My previous posts on environmental books highlight the speed with which the modern world has evolved, producing massive changes to our planet and the rest of its inhabitants, but human beings have existed on this planet in harmony with nature for over two million years.
I have always been fascinated by the origins of our species, to the extent that I actually started an archaeology degree back in 2000 at the University of New England, Armidale. Unfortunately, the workload conflicted with our circumstances at the time, when we were still in the throes of child rearing and developing our bed-and-breakfast business, and given the scarcity of jobs in the field, it was always going to be an interest area only, so I only studied for a short while, but have continued to follow new developments and finds over the intervening period.
It is a fascinating area and knowledge and theories are constantly evolving with new discoveries and improvements in dating technologies, like the recent news of the excavation of the Madjedbebe rock shelter in Kakadu National Park (http://www.news.com.au/technology/science/archaeology/what-globally-significant-archaeological-discovery-in-australia-actually-means/news-story/e5744f4826789b7300afe581d1521f98), so many of the following books are probably out-of-date, but they still form the basis of my knowledge and many of them have links to more up-to-date internet sites.
There are also many new archaeology programs on television, fulfilling that thirst for knowledge about our prehistory that many other people obviously share! One excellent program, which I recently watched was Alice Robert’s Lost Tribes of Humanity (2016) : https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x58use1 .
I will start with two books about the history of our planet’s formation, progressing through to general prehistory books and finally, books related specifically to Australian prehistory. Because of the large word count, I will discuss the latter in Part Two on Thursday.
Prehistory of Planet Earth
A Short History of Planet Earth by Ian Plimer 2001
Our planet is 4600 Million years old, a time period of such enormity that it is often very difficult to comprehend, so this small publication, written for a non-scientific lay audience, is especially valuable for explaining the basics of the formation of our solar system and its planets, particularly our own planet Earth, its geological processes and the beginning of life forms, starting with cyanobacterial colonies, 3800 Million years ago.
Ian Plimer is a geologist with a special interest in Australia, so he provides plenty of examples of Australian geological history. His book is very readable and interesting, and even poetic in parts. For example:
‘Planet Earth and we humans are recycled stardust‘; and
‘Our planet is an oasis in space, delicately balanced in its orbit’.
The first chapter explains the origins of our solar system and its planets and why there is life on earth.
While I am always daunted by the whole field of astronomy, I learnt many interesting new facts like the following:
40 000 tonnes of interstellar dust falls on planet Earth each year.
The earth’s magnetic field can suddenly reverse, an event, which has happened over 100 times over the last 50 million years, even when humans have existed, but would be catastrophic today with our dependence on modern communication.
The rates of continental drift vary from 1 cm per year to 17 cm per year and continents can move more than 1000 km over short geological time spans like 20 million years.
The first multicellular animals appeared 700 to 543 million years ago, leading to an explosion of life 540 to 520 million years ago.
Chapter 2 covers geological time scale, dating methods and the history of geological knowledge, while Chapter 3 examines the beginning of life on earth ‘before the oxygen revolution’, including 3500 million year old stromatolite colonies, some of which we visited at Shark Bay and Lake Clifton, in Western Australia, in 2008 (photos below); and eukaryotic organisms 2700 million years ago; as well as the impact of global glaciations, atmospheric changes and meteorite bombardment.Chapter 4 describes global stretching, resulting in the formation of rift valleys 1700 million years ago; mountain building and the development of continents, the evolution of multicellular organisms and the Age of the Bacteria.
When the glacial period ended 575 million years ago, the number of life forms exploded with most major animal groups appearing in the fossil record 540 to 530 million years ago. This is the subject matter of Chapter 5, well supported by diagrams of the biological time scale and mass extinctions.
While there are 550 million year old fish fossils from China, the first vertebrates appeared 530 million years ago. Amphibians came on the scene 370 million years ago; reptiles 330 million years ago; insects 310 million years ago; mammals 214 million years ago and hominids 4 million years ago.
The first land plants colonised continents 470 million years ago, but flowering plants are only 150 million years old. There have also been five major mass extinctions over the past 530 million years, most of which have been caused by impacts from extraterrestrial asteroids and comets.
Chapter 6 discusses the last 175 million years, especially in Australia, the formation of the Great Dividing Range, continental drift and the global greenhouse effect.
Chapter 7 focuses on the ice ages and the evolution of humans, starting with the 4.4 million old fossils of ape-like Ardipithicus ramidus in Ethiopia, followed by 4.2 Million year old Australopithecus aramensis, Northern Kenya; 3.8 to 3 million year old Australopithecus afarensis, East African Rift Valley; 3.5 to 3 million year old Australopithecus bahrelghazali, Chad; and 3 million year old Australopithecus africanus, South Africa.
Global cooling 2.5 million years ago and the resultant contraction of the East African Rift forests and expansion of grassland led to Australopithecine diversification with more species: Australopithecus garhi (2.5 million years ago, between A. africanus and the emergence of own genus, Homo); and a robust group of hominid species Paranthus aethipicus (2 to 1.4 million years ago), Kenya; Paranthus boisei, East Africa; Paranthus robustus and Paranthus crassidens, both South Africa.
Homo first appeared in the East African Rift Valley 2.5 to 1.8 million years ago and since then, numerous new hominid species have emerged, competed, coexisted and colonised new environments . Three early Homos flourished at the time: Homo habilis; Homo rudolfensis and Homo ergaster. Homo habilis had a larger brain than the Australopithecines, had primitive speech, used fire and made stone tools.
During the ice age, beginning 1.6 Million years ago, Australopithecines became extinct; and Homo erectus had migrated out of Africa and into Europe, India, China and South East Asia.
By 800 000 years ago, Home antecessor appeared in Spain; Homo heidelbergensis appeared in Africa 600 000 years ago and was well established in Europe and China 500 000 to 200 000 years ago; Homo neanderthalensis flourished in Europe and Western Asia 200 000 to 30 000 years ago and Homo sapiens, our species first appeared in the fossil record 200 000 to 150 000 years ago in Africa and lived in Europe 40 000 years ago, although this figure has now been increased to 300 000 years ago with the very recent find of Homo sapiens in Morocco. See: http://www.nature.com/news/oldest-homo-sapiens-fossil-claim-rewrites-our-species-history-1.22114 and https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/07/science/human-fossils-morocco.html?_r=0.
Australia was colonised by Homo sapiens up to at least 60 000 years ago, though there I always the chance that Homo erectus may have been the initial colonisers, given they survived in Java up to 40 000 years ago. Knowledge is always changing and growing with each new discovery, making it a very exciting field! The book concludes with chapters on climate change and the geology of history and of the future.
The Atlas of the Prehistoric World by Douglas Palmer 1999
Sometimes, childrens’ books are an easier way to absorb monumental information and this is an excellent publication with maps of the globe during the different geological time periods, showing continental drift and formation, modern continental outlines, ancient seas and mountain ranges, and subduction zones with annotated key points discussed and a timeline at the top of each page.
The next section explores all the key changes, accompanied by excellent illustrations and examples: the origin of planet Earth and the solar system; aquatic microbes and the emergence of multicellular organisms; the Cambrian explosion; life in Ordovician seas; the colonization of land during the Silurian Period; the Age of the Fishes in Devonian times; the Age of Coal; the Permian expansion of life forms, including mammals; mass extinctions; the Age of the Dinosaurs; early birds and mammals; the evolution of plants and flowers; the giant Riversleigh marsupials; and the divergence of apes and hominids and the human journey.
The Earth Fact File at the back of the book discusses geological time scale; dating methods; geological controversies; rock types; plate tectonics; earthquakes and tsunamis; volcanoes; sedimentation; the fossil record; evolution; and catastrophic events; as well as including biographical entries; a glossary and a list of places and websites to visit. It complements the previous book well.
Now for a raft of books, specifically devoted to :
The Prehistory of Mankind
People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory by Brian M Fagan 12th Edition 2007
An update of my original 1998 archaeology textbook, though now, it is up to its 14th edition (2013)! After defining key archaeological concepts in the introduction, Part One describes the earliest stages of human evolution 7 million years ago to the emergence of tool-making Homo habilis in tropical Africa 2.6 million years ago, the spread of Homo erectus throughout the Old World and the spread of the first modern humans Homo sapiens into South West Asia during the last Ice Age. The text is supported by excellent diagrams, maps, photos of fossilized skulls and bones and tools and descriptions of early archaeological discoveries.
Part Two examines the Great Diaspora- the spread of humans all over the world from 45 000 years ago to modern times: Europe 40 000 to 8 000 BC; the first Americans 14 000 BC to modern times; Past and present African Hunter-Gatherers; Homo floriensis, 900 000 years ago; and the settlement of Australia, now dated to 60 000 years ago. Their lifestyles, tools, art and culture, and survival and adaptations during the Ice Age are all discussed in great detail.
Part Three focuses on the origins and development of agriculture and animal domestication from 10 000 BC on in all areas of the world, starting in South West Asia, and the repercussions- the development of sedentary lifestyles and early agricultural societies, which develop into the Old World urban civilizations and complex states of Part Four from 3000 BC to modern times:
Early Nubian States in the Land of Kush 4000 BC;
Archaic Period of Egypt 3100 BC (hieroglyphics, mummification and pyramids);
Sumerians of early Mesopotamian societies: the Sumerians ( cuneiform writing) 3000 BC; the Akkadians 2334 BC, the Semites 1990 BC and Assyrians 1000 BC;
Harappan civilization in India 2000 BC (pictographic symbols on seals; irrigation and flood control);
Shang Dynasty in Northern China 1766 BC (war lords and royal burial mounds; and bronzework);
Minoan Crete 2000 BC ;
Hittites of Anatolia 1650 BC;
Mycenaean civilization of Greece 1600 BC;
Phoenicians 1100 BC (the Sea People of the East Mediterranean);
Ancient Greeks (500 BC) and Etruscans and Ancient Romans (1 AD);
Angkor Wat, Cambodia 802 AD.
Pre-Roman Europeans: the Kurgans 3200 BC (Battle Axes) and Beakers 2700 BC (Copper); Bronze Age societies: Druids of Stonehenge 2950 BC, Urnfield cultures of Western Hungary (burial urns) 1800 BC, and Scythians of the Steppes from China to Ukraine 400 BC; Iron Age cultures: the Hallstatt culture, Austria 750 BC, La Tene culture of the Celts 390 BC.
Part Five describes the early Native American civilizations from 2000 BC to 1534 AD: the Mayan civilizations: the Olmecs 1500 BC; Teotihuacans 200 BC, Toltecs 900 AD and Aztecs 12th century AD of Mesoamerica and the Chavin 1500 BC ; Moche 200 BC; Chimu 1375 AD and Incas of the Andes 1476 AD in South America.
The book finishes with glossaries of cultures and sites, and technical terms and a bibliography. It is such a comprehensive book and a wonderful guide to human prehistory.Essentials of Physical Anthropology by Robert Jurmain, Harry Nelson, Lynn Kilgare,and Wendy Trevathen 3rd Edition 1998
My other basic text for first-year archaeology! The first few chapters cover key definitions; the development of evolutionary theory; the biological basis of life and principles of inheritance; human evolution and population genetics; human variation and adaptation and the fundamentals of human growth and development.
The next block of chapters investigate our primate origins, behaviour and evolutionary history; our Hominid origins and taxonomy; Home erectus; Neanderthals and other Archaic Homo sapiens; and modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens and Upper Paleolithic art and culture.
The book finishes with a look at future prospects and problems with possible solutions and appendices (primate skeletal anatomy and population genetics), a glossary and a bibliography.
This is another excellent guide with timelines; a running glossary, maps and tables and interesting photo essays on the tools and techniques of physical anthropology; primate studies; and paleoanthropology.
At the end of each chapter is a summary; questions for review; and suggested further reading and web sites.
The next two books are beautifully illustrated coffee table hardback books, part of a five-part series of The Illustrated History of Humankind, produced by the University of Queensland Press and edited by Goran Burenhult, with chapters from a number of contributors from a wide range of scientific and academic fields:
The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10 000 BC 1993
Chapters cover diverse topics from human origins and behavioural qualities, the Neanderthals and the Ice Age, prehistoric art and culture, and stone age tools; to the settlement of Ancient Australia; the first Pacific Islanders; the first Americans and early Arctic cultures.
The book starts with a diagram of key advances in the evolution of humans during the Lower, Middle and Upper Paleolithic Periods and finishes with a glossary and notes on the contributors.
Traditional Peoples Today: Continuity and Change in the Modern World 1994
Starting with a chapter on the evolution of races, populations and cultures, the book progresses to detailed accounts of the customs, economies and social life of indigenous societies in Asia, South-East Asia, Australia, the Pacific, Africa, the Arctic and North and South America.
It finishes with a chapter on the future challenges of mankind. It has such beautiful photographs of many cultures, of which I had never even heard : the Wahki on the roof of the world; the Bhotia, yak herders on the Changtang Plateau; the Ainu of North Japan ; the Naga headhunters of the Assam Highlands; and the Iatmul of the Sepik River Basin. This is a fascinating book, showcasing the huge global physical, cultural and linguistic variety of our species.
See : https://www.goodreads.com/series/74407-the-illustrated-history-of-humankind for the names of the other three books in the series.
Atlas of Man: A Cultural, Historical and Sociological Survey of the Way We Live Omega Books 1987
This book covers over 400 different peoples throughout the world.
Part One, The World of Man, describes man’s evolution and history over the past 100 000 years and the factors which shape and influence all human societies: the universal features of social organization, kinship, and politics; language, writing and printing, and mass media; religion, ritual and mythology; and economics and lifestyles, finishing with an examination of the impacts of industrialization, modern communication and technology and population growth and their implications for the future of mankind.
Part Two is divided into 9 sections, corresponding to different geographical areas: North American/Caribbean; Central/South America; Europe; Middle East/North Africa; Africa; Soviet Union/Mongolia; India/South Central Asia; China/East and South-East Asia; and Australasia/Pacific region.
Each section begins with the historical, geographical and cultural characteristics of the region with appropriate maps ( including physical geography, population distribution and density; language groups; colonization; temperature and rainfall; vegetation types) and then there are individual entries describing the countries and main ethnic groups in each region, with a map showing their location and a population estimate, which no doubt has changed considerably over the thirty years since its publication.
Vanishing Primitive Man by Timothy Severin 1973
Tim Severin is a British explorer, historian, lecturer, film maker and writer, who has made a career out of researching, then re-enacting and writing about the legendary journeys of mythical and historical figures. His books include: Tracking Marco Polo 1964; Explorers of the Mississippi 1968; The Golden Antilles 1970; The African Adventure 1973; The Oriental Adventure: Explorers of the East 1976; The Brendan Voyage 1978;The Sindbad Voyage 1983; The Jason Voyage 1986; The Ulysses Voyage 1987; Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem 1987; In Search of Genghis Khan 1991; The China Voyage 1994; The Spice Islands Voyage 1997; In Search of Moby Dick: Quest for the White Whale 1999; and Seeking Robinson Crusoe 2002. He has also written historical fiction with his Saxon, Viking and Pirate series. See: http://www.timseverin.net/.
We have read the Brendan Voyage. In fact, on our overseas trip in 1994, we actually saw his leather-hulled currach at Craggaunowen, Ireland ( watch the first video on https://www.shannonheritage.com/Craggaunowen/), as well as the spot, from where he launched his voyage (Brandon Creek, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland). His books are always so interesting and readable that I knew this book would be well worth reading!
In this lovely book on the vanishing tribes of primitive man, Tim describes the physical features; tools and weapons; way of life; art; social organization; beliefs, rituals and customs of a wide variety of primitive peoples from Australian Aborigines and Polynesian and Melanesian Islanders; the hunter-gathering pygmies of Equatorial Africa and the Kalahari Bushmen; the Cunas of Golden Castile, Panama, and the Xavante of Brazil; the Inuit (eskimos) and the Lapps; and Ainu (Sky People) of Hokkaido, Japan.
Throughout the book are superb photographs, as well as numerous picture portfolios, illustrating more general concepts, including living with nature; the hunter-gatherer lifestyle; the structure of primitive societies; rituals and ceremonies; art; religion and the pressures and changes primitive peoples face.
In the final chapter, he focuses specifically on the problems of contact with the modern world (disease, cultural collapse, psychological decline, habitat destruction, competition for resources, poverty or outright annihilation) and possible solutions to maintaining their cultural heritage, while slowly adapting to the changed world. Unfortunately, it is too late for many primitive tribes, so this book serves as a important record of the wide variety of primitive cultures that used to exist.Prehistoric Europe: An Illustrated History Edited by Barry Cunliffe 1998
A detailed look at prehistoric Europe, its changing climate and man’s adaptation and response to these changes and the development of Western culture from the arrival of Stone Age Man to the Fall of the Roman Empire, with chapters written by a number of different experts.
It starts with the historical background to the study of archaeology in Europe; the Ice Age climate and the earliest arrivals in Europe; and the knowledge we can draw from fossil hominids and their tools. It then explores the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution: its economy, society and art, before progressing to the Mesolithic Age: their settlements, dwellings, food, tools, boats, rituals, art and societies.
The following chapters looks at:
The first farmers in Greece and the Balkans, Central and Western Mediterranean and Central and Western Europe during the Neolithic Age;
The transformation of Early Agrarian Europe and the enormous changes which occured;
The Palace Civilizations of Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece;
The emergence of the elites in Early Bronze Age Europe and the development of long-distance trade routes;
The collapse of Aegean civilizations at the end of the Late Bronze Age;
Reformation in Barbarian Europe (the Agricultural Revolution, trade, transport and warfare);
Iron Age societies and Celtic migrations;
Scythian and Thracian societies;
The impact of the Rome Empire on the rest of Europe; and
Barbarian Europe after the Fall of Rome: the Goths and the Visigoths, the Franks, the Vandals, the Saxons and Angles and the Slavs: their settlements, cultures, craftsmanship, war and migrations.
It is such a detailed and comprehensive book with over 300 plates, maps and figures. In the back is a list of further reading on each chapter, as well as chronological tables: a simplified time chart; the Palaeolithic Period (climate, technology, human type, culture and achievements and time before present); Early Farming and Metallurgy in the different parts of Europe: Northern, Western, Central, Mediterranean, Balkans and Aegean; and Steppe; the Mediterranean States and Temperate Europe; the Roman Empire (Emperors and Events); as well as the historical events after the Fall of Rome. I wish I had owned this book before our overseas trip in 1994!
I have already mentioned Craggaunowen with respect to Tim Severin’s Brendan Voyage, but it is also worth visiting for its living history exhibits of life in a Celtic Bronze Age village, built on an artificial island called a crannog (photo below). Heritage Parks are such a wonderful way to get a feel for the past, especially for kids. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cn2wwYfjNAI. My children thoroughly enjoyed exploring the quaint houses, getting their hands dirty, applying mud to wattle-and-daub fences and learning about the weaving and natural dyeing. We visited another open-air museum at the Prehistoparc, Tursac in the Dordogne (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKgPzyI35Ns and http://www.prehistoparc.fr/),with life size models of Cro-Magnon Man (Homo sapiens sapiens) and the animals they hunted, many of which we had seen painted and engraved in 12 000 to 15 000 BC artwork on the walls of caves and rock shelters, like that of Font de Gaume, Les Ezyzies; the Cave of 100 Mammoths, Rouffignac; and the recreation copy of Lascaux II, the previous two days.The National Museum of Prehistory at Les Ezyzies (http://en.musee-prehistoire-eyzies.fr/) is a wonderful place to see over one million prehistoric objects from the earliest stone tools to bone objects, harpoons and fish-hooks (photo 2), weapons, needles and points (photo 1); whistles (photo 1); jewellery, engravings (photo 4), female fertility symbols (photo 3) and other phallic objects and a series of skulls and bones showing the development of mankind. We bought the following book there to learn more about the Prehistory of the Perigord region, especially since all the cave tours were in spoken French!
Wonderful Prehistory in the Perigord by JL Aubarbier, M Binet, JP Bouchard, and G Guichard 1989
This is a very useful guide for visiting the rock art sites of the Dordogne region in France. After introductory chapters on the overall picture of the prehistory of man; Palaeolithic and Neolithic life; and rock art, it focuses on the Dordogne region and all the local rock art sites, supported by wonderful photographs, a full-colour map and explanatory tables illustrating time periods, prehistoric cultures and tool-making technologies and other inventions.
It certainly is a wonderful area to visit to see early prehistoric art in Europe and appreciate the ingenuity and skill of the early rock artists.
The Cave Painters : Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists by Gregory Curtis 2007
A fascinating paperback for those of us, who cannot get enough of prehistoric cave art, especially that of France and Spain, and I would say without hesitation that would be anyone, who had ever visited these wonderful sites! They are so dramatic and awe-inspiring and tell us so much about the local lives, their culture and beliefs and the animals they hunted, but there is still so much more that isn’t known!
This book describes various theories about their lives and the role of art, as well as the history of the archaeological discoveries in the area. While many of the known sites are open to the public, some have been closed due to their fragility and potential for damage or contamination like the original Lascaux ( closed in 1963, though it has been accurately reproduced in the impressive Lascaux II, opened in 1984) and some are underwater like the Cosquer Cave, so it’s great to learn more about them from this book. A very enjoyable and interesting read!
On Thursday, I will continue this post with books about Australian Prehistory.