“Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and its People” by Barry Cunliffe (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Facing the Oceanstarstarstar

“Stretching from Iceland and North Africa, the peoples who live long the thousands of miles of the Atlantic seaboard have one vista – the seeming infinity of the ocean.”

In this wonderful tome, spanning from 8000 BC to AD 1500, Barry Cunliffe has brought a masterpiece to light.  Having spent years in research and study, the world now has a definitive edition on the ancient Atlantic peoples.  Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar; all are linked together by one fact: each day they look out at the great Atlantic Ocean.  It is a detail that brings these people, the Celts, Bretons, Galicians, closer together – kith and kin.

The reader is taken on a most unique journey through many words and details, with beautiful photos and drawings from an ancient past that we never knew existed, along with a hefty index, should one get lost along the way.

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Originally published on November 12th 2001.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” by Richard Wrangham (Basic Books, 2009)

Catching Firestarstarstar

From the professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, as well as the co-author of Demonic Males and co-editor of Primate Societies, comes Catching Fire, a thoroughly researched book on the importance of the discovery of fire and how it changed Homo sapiens sapiens forever.

While initially thinking Catching Fire would be an in-depth foray into our ancestral humanity, looking at different hominids and what it was that led to the discovery of fire and going on from there, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a book more in the style of Michael Pollan’s Omnivores Dilemma.  The origin of fire and cooking are certainly discussed in this book, but the true story here is how humanity has benefited from cooking, and how it has aided us on the evolutionary path to making us the dominant species on the planet.  Wrangham boils (pun intended!) it down  to energy and how when foods (especially meats) are cooked, more energy is generated from consuming them.  The author scientifically breaks this down by analyzing the energy gained from raw meats as opposed to cooked, as well as vegetables, revealing the problems that some vegetarians and vegans can have in needing to make sure they get enough energy from the foods they consume.

Reading Catching Fire will educate you in a number of ways: you will learn the importance of our ancestors learning to cook foods and further our evolutionary development, but you will also learn why it is we cook foods – on a biological level – and how it can change how we grow and develop, both physically and intellectually.

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Originally written on August 13th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC – AD 1000” by Barry Cunliffe (Yale University Press, 2008)

Europe Between the Oceansstarstarstar

Barry Cunliffe, a leading archaeologist, and emeritus professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford, presents his next epic tome that will delight archaeology readers and archaeologists alike.  Europe Between the Oceans takes one on a long and fascinating journey into our deep past, beginning with the ancient when humanity was split into nomadic groups and first began changing their sedentary ways, to the end of the first millennium when the world was a very different place.

Beginning with a few chapters to set the stage, Cunliffe explains the unique setting of the Eurasian continent with its consolidated landmass being surrounded by so much water with its various lakes, seas, bays, and oceans, as well as its convoluted shaping, offering an extensive coastline.  Along with plenty of maps, diagrams, and photos, he also explains the extensive river network that exists and existed in Europe and how this has changed over time.  With this solid foundation in the water systems of the continent, Cunliffe begins his thorough history lesson, starting at 9000 BC and the ancient peoples who were just beginning to settle down and develop technology, after having barely survived a harsh ice age.

Europe Between the Seas is split into chronological periods with each chapter: 6000-3800 BC, 4500-2800 BC, 2800-1300 BC, 1300-800 BC, 800-500 BC, 500-140 BC, 140 BC – AD 300, AD 300-800, AD 800-1000.  Cunliffe spends time in various geological locations, as well as pointing out the important time periods of great change, such as “The Three Hundred Years That Changed the World: 800-500 BC,” and “States in Collision: 500-140 BC.”  Along with an extensive bibliography and index, one can’t help but feel they are receiving an annual class worth of knowledge in one book.  Europe Between the Oceans answers many questions, as well as presenting fascinating and oftentimes surprising thoughts and perspectives to a monumental period in the history of civilization.

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Originally written on November 21st 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The World From Beginnings to 4000BCE” by Ian Tattersall (Oxford University Press, 2008)

The World From Beginningsstarstarstar

The World From Beginnings to 4000 BCE marks the first in a brilliant new series from Oxford University Press, bringing a short but thorough history of the world known as The New Oxford World History.  The series will be split into three sections: Chronological Volumes, Thematic and Topical Volumes, and Geographical Volumes, each at the affordable paperback price of $19.95, with The World From Beginnings to 4000BCE starting off the Chronological Volumes.

Ian Tattersall, a curator in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, begins the book with an introduction and explanation of evolutionary processes, what exactly Charles Darwin was talking about, and a clear and precise definition of natural selection.  This serves as a foundation to the subsequent chapters which cover fossils and paleontology, when humanity began walking on two feet, as well as the history (as we know it, according to evidence) of the Homo genus.  It is at this point that our ancestors are clearly defined as being separate, different, more intelligent than any other life on the planet, and why that was and what it meant to us as a species.

In the final chapter, leading up to the prehistoric-approaching-historic date of 4000BCE, Tattersall discusses the beginning of settlement and the inception of towns and eventual cities in Mesopotamia, in what is today Iraq.  Tattersall doesn’t let his writing just speak for itself, using pictures, graphs, and charts to explain the facts and the evidence.  The World From Beginnings to 4000BCE is an ideal reference book, or laymen’s history book for those interested in this crucial defining period in our ancestry.

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Originally written on April 1st 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists” by Gregory Curtis (Knopf, 2006)

The Cave Paintersstarstarstar

It was a special day when Gregory Curtis was vacationing in France with his family and entered some famous caves.  When he gazed upon the unique cave paintings for the first time, this book was born.  The Cave Painters is a two-part story: one small part the story of the rise of Cro-Magnon, modern humans, and their painting abilities; the rest the history of those people who first discovered the paintings and how they proved their finds to the world.

In the first chapter, Curtis starts right at the beginning with the first non-ape hominid to evolve and make their way across Africa as a being that would one day be known as human.  He then takes the reader on a journey evolving through different generations of the Homo genus up to Cro-Magnon, better known as Homo sapiens.  Curtis also discusses the merits of whether the Neanderthals were “wiped out” by the arrival of Cro-Magnon, leaning more towards no, since the population numbers that are being discussed here are in little more than the thousands.  These two different groups of people would rarely have had any contact with each other at all.  Nevertheless, it is clear that Curtis has gone all out with the research, making sure that it is clear and up to date, and to put forth multiple ideas that are currently supported, and not just the one he supports.

While the reader is left wanting much more in this area, this is sadly where Curtis essentially leaves it, now taking up the history of those special people who discovered the cave paintings of Western Europe.  Though in some ways this is just as moving and tumultuous a story as that of the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.  These people, for the most part French since the largest number of caves with paintings are located in France, have their story told starting in the nineteenth century.  Some were shunned and mocked and even had their careers ruined by others when they told the world of these cave paintings that were over ten thousand years old.  Curtis takes the research right up to the present day with what is currently being done with the cave paintings; how probably the most famous caves at Lascaux have been recreated in a separate building due to the  deterioration of the paintings by the large number of visitors.

The Cave Painters is an incredible story where the reader first learns a detailed evolutionary history of humanity, and then a detailed biographical history of the famous discoveries of specific cave paintings throughout Europe.  Recently released in paperback, the book features numerous copies and illustrations of the cave paintings to aid Curtis’s discussion, as well as a selection of colored plates.  It is a short book that will educate the reader greatly.

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Originally written on October 20th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory” by J. M Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page (Smithsonian, 2007)

Invisible Sexstarstarstarstarstar

While the cover of The Invisible Sex indicates an interesting history book with its parchment design and implied cave painting of a woman, many may be deterred by the title and subtitle, thinking this a book championing the role of women only, pointing out chapter by chapter where all the men got it wrong in history.  This would be an error on the reader’s part.  The Invisible Sex is an amazing book that specifically charts humanity’s ancestry from the day when apes were the most evolved animals around, to some four to six thousand years ago when humanity settled down and began farming.  What makes this anthropology book different is that the authors point out the known history on a certain period in time and then reveal the evidence and push forward the correct interpretation of women having a much larger role in civilization than was previously thought.  Coupled with the up to date information and discoveries on our ancestry, The Invisible Sex is a great, easy to read book for any anthropology addict, or for anyone who wants to know what really was going on with our species over the last two million years.

Even though it is unclear which author is writing which chapters or parts, Adovasio, Soffer and Page are all working from their specific careers, drawing together their knowledge and talents to present a comprehensive meld of human history.  The book begins at our beginning with the discovery of Lucy in Ethiopia and why this was such an important discovery – as to whether Lucy is actually female or just simply a male of small stature, remains unknown.  While presenting a complete history of the Homo genus, they also take the reader through a history of the archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians who made the discoveries in the last couple hundred years.  It is here that the essence of the book is revealed, as the authors point out the assumed role of men always conducting the hunting and gathering while the women stayed in the hut or cave, looking after the children, and occasionally collecting the odd nut and berry.  Coupled with this is the image of the brave and strong cavemen/hunters taking down woolly mammoths and giant sloths and providing the tribe with food for weeks.  Coincidentally this ties in with the period in history when all the men were out working, bringing in the money, while the women stayed home, cleaning house and looking after the children.

They reveal the known history and then take it apart and go to the evidence, revealing what it says and what was really the dynamic of this time: that the men in fact weren’t killing woolly mammoths easily, providing all with bountiful meat, because the mammoth was the most feared animal around with its immense size and gouging tusks.  In all likelihood the hunting was done in a large group involving women, children and other family members.  They were not going after woolly mammoths and sloths, but were more focused on smaller animals like foxes, rabbits and other animals of similar size.  Using large nets, they would scare these animals out from hiding, catch them in the nets, club them to death and then have a large supply of meat for some time.

The authors don’t hold back, revealing all the prevalent theories on what human species was the first to leave Africa, for example, and discuss their own theories.  In some cases there is disagreement between them, such as over the development of language as to whether it was a quick or slow development.  The reader can’t help but get lost in the details and ideas being thrown around, one of the most interesting being that the initial stages of language developed with the relationship between a mother and her baby, possibly communicating in “motherese.”

The Invisible Sex is a combination of books held together in one volume: there is the history of humanity covered from its early evolutionary stages as these ape-like creatures decided to start walking upright, to ideas on how language and then writing developed, to reasons for people ending their nomadic ways and beginning long-term farming; then there is the book where the role of women in prehistory is put straight, complete and clear for the first time, revealing that women had a far larger role than previously thought, and were in fact incremental in a lot of events in history that may never have happened had they not played such an important role.

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Originally written on February 11th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

The Role of Wome in Prehistory

“Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland” by Bryan Sykes (Norton, 2006)

Vikings, Saxons, and Celtsstarstarstarstar

Bryan Sykes, author of The Seven Daughters of Eve and Adam’s Curse, professor of human genetics at Oxford university; has spent many years of his life studying genes, chromosomes, and DNA, specializing in collecting data from all over the world and tracing ancestral lineages back thousands of years.  Sykes was one of the instrumental geneticists in tracing all Europeans back to seven ancestral women.  From this, Sykes now takes on the challenge of determining the ancestry of the British Isles.  How much Saxon, Viking, and Celtic DNA is left in a modern day Englishman?  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts is a bold and ambitious embarkation that reveals the astounding results of Sykes many years of study; while the facts may present more questions of why than answers, Saxons, Vikings and Celts is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century.

Do not be daunted by the prospect of pages of DNA statistics, Sykes goes out of his way to break everything down and explain it in a detailed and simple way; he even warns the reader before the “part with all the numbers.”  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts apart from being a book about DNA and genetics of the British Isles, is also an amazing source for history.  The first chapter is spent setting the scene with Sykes’ career and research.  Chapter two is one of the most brilliant summaries of British history: from the end of Roman rule, through the history of King Arthur, past each important monarch, on to the present status quo; Sykes has an innate ability for explaining things in a way that make their connections obvious to everyone.  The next few chapters are spent explaining his process for collecting the genetic data throughout the British Isles, first with blood samples from schools and blood banks, and then with plastic brushes that are scraped on the inside of the cheek to get skin samples  — an easier method better received by the people donating their samples.  Sykes then dedicates a chapter for each country covering it’s history of immigration with Celts, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, with successive chapters covering the genetic correlation of these specific countries.

The last five pages of the book are what the reader has spent the last two hundred and fifty pages reading to get to; here Sykes correlates all the data together and explains the results, which are astonishing to say the least.  They essentially boil down to this: the genetic makeup of the British Isles mainly consists of the Britons and Celts who have lived there for thousands of years, while the invading Saxon, Viking, and Norman people are but a minor percentage of the total.  What does this all mean?  Sadly, Sykes doesn’t really explain this at all – perhaps he is saving it for another book? – nevertheless, the reader is left coming up with his or her own ideas of what these results mean.  Were the invading peoples not that great in number?  Did they not actually settle in such large numbers, as we think?

While Saxons, Vikings, and Celts may not answer every question you have, the facts that it brings to light with the irrefutable certainty of DNA evidence are enough to spend many years contemplating.  Sykes has even started his own company, Oxford Ancestors (www.oxfordancestors.com), where one can sign up and with a sample can have their DNA traced through ancestors who lived, walked, and breathed thousands of years ago.  For those seeking more facts and answers from Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, they should visit www.bloodoftheisles.net.

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Originally written on February 3rd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.