Monday, December 28, 2015

After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC

After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BCAfter the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC by Steven Mithen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Years ago, as an undergraduate at BYU, I was a teaching assistant to Dr. Dale Berge for a semester. Much of my time was spent boiling down textbooks into study notes for students, like an alchemist trying to extract gold from lead. It was a lot like real work. For the life of me, I can't recall the names of the textbooks (that may be a subconsious effort to forget the difficulty of the work), but they were broad world surveys of archaeology that were state-of-the-art at the time (the mid-'90s). I pored over thousands of pages, taking notes and distilling the information down into outline form for an upcoming survey class that Dr. Berge was teaching. To say I learned a lot is an understatement - I was only an anthropology minor, so I didn't have the breadth of knowledge that some of the other T.A.s had. But I knew more than the students in the classes for whom I was preparing the study outlines, so there was that, I suppose.

Previous to that time, I had read Alexander Marshack's outstanding The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginning of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation, which covers a time frame that mostly preceded those covered in Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC, though there may be some overlap. Come to think of it, my reading of Marshack's book probably led me to want to minor in Anthropology. That book had a powerful effect on me, thrusting me back into prehistory, while fostering in me an appreciation for the human subjects of all this cool, brain-tickling research.

During the winter break following my T.A. stint with Dr. Berge, I read Marija Gimbutas' Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization, which covers a time period primarily after that covered by Mithen.

So when I first heard of this book, I thought it might be a good survey for filling in those "gap years" between the years covered by Marshack and Gimbutas.

Thankfully, I was right. This is an excellent survey, with a couple of weaknesses. Let me tell you why.

First of all, scope. Mithen does an outstanding job of covering the large-scale geological and atmospheric changes that took place over this rather dynamic, often turbulent, time in the Earth's history. After a long ice age, the weather warmed for a time, then dipped back into a short, but intense, ice age, then gradually warmed up again, this time with further reaching, more long-lasting effects that we see even to this day.

But Mithen isn't content with just painting a large-scale canvas. In order to bring us back down to human scale, he employs two characters with the same name: John Lubbock. The first John Lubbock was a Victorian archaeologist who brought some needed scientific rigor to the archaeological field. The second John Lubbock is a fictional character from our era who travels back in time to observe conditions and, more importantly, to observe the everyday doings of everyday people in the many different societies he visits. Their views are often contrasted to show the advances that archaeologists have made since the early days of archaeology as a science. Often, he does so step by step, showing the progression that has been made over time with new discoveries.

Along the way, as Mithen goes from era to era (from 20,000 to 5000 BC) and continent to continent (covering everything except Antarctica, much to my relief), he shows the "how" of archaeology and much of why certain methods were used, how some earlier (Victorian) assumptions cast a false light on the past, and who were the key figures in gaining said insights.

Sometimes, the simple jettisoning of preconceived notions of what one thinks they ought to find gives a clearer picture of what actually happened. This is the case with the discoveries at Oleneostrovski Mogilnik (Deer Island), where initial data, collected by Soviet archaeologists, was interpreted through the filter of (incorrect) Marxist ideas of prehistoric social structure. Later, when the same data was reinterpreted, a completely different picture of the ancient activities at that site emerged. At other times, the old notion of "the simplest explanation must be the best explanation" had to be abandoned, as happened at Creswell Crags, where earlier archaeologists had taken it for granted that remains found at the same stratum must have been collected there at the same time. Erosion hadn't figured into their equation. As later digs revealed, a single layer of sediment does not necessarily contain items of a single provenance.

Mithen excels at exposing the reader to a number of different archaeological methodologies. In 45 pages, he covers the basic science behind, and provides examples of the use of archeo-zoology, historical genetics, and historical linguistics in reconstructing the past. His presentation of these and many other methods of delving into prehistory are thorough, catching the subtleties of each, without dragging the reader down with too much detail.

The big picture never escapes Mithen, and he does well to present several sides of some controversial issues. For instance, on the question of the disappearance of megafauna such as the mastadon from North America, and whether the cause of their extinction was disease or over-hunting, his answer is . . . neither . . . and both. Mithen argues that the climactic change that occured with the warming of the Earth after the last ice age forced such animals into tight niches that could not sustain them, making them easy prey for hunters and particularly susceptible to disease. He cites several different pieces of evidence for this, not least of which is the very limited use of such animals in ancient North Americans' diets, as evidenced by the multitude of rabbit and fowl bones that show cut marks from butchering, versus the very small number of such bones coming from megafauna. Yes, there is evidence that the use of the clovis point might have been necessary to take down bigger game (though some think that the clovis point was all for show and trade, and not for use as a real weapon) and there is evidence for disease and famine (signs of starvation in megafaunal bones), but his argument, that the changes in habitat precipitated megafaunal populations, allowing them to be in a position to be pushed "over the edge," seems convincing.

So this is the best book on prehistory ever, right? Not so fast. We wouldn't be following Mithen's lead if we just bought this hook, line, and sinker, now would we? After all, Mithen makes it obvious that his "newer" John Lubbock sections are fictional, though they derive from suppositions arising out of the archaeological record. But what if the suppositions are wrong, or at least suspicious?

As an example, Mithen gives a fictional account of John Lubbock's visit to Mesopotamia, particularly the site at Zawi Chemi Shanidar, some time between 11,000 and 9000 BC. Here Lubbock witnesses the ritualized killing of baby goats by people dressed up in costumes that were partially constructed from vulture and eagle wings. It's great fiction: the costumed participants circle a campfire where the goats have been gathered to the rhythmic beating of a skin drum. The goats shiver with fear, then, at the climax of the ritual, the "vultures and eagles" swoop down and wring the goat's next, falling all about, spent from the orgiastic energy of the ritual.

Except it didn't happen. "Maybe it did," you say. I say "prove it".

Mithen's "proof" is that several vulture and eagle wings were buried along with several young goat skulls near a fire. But who's to say that the birds of prey weren't eaten and the dinner guests just didn't like wings? Perhaps the wings were removed for other reasons, as trophies, like a deer head in a man-cave today. And what of the goats? They found skulls, but no clear evidence that they were strangled. That's pure supposition. It's fiction. It makes a great story. But it's just that: a story that Mithen made up. Even he admits, several times throughout the book, that when archaeologists can't find a good reason for some of the strangeness they uncover, the default argument is that the weird assemblages are a result of ritual. It's easy to cite modern instances where religious ritual might have been assumed from the leftover trash and detritus of some very non-religious, non-ritualistic activities. Sometimes, these sorts of things are even faked. Such a thing happened not two miles from where I live.

But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Mithen's After the Ice is as good as it gets, so far as archaeological writing is concerned. If you need evidence of that, just look up a few of the books he references - b-o-r-i-n-g. And his science, for the most part, is sound. And if you, like me, had not read a survey of archaeological discoveries for over twenty years, I invite you to delve into Mithen's book. Because the further we move into the future, the more we know about the past.

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