scientist, John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, a Victorian author interested in the stone age. At that time the existance of the prehistoric period had only just been discovered. Prior to that time--and Darwin--the possibility of such a past was inconceivable. Lubbock--the real man--wrote a very intelligent summary, entitled Prehistoric Times, of what had been discovered by the adventurers and archaeologists of his day. It is to this compendium of what was known of post-glacial lifeways that the imaginary John Lubbock referred during his journey through time. By this means, Professor Mithren adds an historical component to the overall story by comparing what was know by the Victorians to what is known today about many of the stone age sites throughout the world. He not only highlights the gain in information over the recent 150 years, but the methods through which it was gained. He also incidentally illustrates that at least some of the more thoughtful scientists of the Victorian era were considerably less racist and more objective in their evaluations of hunter-gatherer and prehistoric people as some of the explorers whose personal travelogues were used to compile the information.

While some readers have a thorough knowledge of early stone age culture and find artifacts of immense interest in and of themselves, most of us don't. Many professional books and journal articles on post-glacial culture are mere catalogues of stone made tools and weapons, discussions of flinting technique, and photos or drawings of the site, it's location, and the articles discovered there. These dry descriptive works frequently leave the non-professional a little glazed. Most of us just want a visual image of life during the time. Professor Mithen's book is therefore a marvelous source book for both types of reader. For those with a more serious interest, it describes the archaeological sites of several different areas throughout the world, the various excavators of these sites and their personal credentials--and occasionally their weaknesses-- the physical remains discovered, the first interpretations of them and often later interpretations based on further excavation and/or the introduction of newer methods of evaluation of older data. For the rest of us, John Lubbock's trek across the globe in pursuit of knowledge is more rewarding.

The physical remains of cultures are placed into a world setting defined by information drawn from scientific studies on the topic of climate, vegetation and faunal changes done by scientists in disciplines other than archaeology. The book therefore pulls together a vast amount of research in order to present a very realistic portrait of life between 20,000 and 5,000 B.C., material that would require the average person years to get through even without the effort given to interpretation. For those with an interest in the "dry details" however, the book has an extensive set of notes on the topic of specific sites, artifacts and interpretive methods at the back of the volume, and a very lengthy bibliography for anyone who wants more specific information from the original source. This is a plus for ANYONE DOING A PAPER on a particular subject, as it helps provide a starting point in the professional literature on the topic, while for the truely uninitiated, it provides a more picturesque glimpse of what's "out there" to assist in selecting a topic to follow up for a paper, often the most difficult part of the procedure.

Uniquely, Professor Mithren also provides alternative interpretations of the periods where there are more than one, having his Lubbock character observe the life of the time according to first one authority and than another. When there is very little information on human activity in the area, the Lubbock character sees just fleeting glimses of people or perhaps no one at all. This lends a unique insight into the sometimes frustrating process of archaeology. The author also tells the reader what his own opinion of conflicting or limited information is, and his private analysis is often very insightful. In any case the reader comes away with a definite sense of having "been there."

Lubbock travels from 20,000 to 5000 BC on each of the continents on which human populations are known to have existed and visits specific occupation sites in each area. Often he sits in one place to view changes in the human settlement and cultural patterns through time, giving the reader a "fast forward" sort of view of history. In general I found that much of life during the 15,000 years covered could be distilled down to a simple story of hunter gatherer life ways developing into settled ones, followed by a collapse brought on by climatic change and a return to gathering until climate again favored settled existence. The overview certainly reveals how chancy human existance has been. It also reveals how small choices over time in response to individual challenges have shaped the direction of human history as it has occurred. It is much a case, as the late Steven Jay Gould pointed out, where replaying events might easily have lead to a different world rather than to the one we know today.

By the last quarter of the book, I was beginning to feel the weight of repetition. The people lived similar lives in similar environments, often using similar techniques to harvest the natural products in their environment, floral and faunal. The final chapter was worth the read, however, as it brought the issues of our own world's vulnerability to the fore. While settled hunter-gatherers had the option of returning to a more nomadic lifestyle, most of the modern world simply is not able to do so. While small numbers of people--100 or 200 in a area, even a 1000--may well have suffered extinction by massive changes in environment particularly along the coast, now the numbers at risk are in the millions. The author's pessimistic view of society's ability to respond to a major climatic challenge is disturbing and certainly worth thinking about.

A very timely book on climate and its effects on the human condition.
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Various methods are being applied to popularise what science has discovered about Nature, particularly our nature. Paleontologist Steven Mithen utilises a favourite technique of SciFi - time travel - to explain how our ancestors once lived. Although this might be a risky method in the hands of someone less talented, Mithen carries it well as he takes us on a global journey. From Western, Southern and Eastern Asia, through Africa, Europe and the Americas and Australia, he introduces us to the daily activities of those people who moved across the planet as the glaciers retreated. While that sounds highly speculative, Mithen's method is a way of introducing us to the numerous dig sites prehistoric scholars have found and analysed. The evidence for his depictions is laid out and the interpretations arising from the data is carefully presented.

Mithen isn't our guide in this tour. He assigns that task to a figure named for a contemporary of Charles Darwin. "Victorian John Lubbock", as Mithen dubs him, wrote one of the earliest paleoanthropological works, "Prehistoric Times" - an attempt to describe what our ancestors were like. Lubbock coined the terms "Palaeolithic" and "Neolithic" to give order to a chaotic scene. In this account, the Time Traveller refers to his namesake's publication for comparison of what has been revealed today by Mithen's digging colleagues. What did your ancestors do during the day? What challenges did they face and how did they overcome them? Time Traveller Lubbock tries to impart these questions and their answers with distant observation and active participation alike. The method, when the releaved evidence is explained, proves an excellent balance. You are there at the time of events and alongside the archaeologists as they sift through artefacts thousands of years old.

Human prehistory is probably science's most contentious field. For years, the story of how and when the Western Hemisphere was populated has been a simmering issue. Mithen, although giving passing attention to the "Clovis debate" and other questions relating to the human invasion of the America's, gently disentangles himself from the specifics. Instead, he focusses on how the environment affected the way in which societies formed here. This isn't just an evasion tactic. Mithen is more concerned with how humanity solved various problems facing them as they settled in uncontested lands. What adds to our interest is the comparison of such elements as the domesticating grains and animals here with that of Western Asian populations. Mithen meticulously describes how the genetic patterns of grains and animals alike were changed by human intervention.

It's easy to admit to a sense of wonder at reading this book. The scope is vast, fifteen thousand years of time and the entire globe. That one author could accomplish this feat is at least admirable, if not astonishing. Yet, Mithen's own sense of awe is clearly evident, if not infectious. He's not a classroom-bound academic and some of his own site visits are incorporated into the narrative. His passion for the science is clear and present - something that should prompt younger readers to emulate. The recent dates given for dig sites plainly indicate that real work remains to be done. And speed is critical - the number of sites discovered and worked under the threat of dam, highway and shopping mall building is too depressing to recount here. If you, or anyone you know is looking for a career in science, buy this book, read it and encourage a career in human prehistory. Mithen shows how rewarding it can be. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on November 15, 2004
I found this book in the University of Glasgow library for a paper I was writing on the complexity of early ceramic cultures (Jomon and Eastern Sahara). At first glance, it looked intriguing. At a closer look, it was simply stunning. Simple, yet elegant narrative pulls you into archaeological reference. All his facts are backed up in a smart, organized way - and better yet, are not suggested to be the ONLY thing to think.

If any book could so artfully show middle-range theory and analogy in an almost novel-like read, it is this one. Mithen has blown me away.
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on April 2, 2007
Steven Mithen started off with a good idea: write a book summarizing everything we know about human prehistory in the period from 20,000 BCE to 5,000 BCE. He's certainly the guy to write this book; his previous works have been lucid and highly readable. But he seems to have lost his way.

Dr. Mithen's plan is easily divined after reading just a few chapters. He gathered together all the field reports of all the major digs and selected the most important ones -- perhaps a hundred or so. For each dig, he listed exactly what was discovered. He also prepared a few paragraphs describing the scholars who made the discoveries. But this material lacked human presence. It was cold and technical; he needed something to bring it to life, something that would animate the bones and stones with real people living real lives. So he invented a fictional device in the form of John Lubbock, a modern-day avatar of a Victorian archaeologist. And that's where Dr. Mithen goes off the rails.

The avatar-Lubbock wanders all over the earth during the period under discussion. He encounters each of the sites while it was actually being used. Through Lubbock's eyes, we see the people working, eating, dancing, building their homes, and burying their dead. The concept is sound and, properly executed, it could have achieved its goal of bringing to life our ancient forbears.

Unfortunately, Dr. Mithen muffs the execution of his concept. He can't decide whether the avatar John Lubbock is an unseen ghost witnessing events or an active participant in those events. Most of the time he opts for the former, but occasionally he has John Lubbock pitch in to help the ancients in their daily tasks. He dances and sings with them, eats their food, and even steals their canoe on one occasion. So is he there or isn't he? One never knows. John Lubbock seems capable of hiking vast distances without needing food, but complains when the mosquitos bite too much. He shifts backwards and forwards in time willy-nilly. And sometimes he just watches it go by: "It was not until 9600 BC that the fog had lifted sufficiently for Lubbock to think it worthwhile to leave the cave." What patience Mr. Lubbock must have to wait decades for the fog to lift!

I'm no stickler for realism when fiction is afoot. It doesn't bother me when science fiction characters perform patently impossible deeds, or the time line in a story doesn't quite add up. Hey, fiction isn't simulation, and I'm willing to give an author some leeway if it's necessary to make dramatic sense. But Dr. Mithen's fictional device is a huge distraction, like a child demanding attention while I'm trying to watch a movie.

My second criticism of the book is that it's too long. There are too many sites listed, and they're too similar. I have developed a nervous tic whenever I encounter the word 'scatter', so overused it is. This book would have left readers hungering for more at half its length. Instead, I left the book unfinished; I couldn't bear to read another description of a scatter of stone flakes found amid a circle of postholes with a few graves under the floors and little in the way of grave goods to indicate social hierarchy among the inhabitants.

I'm not about to turn my back on Steven Mithen -- I have greatly enjoyed his other books. Let's just chalk this one up as one of his weaker performances.
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on February 17, 2005
This books succeeds on three fronts. First it provides a detailed account of what is known (and importantly HOW it is known) about human prehistory 20 - 5Kyrs ago, second it provides an interesting accound of how our ideas of prehistory have changed during the last century and finally it gives an interesting glimpse into the world of modern archeology (and a miriad of scientific disputes within the field).

Even if I was not interested in the subject matter, I would still find it interesting from a science history perspective. Of course the subject matter is fascinating (otherwise I would not have bought it). Its a book that covers many different "stories". Among my favorites are the influence of the Younger Dryas on the emergence of settlements in the Middle East, and (at last! ) a plausible explanation for the megafaunal extinctions in N.America.

One thing I especially like is that the author sticks to the facts, and tries to keep his own opinions from dominating the discussion. This way I can draw my own conclusions.

The author discusses one region at a time, and as a consequence the reader finds himself jumping back and forth in time, which can be confusing. Here, a detailed graph with timeline of main "events" covered would have been a real bonus.

This is one of those books that once read will remain close at hand for use as a reference. It is a book you can learn from. Reading it will leave you in awe that our ancestors managed to survive and (often) prosper despite what to me seems incredible hardship. It also left me with a strong impression of what an amazing species we all belong to.
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You have to give credit to a book that promises in its title to cover 15, 000 years and to do so globally and then delivers on its promise. After the Ice does just that. Skipping from continent to continent, archaeological site to archaeological site, time period to time period, Mithen presents the reader with an eminently readable, understandable overview of human prehistory from the end of the last great ice age to just before the start of the large civilizations.
Mithen offers as a guide a fictional guide named after John Lubbock, an English scientist and author of a 19th century history of the Paleolithic/Neolithic eras (terms he coined himself). This version of Lubbock joins in with his human ancestors as they build shelters, hunt, harvest, etc. While this may seem a bit too gimmicky, it mostly works, only falling into the overly cute on rare occasion. Through Lubbock we get a much more full sense of life in those times, "sense" in the literal meaning of the word as well as we see interior decorations, smell human refuse, taste pre-domesticated grains, and so on. Mithen is always aboveboard on what is speculation and what is not as he moves from these narrative descriptions to the more academic "fact-based" descriptions of the excavations that were their sources.
Mithen does an excellent job of conveying what the sites reveal in sharp yet concise details, as well as what it's like to actually work such a site. This is no dry recitation of numbers. From a few specific digs he generalizes outward to larger discussion of human development at the time. And though the book is sectioned by continent and within those sections by time period, he is always careful to place new discussions in the context of what the reader has already read, so the details rather than simply piling up mesh neatly into a more comprehensive whole. With his use of Lubbock, he's also able to show us how our views toward prehistory have changed in the past hundred plus years and why.
The book is quite up to date, discussing finds from the 90's as well as the use of the most modern technology, so one is never left with the nagging feeling (as happens sometimes with other science popularizations) of "yeah, but is this still true based on what they've found lately?"
Mithen also covers the more controversial debates fairly, presenting all views and only sometimes taking sides, and even in those cases doing so modestly.
It's hard to imagine a better job being done of this. The book moves along at a good pace, knows when to stop, meshes narrative and fact seamlessly, clearly and concisely explains the material, makes the topic and the means of discovering the topic not just interesting but exciting. Strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in the area.
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on July 15, 2005
In After the Ice, Steven Mithen gives us an exhaustive tour of the postglacial prehistoric world. He uses a fictional tour guide who travels like a ghost through time and over extensive geography to help us envision the numerous archaeological sites as they looked and felt when they were occupied by our Stone Age ancestors. I enjoyed these depictions and they did much to flesh out the old bones and give meaning to the artifacts described. They were also somewhat confusing because so much ground was covered. Much of what we passed through began to blend together.

It was both gratifying and frustrating that Mithen stayed so close to what is actually known, which is often very little. He rarely allowed himself to speculate, which resulted in considerable distance being kept from the people he was depicting. Prehistoric human beings were clearly just as complex as we are.

We know little about their religious beliefs, which heavily motivated them. In Catalhoyuk, Mithen's "ghost" was confronted with striking plastered bull skulls, breathtaking murals and plaster breasts whose nipples are the beaks of vultures. Faced with the ultimate symbol of the Life/Death dichotomy, the frightened modern "ghost" fled. That was clearly not reflective of the reactions of the ancient residents.

None-the-less, this book proves that a tour of numerous archaeological sites can be the opposite of dull and dry. Instead, it is relatively easy and fun to read, especially if you like to be able to picture the world and human beings as they constantly change. Mithen warns us that we have not finished facing change. He points out that we humans are now forcing a new global climate change. The consequences of this may be just as telling as what occurred when those ancient glaciers melted.
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on November 10, 2011
Within two chapters I sadly realized that I would not finish this book. The John Lubbock character is a distraction and unnecessary. Inserting this fictional being sporadically into the text was extremely annoying. The hardback will go to the local library free book shelves. It is not the subject matter (anthropology was my undergraduate major), it is the style that is the problem. Whatever other stylistic issues may exist, I could not tolerate this useless, irritating intrusion.
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on May 6, 2006
I could have done without the literary use of a "ghost explorer" in the form of Johy Lubbock, the future incarnation of a 19th century history researcher, but this book is definitely recommended. It explores the lives of humans all over the globe during the period following the last ice age.

The chapter format is pretty rigid in terms of what type of information is introduced to the reader, and when, but this doesn't detract from the depth of data provided. I did wish that more conjectures were made regarding the physical characteristics of the pre-historic people brought to life in the book. I wanted to get a sense of being able to look at members of each hunter-gatherer or farming community to form a picture in my mind.

Although there is a definite lack of detail about the people themselves, the descriptions of the environment that they lived in are excellent.

This is a thought-provoking work, and with a bit more detail would have made it to 5 stars.
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This is an exceptionally well written, approachable, and informative book on archeology. It covers the period after the last ice age, especially from 12,000-15,000 years ago, which was a critical time in the development of a more settled way of life and particularly of agriculture. The author's main thesis is that by 10,000 years ago these new practices were already in place, and that the early great empires and states that formed later such as Egypt and Sumeria really didn't add anything revolutionary in terms of mankind's basic mode of living. All in all an exceptional work of scholarship, as well as popular science writing, and one of the most enjoyable and accessible I've read in the field in recent years. It recalls the great volume, Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, by Jacquetta Hawkes and Sir Leonard Wooley of the 1960s, which covered the same period, but which is now outdated. This book helped me get up to date on current developments.
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