prehistory

Book review – Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations

When a history book leaves you reeling, you know that it has done its job properly. Climate Change and the Health of Nations is a grand synthesis of environmental history, charting the fate of civilizations and the links between climatic changes and the health of people. It is also a book that almost wasn’t.

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Book review – The Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art

Given that dinosaurs are no longer around, everything you think you know about what they look like comes from illustrations, models, movies, and merchandise. But how much of this is actually accurate, and how much of it is rather geared towards appealing to our sensibilities? Mark Witton is a man with a mission: to elevate the genre of palaeoartistry to one depicting scientifically accurate renditions, based on informed speculation and careful study of fossils and anatomy. Rather than a book that shows you how to draw a dinosaur, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is a fantastically useful primer for both aficionados and budding artists into what actually can and should go into making good palaeoart.

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Book review – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

History books tend to portray the transition of humans as hunter-gatherers to farmers – and with it the rise of cities, states and what we think of as civilization at large – as one of progress and improvement. But with Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott challenges this narrative. That our switch to an existence as sedentary farmers impacted our health is something I was familiar with from palaeopathological findings, see for example Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins or Hassett’s Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. But Scott tackles this subject from many angles, summarising accumulating archaeological and historical evidence to provide a fine counter-narrative.

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Book review – Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

You may have missed it, but archaeology is undergoing a silent revolution. The story of our deep history used to be based on skeletal remains, linguistics, and the analysis of objects and tools our ancestors left behind, but since about three years archaeologists have a new tool in their arsenal. The analysis of DNA from old bones, or ancient DNA. David Reich has been at the forefront of developing this technique and argues that it is rewriting most of what we thought we knew about the last 350,000 years or so of human history. Brace yourself, things are about to get complicated…

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Book review – The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

Given that I predominantly review books on biology, you may wonder why a book on the history of economic inequality would be reviewed here. All I can say in my defence is that this biologist is nothing if not inquisitive.

Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler is a global deep history of inequality. Having taken a long, hard look at a huge range of historical evidence, Scheidel contends that only extreme violence and catastrophe have historically been able to bring more economic equality into the world.

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Book review – Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization

Brian Fagan is a celebrated archaeologist and author who has written many books on the topic of environmental history. Several of these sit on my shelves, though I admit this is the first book by his hand that I have read. With Fishing, Fagan presents a deep history of fishing from the time of our human ancestors up to the present day, highlighting its overlooked role in the history of human civilization. His story spans the globe and pieces together a fragmented and complicated puzzle.

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Book review – Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and the Origins of Religion

As mentioned previously in my review of Barbara King’s Evolving God, religion is a pervasive phenomenon, and many scholars have put forward explanations how, when, and why it arose. The arguments King put forth did not convince me that religion is anything more than a by-product of our evolution. Apparently, so did Darwin. Though believers often like to point out Darwin was a Christian too, he struggled to reconcile the two and ultimately lost his faith. American psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey gracefully acknowledges this intellectual heritage and here updates this idea, putting forth the convincing argument that religion arose as a by-product of brain evolution.

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Book review – The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional

With his new book, The Creative Spark, Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and anthropologist currently at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, boldly puts forth the idea that what makes humans special is creativity. The ability of humans to switch back and forth between considering what is, and dreaming of what might be, and to then put these thoughts into actions (often collaboratively), has brought us a very long way from our primate origins to the tool-wielding, world-shaping force of nature of today. Along the way, Fuentes wants to do away with some of the dominant narratives regarding human evolution today, or rather, he thinks most of them oversimplify things and lead to distortions in our thinking. Instead, he presents a new synthesis that places creativity front and centre stage as being the most important mechanism that helped us overcome challenges.

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Book review – Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, 1830-1980

Palaeoart (not to be confused with Palaeolithic art, i.e. cave paintings) has a long and rich history of artworks that have helped us imagine the prehistoric past, from dinosaurs and mammals to cavemen. As an art genre though, it is largely ignored and looked down upon a bit, popular as these images are with children and the unwashed masses. This book aims to set the record straight and celebrate a carefully curated selection of palaeoart covering some 150 years, from the first works in the 1830s up to the 1980s. The book calls itself a two-fold time machine. Or, to paraphrase American artist Walton Ford in his preface, the book is a look back in time at what looking back in time looked like.

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Book review – The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions

Aaaah… the Apocalypse. Who doesn’t love Hollywood’s favourite movie trope? The spectacle, the drama, and the foreboding knowledge that – oh, spoilers – everyone dies at the end. There has been no shortage of good eschatological writing in recent years. Some books to come to mind are Erwin’s imaginatively titled Extinction, Wignall’s recent The Worst of Times, or Alvarez’s T. rex and the Crater of Doom – those pesky dinosaurs remain a popular subject. Do we really need another popular science book about mass extinctions? Given the continued developments in our understanding, and given that you get not one, not two, but all five for the price of one, I’d say yes. As far as I can tell the last comparable book was Hallam & Wignall’s 1997 Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, published by Oxford University Press, which was a more academic treatise. So, get your bucket of popcorn ready and roll on the Apocalypse!

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