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The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE

The New Oxford World History:
The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE
Ian Tattersall
Oxford, 2008

Focusing on early humans to the exclusion of non-human biology or world geology, this lean book may have been more accurately titled The History of Humans on Earth to the End of the Stone Age, Minus Continental Drift, Half a Billion Years of Crowded Life, and Everything Prior to Us. But this is an objection to the title only; what this new book covers, it covers well.

The New Oxford World Histories are an ambitious and timely project. If The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is a representative sample, the series will be sharp, engaging, and concise. Probably useless to specialists, this is an excellent book for the general intelligent reader: a tight, fast-moving work of equal parts science, history, and the history of science.

Following brief primers on the work of archeologists, evolutionary biologists, and paleo-anthropologists, Ian Tattersall expertly walks the reader through what differentiates early humans (all twelve or so species) from their close ancestors. We get loads of comparative skeletal analysis (clearly a love of Tattersall’s) and a convincing explanation of how we hominids spread into the world and what made our rapid migration possible (not our special brains, it turns out, but our special hip joints).

Without resorting to conjecture, Tattersall describes the lives of Neanderthals, Eargasters, and their kin, sorting through their complex and incomplete ancestral trees. And if he doesn’t practice the kind of storytelling that would have made these dry bones come alive, readers at least get plenty of interesting nuggets to show off with, like “the pattern of fractured and healed bones in Neanderthal skeletons resembles that among rodeo riders today” due to their “frequent close encounters with unfriendly animals.” These same Neanderthals, he tells us, tamed fire and built shelters. They protected the weaker members of their group; they buried their dead.

Then we arrived.

Although Tattersall mourns the loss of the art-making hunter-gatherer culture and the ecological damage wrought by crop cultivation, he acknowledges that Homo Sapiens were doing plenty of damage before we set down to farming: killing off not only most of the big animals but the rest of the early humans. For a time, he gingerly steps around the subject of what exactly happened to all of these hominid cousins of ours, before admitting:

Although (or perhaps because) it is the Cro-Magnons’ creativity that we find most impressive about them, these people, like us, certainly also had a dark side. And it may well have been expressed in the Neanderthals’ disappearance.

Why Tattersall should be so delicate about the subject, I have no idea. But the rest of the story proceeds with confidence.

This promises to be an exciting new series from Oxford. Let the great work begin.

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John Cotter
‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.