Book Review: Europe Before Rome
by T. Douglas Price
Oxford University Press, 2013
The epic dividing line here is the stomp of Rome. Not just the hobnailed tread of her legionaries, but the countless civilians who followed: farmers, masons, engineers, merchants, accountants, and record-keepers. When a region is under that stomp, it’s obedient to time and conjecture; it winks back at the peering present with much more composure; it commences to make sense. Take away that stomp – as, for instance, we’ve seen in Robin Fleming’s excellent book Britain After Rome, and the glass fogs up considerably. But we at least know in such cases that the stomp happened: its outlines, however vague, can reassure.
All trace of such reassurance is gone when we look at the yawning expanse of human history before the stomp. That expanse is the subject of T. Douglas Price’s enormous, magnificent new book, Europe Before Rome, in which he tries to show us, in his clear, amiable prose, just about as much as experts currently know about the long prehistory of mankind. He focuses on the ongoing discoveries being made in a few dozen archaeological digs in locations ranging from Stonehenge to Pompeii (where there’s mounting evidence of an ancient eruption of Vesuvius vastly worse than the one that buried the city in A.D. 79). We visit Atapuerca, Spain, to learn of the human ancestors who lived there 900,000 years ago and contended with giant rhinos, panthers, bears, and wolves; we stare again the ghostly hand traced on a cave wall 32,000 years ago in Chauvet, France; we see artists’ reconstructions of the surprisingly substantial homes built in Gonnersdorf, Germany, 11,500 years ago; we puzzle right alongside Price and the on-site experts wondering about three people found buried together in the Czech Republic’s Dolni Vestonice 27,500 years ago, wondering what all the details can mean:
The bodies had been buried with special care. The skeletons leaned into one another, like nestled question marks. Both young men had been laid to rest with their heads encircled with necklaces of pierced canine teeth and ivory; the one with the pole thrust up to his coccyx may also have been wearing some kind of painted mask. All three skulls were covered in red ocher. The woman was placed between her two companions. The man on her left lay on his stomach, facing away from her but with his left arm linked with hers. The other male lay on his back, his head turned toward her. Both of his arms were reaching out, so that his hand rested on her pubis. The ground surrounding this intimate connection was splashed with red ochre.
All throughout the book, Price is an eminently sensible and interesting guide, and he often surprises by adding oddly lyrical descriptive bits to his survey. Visitors to (or, God forbid, residents of) the far-flung Orkney Islands, for example, will nod in agreement when Price writes, “Light and wind define the place” (and they’ll nod a bit more grimly when he adds simply, “The wind is always”)
But the most central question to emerge from Europe Before Rome is as basic as basic gets: “When did we become human?” So great is the span of time encompassed by the various digs featured in this book that, when combined, those disparate places tell something like the story of mankind, which Price traces not just through the development of settlements and technology, but also through the flinty remains of softer concerns:
Between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis became Neanderthal across Europe. The human brain reached its present-day size. New tools and ideas prevailed against the harsh environment. Life became something more than eating, sleeping, and reproducing. Burial of the dead and care for the handicapped and injured illustrate concern for fellow hominins. The remains of an elderly man buried at La-Chappelle-aux-Saints in France indicated that he had suffered from severe paralysis and arthritis, including a broken jaw and missing teeth. Given those limitations, he must have been cared for in the last years of his life.
Any discussion of paleontological compassion must occasionally bump up against opposite emotions, of course, especially since analyzing the evidence of so many different kinds of tool-using society-starting hominids raises a loud and embarrassingly unavoidable question: where are they all now? The answer is equally unavoidable, but archaeologists avoid it anyway. Price is content to raise the question:
Two big, related questions about Neanderthals stand out. The nature of the Neanderthals is one; were they like us? Current thinking seems to favor more alike than different. This question is in fact closely related to the second, concerned with their fate: What happened to the Neanderthals, who became extinct after 30,000 years ago?
Price comes away from all the ongoing research so ably summarized in his book with an upbeat attitude, a “sense of hope”:
My strongest sense from what I have learned as an archaeologist remains a basic optimism for our species. In every way, we are artifacts, manufactured over a very long period of time, created by the actions and experiences of our ancestors … There is an unusual quality about the human species – an enormous potential in the human intellect, with its remarkable inventiveness for coping with change.
How he can look at all the things he shows his readers in these pages … fields, pastures, and whole valleys silted five feet deep in bones of Homo sapiens’ victims, fossilized evidence of torture, murder, cannibalism, and genocide at practically every camp site, and most damning of all, the disappearance all across prehistoric Europe of virtually every large animals species – and every last human species – taking place almost as soon as modern-day humans appear on the scene … how he – or anybody – can look at all that and feel hope is almost as big a mystery as anything all these scientists are so patiently dusting out of the ground. Europe Before Rome shows us a fascinating record in sharper detail than any such popular overview has ever done. But it’s an absolutely terrifying record.
Archeologists rarely find flesh on the bones of the past.