archaeology

Book review – The Complete History of the Black Death (Second Edition)

11-minute read

Earlier this year, Princeton University Press published The World the Plague Made. Since I do not know all that much about the medieval plague pandemic known as the Black Death, I innocently said to myself: “let’s do some homework”. Coincidentally, Boydell Press recently published The Complete History of the Black Death by Norwegian emeritus professor of history Ole J. Benedictow, which is a substantially updated version of his 2004 book The Black Death 1346–1353: The Complete History. Just a little bit of homework… Little did I know that I would spend the next 38(!) days soldiering my way through this tome, which is an unprecedentedly long time for me. Did this exercise result in a deeper understanding of the plague? On many levels, yes, but with some caveats, and a note that this book is not light reading.

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Book review – Tears for Crocodilia: Evolution, Ecology, and the Disappearance of One of the World’s Most Ancient Animals

7-minute read

Being of the large and toothy kind, crocodiles have a bit of a public relations problem. Fortunately for them, people such as biologist Zach Fitzner fight their corner. For Tears for Crocodilia, he has gone to great lengths to give the reader a well-rounded picture of crocodilians (the name for the order; its living members are divided over three families: alligators & caimans, true crocodiles, and gharials). This ambitious and wide-ranging debut draws on scientific literature to give a primer on their biology, on personal experience working in and travelling to different countries to introduce the main groups, and on interviews with scientists, zookeepers, and conservationists to include a wide range of viewpoints.

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Book review – The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

10-minute read

Every few years, it seems, there is a new bestselling Big History book. And not infrequently, they have rather grandiose titles. Who does not remember Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years or Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind? But equally often, these books rapidly show their age and are criticized for oversimplifying matters. And so I found myself with The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a 692-page brick with an equally grandiose title. In what follows, I hope to convince you why I think this book will stand the test of time better.

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Book review – The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present

7-minute read

Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur’s Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.

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Book review – The Process of Animal Domestication

7-minute read

It is tempting to call animal domestication humanity’s oldest and longest-running experiment, but professor of palaeobiology Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra would beg to differ. It is worth opening with a quote from The Process of Animal Domestication to set the tone: “domestication is actually pretty poor as experiments go; there are too many variables involved with little control, and no records of how things started” (p. 206). The excellent structure prevents it from becoming an overwhelming infodump, making this a valuable synthesis of data across a large number of disciplines that will interest a wide range of researchers.

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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.

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Book review – Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness

9-minute read

In Being a Human, Charles Foster attempts to inhabit three past eras to find out first-hand how humans came to be who they are. He lives like an Upper Palaeolithic hunter–gatherer, an early farmer in the Neolithic, and he briefly visits the Enlightenment—or so we are promised. When I received this book, I was, admittedly, slightly unsure. Any attempt to live like past humans, especially hunter–gatherers, is fraught with difficulties as so many things have irrevocably changed: the flora and fauna, the landscape, the knowledge most of us have gained (you cannot really unsee germ theory) but also lost (who here can kill and prepare an animal or make a fire without modern tools?), or the fact that we lived in large communal groups. When the flap text also mentions shamanic journeys I was fearing the worst: am I about to witness yet another affluent man’s mid-life crisis?

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Book review – The Incredible Journey of Plants

5-minute read

Italian plant neurobiologist (yes, this is a thing) Stefano Mancuso previously impressed me with The Revolutionary Genius of Plants. With The Incredible Journey of Plants, he has written a captivating collection of vignettes around the subject of plant migration. We tend not to think of plants as moving creatures because they are rooted to the ground. But this, as Mancuso shows, is where we are mistaken.

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Book review – Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History

7-minute read

It might sound crass to write that the COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest in a long line of infectious disease outbreaks, but a little perspective helps. Historian Kyle Harper previously impressed me with his study on the role of climate and disease in the decline of the Roman Empire. In Plagues Upon the Earth, he offers a global, multidisciplinary environmental history of infectious disease, showing that it is a force that has both shaped and been shaped by human history. This magnificent book stood out as much for its nuance and academic rigour as it did for its readability.

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Book review – The Wood Age: How One Material Shaped the Whole of Human History

7-minute read

Throughout human history, wood has been our constant, if somewhat overlooked companion. With The Wood Age, professor of biological sciences Roland Ennos delivers an eye-opening piece of environmental history. Reaching beyond the boundaries of this discipline, it gives the reader a comprehensive picture of how we have shaped wood and how, in turn, wood has shaped us.

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