fire

Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human

7-minute read

Where do humanity’s evolutionary roots lie? The answer has long been “in Africa”, but this idea is being challenged from various sides. I previously reviewed Begun’s The Real Planet of the Apes as a warming-up exercise before delving into this book. My conclusion was that its discussion of archaic ape evolution, although proposing that species moved back and forth between Africa and Eurasia, ultimately did not really challenge the Out of Africa hypothesis. Not so Ancient Bones. German palaeontologist Madeleine Böhme, With the help of two co-authors, journalists Rüdiger Braun and Florian Breier, firmly challenges the established narrative in an intriguing book that is as outspoken as it is readable.

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Book review – Neanderthal Language: Demystifying the Linguistic Powers of our Extinct Cousins

7-minute read

Neanderthals have enjoyed quite the renaissance in the last decade or so, with research attributing skills and capacities to them once considered uniquely human. One of the most contested claims in this arena is language. Since (spoken) language does not fossilise, nor leave material traces in the archaeological record, the case for Neanderthal language relies on indirect evidence. In this book, linguist Rudolf Botha takes a hard-nosed look at why this matter is so controversial and offers a framework to properly tackle it.

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Book review – The Journeys of Trees: A Story about Forests, People, and the Future

6-minute read

We tend to think of forests as static. Trees, after all, do not move. But that is a perspective foisted upon us by our limbed existence. Science reporter Zach St. George unmasks this illusion in plain terms: when trees die or new ones sprout, the forest has moved a bit. “The migration of a forest is just many trees sprouting in the same direction.” (p. 2)

There is no shortage of books on trees, but this sounded like such an unusual take on the subject that I was utterly stoked when I learned of The Journeys of Trees. A journalist who delves into the palaeontological record to consider the slow-motion of movement of forests over deep time? Get in here!

The Journeys of Trees
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Book review – Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

7-minute read

Whatever mental image you have of our close evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, it is bound to be incomplete. Kindred is an ambitious book that takes in the full sweep of 150 years of scientific discovery and covers virtually every facet of their biology and culture. Archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has drawn on her extensive experience communicating science outside of the narrow confines of academia to write a book that is as accessible as it is informative, and that stands out for its nuance and progressive outlook. Is this a new popular science benchmark?

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Book review – Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings

7-minute read

To figure out how old a tree is, all you have to do is count its rings, and some truly ancient trees grace the pages of this book. But, as tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet shows, that is the least fascinating thing you can derive from wood. Revealing the inner workings of the academic field formally known as dendrochronology, Tree Story is an immersive jaunt through archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history. A beautifully written and designed book, it highlights the importance and usefulness of tree rings in reconstructing past climate and linking it to human history.

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Book review – The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching & the Cognitive Revolution

6-minute read

Why are we, from an evolutionary standpoint, the last man standing? This question fascinates archaeologists and anthropologists, and the dominant narrative is one of humans outcompeting other hominin lineages, driving them extinct. In the process, our evolutionary cousins, such as Neanderthals, always get the short end of the stick, being clumsier, dumber, or just generally inferior to us. In a book that is both a popular summary of his work and a critique of current thinking in archaeology, evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson aims to redress this balance. Neanderthals, he says, were a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and one unexpected line of evidence comes from the birds that lived alongside them.

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Book review – The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us

Historically, humans have long considered themselves special compared to the natural world around them. It shows, for example, in old depictions where humans are at or near the top of a chain of lifeforms, with only angels and gods above us. Darwin caused a tremendous ruckus by saying we were descended from primates, and evolutionary biology has since had a long history of diminishing our anthropocentric worldview. With The Book of Humans, self-professed science geek Adam Rutherford has written an entertaining exploration of human evolution, showing that, amidst the teeming multitudes of lifeforms surrounding us, we are really not that special. And yet we are.

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Book review – Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

History books tend to portray the transition of humans as hunter-gatherers to farmers – and with it the rise of cities, states and what we think of as civilization at large – as one of progress and improvement. But with Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott challenges this narrative. That our switch to an existence as sedentary farmers impacted our health is something I was familiar with from palaeopathological findings, see for example Ungar’s Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins or Hassett’s Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. But Scott tackles this subject from many angles, summarising accumulating archaeological and historical evidence to provide a fine counter-narrative.

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Book review – Burning Planet: The Story of Fire Through Time

Fire is a force of nature that both fascinates and frightens. Large wildfires around the world seem to be on the rise and are a cause of concern due to the risk to lives and property. But fire also is an essential part of the workings of our planet that pre-dates humans by a long time. How long? For the last 40 years, geologist and palaeobotanist Andrew C. Scott has researched plant remains in the fossil record that have been preserved by fire in the form of fossil charcoal. In Burning Planet, he takes you on a 400-million-year deep-history tour of fire and how it has shaped our planet.

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