Book review – Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us

7-minute read

We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today’s inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

Jungle

Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us, written by Patrick Roberts, published in Europe by Viking Books in June 2021 (hardback, 405 pages)

In 2019, Roberts published Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity with Oxford University Press. A rather expensive book that is dense and scholarly, I was nevertheless very impressed with it. Naturally, the first question is whether Jungle rehashes that book for a general audience. It does, but only to an extent. Next to being far more outspoken, Roberts has also decided to make this the complete and utter history of tropical forests by taking you all the way back to the beginning. Jungle thus ends up being a book of three parts.

First is a deep-time history that starts in the Cambrian with the arrival of the first land plants some 500 million years ago. Plants quickly became a planet-shaping force. Increased rock weathering drew down atmospheric CO2, leading to an ice age marking the Ordovician-Silurian boundary, while Carboniferous forests in death ultimately became the coal reserves fuelling our Industrial Revolution. This part of the book also retreads dinosaur and mammal evolution by focusing on what is normally the vegetal backdrop to this story. There are many surprises in store when you take a plant perspective. For example, palaeontology has accustomed us to the idea of five mass extinctions, but, as one paper puts it plainly, the plant fossil record reflects just two great extinction events. And mammal evolution saw two radiations well before the dinosaurs went extinct, the first linked to Jurassic gymnosperm-dominated forests, the second to the encroachment of angiosperms in tropical forests during the Cretaceous.

Similar counterintuitive delights await you when Roberts turns to the story of human evolution, which was the starting point of his previous book. The idea that we evolved by venturing onto the savannah makes sense on the face of it, Roberts admits, but look harder and the role of forests becomes apparent. Bipedality may very well have evolved in the trees, as evidenced by the limbs of Ardipithecus ramidus. And savannahs are not just endless rolling grasslands but encompass a range of plant types, including trees and forest patches. Roberts also favours a pan-African model for the origins of Homo sapiens. We did not originate in one single place – instead, “our ancestors lived in distinct, but interconnected, populations across Africa” (p. 102). And when it comes to our dispersal around the world, forests had their role to play, next to savannahs and coastal routes: “our species was not a one-trick pony and was, quite literally, everywhere by the close of the Pleistocene” (p. 114)”. Humans are nothing if not flexible generalists.

“archaeological evidence […] of plant cultivation in tropical forests […] “gives us a remarkable lens into some of the most ecologically savvy farmers there ever were“”

The second part of the book covers our prehistory. Here, Roberts the archaeological evidence of the long history of plant cultivation in tropical forests and how it “give[s] us a remarkable lens into some of the most ecologically savvy farmers there ever were” (p. 131). These farmers left the forests largely standing, even if species composition was modified. Similarly, island archaeology has revealed that, with some sensibility, humans have long coexisted with native fauna on small and supposedly fragile islands. Finally, thanks to modern remote sensing technology such as laser scanning, there is the spectacular revelation that the tropics were home to large cities and thriving civilizations. Rather than our blinkered view of what cities look like, archaeologists refer to them as agrarian-based, low-density urbanism, and Roberts suggests that they could be “an attractive model for present-day urban planners looking for ‘green cities’” (p. 170).

The third part of Jungle is the most outspoken and confrontational. Here, Roberts covers the era of colonial exploitation from the fifteenth century onwards, including the horrors of the demographic collapse following the Columbian exchange and the ensuing trans-Atlantic slave trade. He convincingly argues how these lay the groundwork for today’s economic and social inequalities. We enriched ourselves at the expense of tropical regions and today still take for granted many tropical products such as coffee, palm oil, and rubber. Simultaneously, we left behind impoverished regions that are now struggling in the face of climate change, deforestation, and soil erosion. These countries have become entangled in a global capitalist system in which their natural resources serve an insatiable export market rather than people at home. Roberts explicitly calls out that we all have our responsibility as consumers. When it comes to conservation, he particularly urges us to support and consult Indigenous people and be humble enough to acknowledge that Western science does not hold all the answers. Sometimes, Indigenous communities have the best local solutions based on intimate knowledge.

“What I particularly enjoyed is that Roberts retains nuance throughout and never shies away from complex realities […] history is frequently complicated and messy.”

Roberts is also critical of the concept of the Anthropocene. Our long history of impact on tropical forests can be used to argue for various starting points of this epoch, and, frankly, the name is inappropriate as it “is not a product of humanity as a whole, nor has it impacted all of humanity equally” (p. 249). I am sympathetic to the latter argument and agree that the former shows a gradual buildup of impact. Nevertheless, I find the concept of the Great Acceleration centred on the 1950s a convincing argument – to me, it represents a clear break with what came before in terms of speed and scale of our impact.

These are but some of the highlights of this information-dense book. What I particularly enjoyed is that Roberts retains nuance throughout and never shies away from complex realities. For example, despite the history of agriculture and cities in forests, disturbance and collapses did happen, though they were not always as dramatic and complete as we might envision them. Demographic collapse following the Columbian exchange was as much a consequence of microbes as of violence and forced relocations, as others have also argued. Simultaneously, Europeans tapped into existing networks of slave trade and interregional warfare, and some African tribes used it to further their own geopolitical ends. Though none of this should be interpreted as letting Europeans off the hook, it does show that history is frequently complicated and messy. One criticism is that Jungle is occasionally let down by somewhat convoluted writing. Especially in early chapters, there are a few sentences that run on for seven or eight lines with subclauses and bracketed sub-subclauses. Fortunately, the writing improves in later chapters. To complete that feedback sandwich I will praise the many illustrations, including some nice infographics designed just for this book.

Jungle is an immensely interesting book that offers a fine revisionist history of conventional narratives in archaeology and anthropology. A worthy follow-up to his 2019 book that expands on the material presented there, it offers much food for thought. If you have any interest in tropical forests I highly recommend you read this book.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Jungle

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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5 comments

    1. Thanks! Unless you don’t like the book venturing into political territory towards the end (some reviewers on goodreads didn’t like this) I would go for Jungle. The Oxford UP book is a lot more expensive. If you really want the academic lowdown though, the Oxford UP book would be the one to go for.

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      1. I checked, over 100 euros. Crazy. Not in line with a university´s mission, if I may say so. Regardless of cost, I think it´ll be Jungle, seems more broad too, I like a deep time approach.

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