The weight of our world to shoulder

The Human Past
February 24, 2006

The Human Past , billed as an introduction to world prehistory, weighs in at 2.4kg, has 784 pages, 19 chapters, and no fewer than authors, all under the able editorship of Chris Scarre, who also wrote four chapters. This is a massive undertaking by any standard, complete with the entire spectrum of pedagogical aids considered desirable in undergraduate texts these days - a huge illustration programme, boxes, timelines, innumerable tables and maps, a glossary and a bibliography; in short all the impedimenta of a contemporary textbook.

Unlike other world prehistories, this one stems from a belief on the part of the publishers (in their publicity handout) that "the wealth and diversity of archaeological research is now too great to be completely within the grasp of a single expert". Scarre writes in the preface: "Gone are the days when a conscientious and well-informed individual could hope to gain mastery of an entire literature." He claims that this book has "an authority that is beyond the reach of any single-authored work". The result is a volume with an intellectual depth to it that is impracticable in shorter, lower level introductory books on prehistory.

This is not an innovative text in terms of intellectual content. The two-part coverage of the subject mirrors that in other world prehistory texts in the market.

Part one begins with an introductory chapter that covers some of the basic concepts of archaeology and prehistory, then launches without further ado into three chapters on the Palaeolithic, culminating in the emergence and spread of modern humans throughout the world from 150,000 years ago.

Chapter five lays out the main themes of the postglacial period: climate change, farming, rising human population densities and the development of social complexity.

Then the reader embarks on a chronological tour of cultural developments such as the emergence of food production since the Ice Age, starting with SouthWest Asia, then proceeding to Asia and the Americas, to Africa, Europe, and South Asia. Chapters 10 and 11 are especially useful, for they survey later cultural developments in tropical Africa and in Europe. Graham Connah's African chapter offers unusually complete and welcome coverage of later developments south of the Sahara. Chapters 12 to 18 survey the world's first pre-industrial civilisations, starting in southwestern Asia, then covering the Mediterranean world, south, South-East, and east Asia, and finally Mesoamerican and Andean states. Scarre contributes a brief final chapter that looks at current issues such as population growth and anthropogenic global warming in the context of what we now know about prehistory.

The academic reputations of the authors and their first-hand experience guarantee that the information in these pages is accurate and up to date, but it is difficult to envisage this book's intended audience. Clearly, the publishers, with their timelines and boxes on sites and "key controversies", think of this as a textbook for undergraduates, but the level of detail and the coverage is such that few, if any, undergraduate courses that introduce world prehistory will cover even a fraction of the material here, except, perhaps at top-flight universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. The text bristles with cultural names and other terms, and a level of information on archaeological sites, important and less so, that is difficult for even a professional archaeologist to grasp as part of a larger narrative (Diaotongshuan cave in China is a good example).

Each chapter stands alone, despite the skilled editorship of Scarre, who has this reviewer's profound admiration for undertaking what must have been an enormous task. This tendency to stand-alone coverage means that it is hard for the reader, and certainly will be hard for beginning students, to keep a grasp of the broad issues of prehistory in their minds as they read each chapter and become engrossed in what is sometimes fascinating detail - and, at others, mind-numbingly boring information.

This is a book written by experts that is an authoritative source on world prehistory for people who already know something about the subject. Its market is at the higher end of the small undergraduate archaeology market - perhaps students in their last two years in the US and their last year in the UK - and among graduate students. As an introductory archaeology textbook, this volume simply does not work - it is too diffuse, too complicated and has too many authors. There is little or nothing here that does not appear in the few competing world prehistory texts on the market.

What is different is that the level of detail in these pages is much greater, which is a good thing for professionals, graduate students and a few advanced undergraduates, but not for beginners. For the latter students, the golden rule is simple, easy-to-understand narrative written in jargon-free English with a minimum of technical terms. The Human Past is a marvellous book for graduate seminars.

This is where the argument for a multi-authored work falls apart, for, while it is true that no one archaeologist can possibly master the literature of human prehistory, there are plenty who can acquire enough knowledge to write an overall survey that does not require the level of detail and first-hand experience enjoyed by the authors of The Human Past . There is ample proof in the market. T. Douglas Price and Gary Feinman's Images of the Past (2005) is a successful text with broad, equitable coverage written by two highly respected archaeologists. My own People of the Earth (2004) is a single-authored text that has never been criticised for lacking essential elements of human prehistory. Both of these successful books are aimed at beginners, not advanced students, and both rely on narrative. Both are praised for their clarity of exposition and authority at a basic level. I doubt if any instructors will use The Human Past as an introductory text. It is simply too complex, and, at times, daunting pedagogically for students, especially in a large-course context.

That said, this superbly edited book is indeed a definitive analysis of what we know about world prehistory and human diversity - for advanced students. It makes commendable use of DNA, palaeoclimatology and other sciences to build detailed syntheses. The contributors are a galaxy of talented scholars, many of them known internationally for their fieldwork. But the end product of this impressive effort is a proverbial 10lb gorilla, which is really impracticable as an undergraduate text. Quite apart from anything else, pity the poor undergraduate hefting it around in a backpack! However, as a graduate-level text and as a reference book for students and professionals, The Human Past will be invaluable. The maps, pictures and timelines are worth the price of admission alone. It is more likely to be used as a form of archaeological encyclopedia and reference work than as a text, and as an invaluable pictorial source for PowerPoint presentations. In sum, this remarkable book is a useful contribution to the literature on world prehistory, but as a textbook it has serious drawbacks.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, US, and the author of numerous books on archaeology, both for the student and for the general reader.

The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. First Edition

Editor - Chris Scarre
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 784
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 500 28531 4

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