The Human Past. World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies, edited by CHRIS SCARRE
The aim of The Human Past is ‘… to provide an authoritative guide … designed to be accessible both to beginning students in archaeology and anthropology and to any interested reader.’ It is argued that new technologies and discoveries, and the increasing scale of archaeological research allow us to see the past in fuller outline and in greater detail than ever before. And so with new confidence a truly worldwide picture of the development of human societies has been possible. The overwhelming quantity of all types of evidence does not allow a single author to cover this ambitious space and time in enough detail and authority. It has necessarily to be a multi-author volume. The book indeed continues the rich Anglo-American synthesizing tradition, starting with Grahame Clark’s World Prehistory and including Sherratt’s Cambridge Encyclopaedia, and the Times Atlas ‘Past Worlds’, equally edited by Chris Scarre. I would like to go so far as to say that both volumes - the Atlas and the new Human Past - provide very good complementary information and reading. The book is, moreover, surprisingly up to dated, with a box on Flores man (p. 155), the Amesbury archer (p. 421) the Nebra sky disk (p. 422) the Croce del Papa settlement (p. 423) and cattle DNA (p. 185), just to name a few examples.
This is a massive volume of 784 pages (!) all efficiently used and fully packed with knowledge. The book is divided into two main parts: I The Evolution of Humanity, and II After the Ice. The first theme is covered with three chapters, one on African origins and both others with a global coverage. The second part comprises fourteen chapters dealing with continents, subcontinents or major regions like the Mediterranean and the Near East. The book has an introductory and a retrospective chapter by the editor, a glossary, bibliography and an index. A table on a full spread at p. 22-23 gives a quick overview of the regions dealt with and the periods covered in each chapter, illustrated by key concepts and sites.
To accomplish the task 24 authors have been selected - four British, four from Australia and New Zealand and fourteen from the United States - all highly qualified archaeologists for their regions. They have together written one chapter on Australia and the Pacific, one on Africa, two on Europe, two on Southwest Asia, three on South and Southeast Asia and four on the Americas. About 150 features on major sites, controversies, discoveries and methods add to the value of the book as a student’s textbook, together with the further reading suggestions at the end of each chapter and the bold printing of key words and key sites in the text. The book brings the basic knowledge of the bewildering diversity and richness of global prehistory in a very up-to-date form within easy reach not only of students but also of scholars, who are not so informed on other continents and of researchers in other disciplines. It is lavishly illustrated with well-chosen figures, including site location maps and chronology overviews called ‘timelines’. The book is altogether a magnificent achievement.
The Human Past gives us more than prehistory alone. It also covers the wide field of methods and theory in an introductory fashion, mainly confined to the many features, or ‘boxes’ as these are named here; they are also in the introductory chapter and between the lines in all chapters that are confined to period or (sub)continent. The Human Past is, moreover, not confined to prehistory, but extends in al chapters into the archaeology of protohistory and even into the more recent, historical past. Some chapters are in fact almost fully historical: 15 on Southeast Asia (Charles Higham) covers the Chinese dynasties from 1500 BC and later, and SE Asia up to and including Angkor. Chapter 16 on Mesoamerica (David Webster and Susan Toby Evans) deals almost exclusively with (early) state societies, ceremonial complexes, script and iconology of the various Mesoamerican culture spheres, up till and including their western disruption. The Mediterranean world (chapter 13 by Susan Alcock and John Cherry) covers the archaeology up till the end of the Roman Empire. In all these chapters archaeology mainly illustrates the political history or the art and architecture related to the religious and political elite.
Although published by a British publisher the book is essentially an American textbook in all its aspects. This is not a qualification nor disqualification, but just a factual observation. The Human Past has the typical layout of an American textbook, with its extensive use of an additional colour and the numerous separate features, similar to that other archaeology textbook of the same publisher: Renfrew and Bahn, Archaeology. It is textually (color, neighbor, Paleolithic) American as well, but most essential is the division of texts and chapters over the world. This clearly reflects the differences in accent between the Old World and the New World education. Thus, the chapter on postglacial European prehistory by the editor himself is an admirable, condensed piece of work. He gives a clear outline within 40 pages, 14 of which are used for boxes on Star Carr, population genetics, Varna, the iceman, Talheim, Langweiler, Stonehenge, rock art and the Celts. For the European basic training this generally might, however, not be considered sufficient. It is, moreover, not in agreement with the high research density and detailed knowledge of this relative small part of the world. In which European archaeology curriculum is all this knowledge requested in the first year? This is recognised by the editor where he states that the book ‘… could also be used more selectively, by taking a series of chapters to explore a particular theme or region.’ That certainly holds for the two chapters of similar length on Africa and Australia and for the chapters 2-4 that really have a global scope.
From a didactical point of view, the book is very well structured and the student is optimally served. The book is, moreover, supported by a website maintained by the American counterpart of Thames & Hudson (W.W. Norton), which offers an almost perfect student service, with extensive summaries of all chapters, with ‘practice quizzes’ containing tens of multiple choice questions for each chapter, with many hundreds of ‘flash cards’ as a help to test your actual knowledge, with links to web sites and with the digital version of the glossary. In short: the book is book is part of a teaching package that might make the teacher and contact teaching (almost) superfluous. I feel that the book-cum-website will not be just an undergraduate textbook, but a companion for graduate students, professionals and amateur archaeologists all over the world.
An enterprise of this ambition never is perfect. It might be a bit unfair and even ridiculous to complain about missing themes in a book of this volume, but it should be mentioned that some major parts of the world and culture spheres are hardly dealt with, or not at all. This might have to do with a modest interest in the American education or qualified authors might not have been available. Factually, however, the total of the former USSR, including central Asia as a whole, from the Ukraine to the Bering Sea, is not covered. All Scyths, from Olbia to Pazyryk, are missing. The various chapters end, moreover, on a different level in respect to chronology and cultural complexity. The America’s are treated up till the European contact as are Africa and Australia. For Africa seven pages are devoted to the Old, Middle and New Kingdom and more than half of chapter 12 deals with state societies. The Roman Empire is included in chapter 13 up to the fourth century AD, but hardly any attention is given to the European Roman provinces (the Fosse way and the Hadrian’s wall can hardly be seen as representative), nor are the Early Middle Ages treated, nor is the Viking world, with the exception of L’Anse aux Meadows (p. 710). It is a minor issue that some colour illustrations show some failures and that the index, extensive as it is, lacks some major references, like megaliths, chambered tombs and causewayed enclosures, which are printed in bold in the text.
The Human Past altogether is a book that should be compulsory reading - at least selected chapters - for all archaeology students, and that should be on their shelves as a permanent source of encyclopaedic information and as a reference to more specialist textbooks and other reading.
Leendert P. Louwe Kooijmans
Review Submitted: December 2005
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this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews
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