Bob Nichols's Reviews > People Of The Earth: An Introduction To World Prehistory

People Of The Earth by Brian M. Fagan
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Mar 07, 2010

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Fagan's "introduction to world prehistory" provides a good summary of human emergence from our African ape-man origins, our migration across the earth as hunter gathers, and the earliest beginnings (10,000 BCE into the current era) of agriculture and urban life. Fagan's book has excellent maps, illustrations and pictures to supplement his text, and he covers Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Far East, and the Americas as well as the Near East and Europe. Since this edition was published (1986), significant work has been done on tracing human migration around the earth through DNA, but this later information seems to be generally consistent with what Fagan describes in his use of archaeological evidence.

A few points leap out of Fagan's book. First, he describes the role of the later glaciations (and interglacial periods) in shaping human migration patterns. For example, hunters followed migratory herds north; coming out of Africa, glaciation pushed early human migration toward the east and southeast; and the Bearing land bridge allowed migration into the Americas. Second, given the significance of the transition for our hunter gather past to agriculture and the advent of civilization (roughly 10,000 to 4,000 BCE in the Near East, Far East, and the Americas), it is still interesting that the explanation for this transformation remains largely unsettled. Third, human population, agriculture and civilization has exploded since the last glacial warming (10,000 BCE) but if this period is but an interlude to what has been a series of glacial and interglacial periods that have occurred regularly over the last 700,000 years, a looming question is what lies ahead for humans when (if) worldwide glaciation occurs again? This is a question posed by Fagan's 2004 book, "The Long Summer." Fourth, in pulling together the increasing complexity of human prehistory, it is clear that we are on the front wave of a history that will continue well into the future, and there will be a time when those who follow will look back and see us as we now see Mesopotamia, the Egyptian and Shang dynasties, and the civilizations of the Harappans, Olmecs and Mayans.

In his discussions of the theoretical underpinnings to the study of prehistory, Fagan notes "two dramatically contrasting viewpoints" between most anthropologists, who believe that human behavior is not constrained by genetics, and by sociobiologists who "believe that cultural expression is a flimsy blanket for compelling genetic imperatives." Fagan takes no particular position here, but the reader cannot help but see that certain human behaviors across unconnected cultures - related to power, rank, tribalism, self-interest, religion - suggest human (biological) constants, however varied their cultural manifestation, and that these two theoretical approaches may be complementary, not opposed.
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