Fast forward through all humanity

A Brief History of the Human Race

May 14, 2004

A book with so bold a title is to be approached with caution. Can an account of humankind take less than 400 pages? And given that only 5 per cent of the time span of human existence is accompanied by the existence of written records, can the author cope competently with that 95 per cent of history that is in reality prehistory, and accessible to us only through the techniques of archaeology? And if he can, will the history of the world since classical times and the birth of the modern era be given a global scope and at the same time some underlying themes that offer at least a degree of coherence? Rather to this reviewer's surprise, he found the answers to these questions to be affirmative. Michael Cook has written a history of the world that is up-to-date, readable and informative, and that achieves an almost unprecedented balance between the 95 per cent prehistory and the 5 per cent written history.

The book gets off to a rather shaky start, however. In the preface, the first illustration is a very murky photograph of three small pyramidal objects of baked clay, captioned "Fig.1: Three objects from ancient Greece". To the archaeologist they are obviously loom weights, indicative of the skill in weaving of the ancient Greeks, as in many early civilisations, for instance of China or Peru. They are used here to illustrate Cook's assertion that "most of our history is dark matter, and what is not often seems too fragmentary and obscure to repay much attention". Not until page 357 does he concede an awareness of their function.

The illustrations, unlike the excellent maps, are of poor quality: thick inelegant line drawings and fuzzy photos, culminating in the execrable figure 8: "Potsherds of various dates from an early site in the Near East."

They exemplify what seems a rather equivocal attitude to the inferences to be drawn from material culture. Archaeology is described as "a somewhat dismal science"; Greek painted pottery is "a boon even for the most philistine archaeologist"; "the archaeology of preliterate peoples can never tell us what they actually believed", et cetera. So that, although the author claims "The account of human history given in this book is broadly materialist", it pays little attention to technological developments over the millennia (although offering a good account of agricultural origins).

Yet despite these observations, Cook's pessimism as to the informative potential of the material evidence does not prevent his giving a workmanlike account of world prehistory. A more serious criticism is that, notwithstanding his positive discussion of cultural diversity in the final chapter, his account of the emergence of civilisation is essentially a unilineal one, emphasising writing and kingship: "There was only one kind of history waiting to emerge from the coincidence of behaviourally modern humans and the Holocene."

Perhaps in consequence the remarkable diversity of world prehistory is somewhat underplayed. There is no mention of the impressive prehistoric megaliths of northwestern Europe, no recognition that copper metallurgy seems to have had an independent origin in Europe. More seriously, the failure of the Indus Valley civilisation, the first of the Indian subcontinent, to conform to his model for the emergence of civilisation, is not noted: "it is our bad luck that the written records left by this civilisation are so scanty." So that when he asks a key question at the beginning of chapter three: "Did humans make the only kind of history they could?" and essentially answers it in the affirmative, the archaeologist is left with an uneasy feeling. Does not the affirmative answer really respond to a different question: Have historians, undervaluing the material record, written the only kind of history they can?

This significant reservation need not be over-emphasised, however. Several early civilisations did broadly conform with his simplified "emergence" model. And in his well-structured book, after discussing prehistory in part one (the Palaeolithic, the Neolithic, and the emergence of civilisation), he moves on to the "smaller continents" (Australia, the Americas, Africa) in part two, before addressing the Eurasian landmass in part three. There the Mediterranean world is kept in its place and Eurocentrism successfully avoided - even if this reviewer, as a European prehistorian, cannot avoid a twinge of disappointment that European prehistory is effectively ignored.

The glories of Palaeolithic art are dismissed in the phrase: "Its record in the Upper Palaeolithic was quite as impressive as that of any other part of the world." So much for Lascaux or Altamira!

Part four of the book, dealing with more recent centuries, is perhaps the most enjoyable. The chapter on Islamic civilisation, where the author is an acknowledged specialist, is readable and offers many insights. His chapter on the European expansion deals informatively also with recipients of that process, notably the late Maya of Yucatán, the Congolese and the Japanese.

The final chapter in this part might be thought to offer almost total pre-eminence to Britain in the industrial revolution, but it makes its points well. The second part of the chapter, "The lofty towers", reflects on the cultural and religious forces that seem implacably opposed at the onset of the 21st century. In the final chapter of the book, Cook draws entertainingly on the Latin writer Lucretius to conclude his "broadly materialist" account.

Overall, this is a remarkably balanced and wide-ranging narrative that does succeed in living up to the considerable promise of its title and, as such, constitutes a notable contribution. As I have indicated, I think it may underestimate human diversity in the prehistoric past, and so give too easy an answer to that important question about the inevitability of human history. Nor can I forgive the publisher for the dismal quality of the photographs. Yet I see this intelligent and often-entertaining book as a real achievement. For the specialist, so bold an undertaking will inevitably offer some scope for criticism. The general reader, too, will be challenged by its broad sweep and intrigued by its many insights.

Colin Renfrew is professor of archaeology and director of the McDonald Institute, Cambridge University.

A Brief History of the Human Race

Author - Michael Cook
Publisher - Granta
Pages - 384
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 1 86207 687 1

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