Review of ‘The illustrated history of humankind’ edited by Goran Burenhult

09th January 2014

‘The illustrated history of humankind’ edited by Goran Burenhult, five volumes.
Volume 1, The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 BC, 1993, Harper-San Francisco, 239 pp. ISBN 0-7022-2690-4 (hbk).
Volume 2, People of the Stone Age: Hunter-Gatherers and Early Farmers, 1993, University of Queensland Press, 240 pp. ISBN 0-7022-2677-7 (hbk).
Volume 3, Old World Civilizations: The Rise of Cities and States, 1994, University of Queensland Press, 240 pp. ISBN 0 7022 2678 5 (hbk).
Volume 4, New World and Pacific Civilizations: Cultures of America, Asia, and the Pacific, 1994, University of Queensland Press, 239 pp. ISBN 0-7022-2679-3 (hbk).
Volume 5, Traditional Peoples Today: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, 1994, University of Queensland Press, 240 pp. ISBN 0-7022-2766-8 (hbk).

Review by Jane Balme

While these books lay on a bench in my room waiting for me to write this review, students, staff and other passers by came in and, drawn by the coffee table covers, picked them up to have a flick through. No one found it easy to put them down. The main reason for this is the illustrations. Although there are now many general reference books on archaeology available, the volumes comprising The Illustrated History of Humankind are the most lavishly illustrated that I have seen. The colour photographs and illustrations in these volumes are of the most extraordinary quality and are a great resource.

The five volumes cover the history of humans in roughly chronological order. The first volume covers human origins, the great apes, origins of language, dating the past and the spread of humans throughout the world. It includes chapters on ‘The settlement of Australia’ and ‘The first Pacific Islanders’. The second volume covers the development of agriculture, with chapters on Africa, Europe, ‘The megalith builders of western Europe’, the Bronze Age, southern and eastern Asia and the New World. It also contains separate chapters called ‘Pacific explorers’ and ‘Australia: The different continent’. The third volume covers the early civilisations and the transition from Bronze Age to Iron Age. The fourth volume covers Mesoamerican and South American societies between 1500 BC and the arrival of Europeans in AD 1520. It also covers societies in Japan between 400 BC and AD 1600, the occupation of the Pacific, Easter Island monuments, Native American agricultural societies and a final chapter called ‘The clash of cultures’ which is about the effects of colonialism. The last volume in the series starts with a chapter on ‘The evolution of races, populations and cultures’, with features on ‘DNA: The code of life’ and ‘Who owns the past?’. The remaining chapters are about traditional societies in various places in the world including chapters on ‘Aboriginal Australia’ and ‘Pacific peoples in the modem world’.

The importance of stunning pictures in books which are designed to present archaeology to non-archaeologists is, of course, that they draw people to the text. In this respect the books differ from most popular reference books. In his preface David Hurst Thomas says that the authors’ aim was not to just present a narrative of the past but to demonstrate how the past is produced and to show that there is not necessarily agreement between researchers about what happened in the past.

They achieve this in two ways. Firstly, rather than being written as a narrative by a few authors, the text is written by over 150 authors all of whom are current scholars in archaeology. Secondly, although there is a loose chronological order, each volume is written around a series of themes and each of these themes contains a narrative essay followed by three or four ‘features’ or shorter essays on individual authors’ research areas.

This organisation has resulted in some unevenness in the way in which the material for each time period is treated. For example, Volume One includes a section called ‘Towards Homo sapiens’ which covers the Habilines, Erectines and Neanderthal. The feature articles in this section cover most of the major debates normally included in first year archaeology courses to try and draw in the students – ‘Mighty hunter or marginal scavenger?’, ‘What do the Zhoukoudian finds tell us?'(this includes a discussion of the cannibalism theory and the debate about evidence for fire), ‘Was there a Neanderthal religion? (including a discussion on the evidence for the cave bear cult, cannibalism and burials) as well as a feature on ‘Dating the past’ which outlines the main dating methods used in archaeology. In contrast the sense of debate is much less clear in the chapters in the same volume on the ‘Settlement of Oceania’ and ‘The first Pacific Islanders’ which are presented much more factually. They both have excellent narrative essays by Peter White followed in the former by a feature on thermoluminescence dating’ by Richard Roberts, a two page photographic feature on ‘Art of the land’, an essay by Richard Cosgrove on ‘Hunters on the edge of the Tasmanian ice’ and another by Tim Flannery on ‘The lost animals of Australia’ which attributes late Pleistocene extinctions to the impact of humans. The latter chapter has features by Tim Flannery on ‘Moving animals from place to place’, by Peter White on ‘Heat treatment: A 50,000-year-old-technology’ and by Tom Loy on ‘From stone to tools: Residue analysis’.

Lots of the topics are the kinds of subject matter that do get people interested in archaeology but here is the major flaw of the book series. If the reader does get interested and wants to know more about a particular topic, there is nothing in this book to help him or her find that further information. None of the articles are referenced and there is no guide to further reading at the back of the book. There is also no consistency between essay writers about whether or not they mention the names of the researchers to whose work they refer. So, for example, in Peter Rowley-Conwy’s feature on ‘What do the Zhoukoudian finds tell us?’, he discusses opposing theories about the interpretation of patterns in Homo erectus skull Fragments but he doesn’t mention the names of the researchers who offer different interpretations. This gives a reader who wants to know more about the issue no clues whatsoever as to how to go about finding more information.

Cross referencing between the same subject matter within each volume or between the volumes would also have been helpful to readers interested in particular topics. For example, the brief discussion on thermoluminescence dating mentioned in a feature article on ‘Dating the past’ could have been cross referenced with the feature on ‘Thermoluminescence dating’ some 78 pages later. Another obvious cross reference would have been between the two feature articles (p.22 and p.46 of Volume One) on the origins of language by Noble and Davidson. The information about Lapita pottery in Volume Four could also have been cross referenced to the Volume Five chapter on the ‘Occupation of the Pacific islands’.

For most non-archaeologists, archaeology is interesting because it is about their own past. So it is the details which allow people to better imagine themselves in past societies which makes particular archaeological stories attractive and our appeal to the public depends on our ability to bring the past to life by providing these details. The fabulous photographs of sites and artefacts in these volumes go a long way towards achieving this. Volumes Three, Four and Five also make use of etchings and photographs of present day people to bring the narrative to life. In addition, Volumes One and Two make use of reconstructions to illustrate the text but there are differences in the way in which these are presented which make those in Volume One more successful than those in Volume Two.

The first volume has a reconstruction of Lucy walking upright while carrying her baby in one hand and some plants with berries in the other. There is also a picture of an early Homo sp. male making an Olduwan tool and another of a Neanderthal family occupying a rockshelter which shows a male hunter, an old male tending a fire and a female sitting by with her baby. A further reconstruction illustrates some people of unknown gender constructing a hut of mammoth bone at Mezhirich. It might have been nice to have less traditional gender divisions but the pictures successfully match the text to show how the archaeological data is used to reconstruct human behaviour.

This is in contrast to the reconstructions in the second volume. These are mainly of village sites but are less successful in bringing the past to life because no one is at home in any of the villages. The reconstruction of Catal Huyuk (pp.30-1) in a feature on ‘Cults at Catal Huyuk’ is very detailed but the lack of any humans in the reconstruction doesn’t give the impression that anything, let alone cults, is happening there at all. Similarly the pictures of Mesolithic villages (p.64) show huts containing lit fires but no one is tending the fires. The Late Bronze Age settlement on page 109 is also vacant. Who is minding the sheep in the background? If the main purpose of reconstructions is to show that the past is human it is important to include humans in the pictures.

Despite all of this the books are great. They provide a good narrative of the history of humankind. Most of the feature articles are written in an exciting style and are about subjects which will undoubtedly attract non-archaeologists to the discipline. It is the pictures that make these books a wonderful resource for archaeologists too.

Balme, J.
Review of 'The illustrated history of humankind’ edited by Goran Burenhult
December 1996
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