When I first starting teaching world history, I found the prospect of exploring the origins of agriculture daunting. Over the past three years, my interest in and enthusiasm for the topic has grown enormously. I credit this change in attitude to the publication of accessible and engaging analyses such as Christian’s Maps of Time, Peter Bellwood’s First Farmers, and Steven Mithen’s After the Ice. Christian’s work is valuable as a critical synthesis of current theories and Bellwood’s book offers the best appraisal of available linguistic evidence. For breadth and depth of coverage and supporting evidence, though, After the Ice is unrivalled.
After the Ice was first published in London in 2003 and up to the present, it has been difficult to find in bookstores outside of the UK. Fortunately, Harvard University Press have recognised the potential of the work both as a scholarly and teaching text. As the subtitle announces, the work offers a global account of communities between 22,000 and 7,000 years ago. Mithen’s use of the word ‘global’ is appropriate, for the forty nine chapters that form the core of the work take readers to Natufian communities in the Middle East, Clovis hunters in North America, Kuk Swamp farmers in Papua New Guinea, hunter gatherers in Tasmania, the Jomon in Japan, pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa and the well-known centre of Çatalhöyök in present-day Turkey. Mithen’s descriptions foreground current research, particularly that in archaeology. These, in combination with generous footnotes and an extensive bibliography mean that the work will be of interest to scholars and graduate students. For historiographers and undergraduate students, there is the added device of Mithen imagining his focus communities being observed by the Victorian author of Prehistoric Times (1865), John Lubbock. Mithen’s Lubbock sometimes lingers on the margins of the narrative, but his presence will be enough to encourage advanced undergraduates to think about how the study of world prehistory and archaeology have changed over the last century.
Mithen’s work has made it possible for me to revise the very general essay question I used to set first year undergraduate students on the origins of agriculture to the following:
Using two to three examples from different parts of the world, examine and compare the reasons why people did or did not adopt agriculture.
In their responses, students have taken advantage of the scope of the work to explore the activities of communities in the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa and Oceania, and to better fill out existing accounts on the fertile crescent that stretches from Israel to Northern Turkey to the Gulf estuaries of Iraq. Previously, their analyses lacked specific evidence, or presumed experiences in Western Asia could be used as a template for the rest of the world. And although he does not discuss the point explicitly, Mithen’s work clearly fosters an appreciation of the varying experiences of communities that are often bundled into a monolithic ‘prehistory’. In particular, he shows us that not all communities embraced or were forced into agriculture as a result of population growth, sedentism or climate change. Sedentism meant agriculture for the Natufians, but it did not for the Jomon or for such Northwest Native American peoples as the Tlingit.
At five hundred pages, and with few illustrations, After the Ice may not be the best text for students and teachers under time pressure. The brevity and relative self-sufficiency of each of the chapters, though, offers teachers the opportunity to assign segments of the text. A class may consider the same portion of the text, or even better, divide up a selection of chapters for discussion. Students can be asked to identify the evidence that Mithen uses, and to comment on whether it and his narrative strategies are persuasive. If students record the key points of each chapter on a board, there also exists an opportunity for comparative analysis. I have also asked students to address the shortage of illustrations by finding suitable ones through an internet search. This activity has been informative for students, highlighting both the challenges of conducting archaeological research on this period and the relative lack of attention given to early African agrarian and pastoral communities on the web.
Students have also managed to detect some of the limits of Mithen’s work. A memorable moment for me this past semester was when a first-year undergraduate observed that Mithen needed to take more account of topography in his analysis of agriculture in South America. While on a short trip to the Puna and Quebrada de Humahuaca in Argentina, the student took photos to support his identification of relatively distinct highland and plains farming activities. Three of his photographs accompany this review. Still other students have noted Mithen’s failure to tackle perhaps one of the most vexed questions in world history: whether agriculture ushered in gender inequality. Perhaps the most serious problem with Mithen’s work is the absence of an analytical conclusion. Having assembled a rich and detailed global survey, his brief epilogue on anthropogenic climate change seems out of place. Far more valuable would be an analysis that draws together observations across the chapters. For instance, does population growth best explain the independent emergence of agriculture in multiple localities around the world? Or should we steer away from a global hypothesis? At present, Mithen leaves that work to his readers, and this may be too difficult a task for many undergraduate students.
After the Ice is a much needed work on the history of human communities between 22000 and 700 years ago. Its length and relatively extensive scholarly framework may make it appear inaccessible to undergraduate students. However, I have found it an invaluable text for first-year undergraduates. Many of them, like me, have Mithen to thank for our critical appreciation of a period that is all too often skirted over in other world history texts.
Early agriculture in the Puna grasslands, Argentina, with thanks to HIST112 student, Ernest Roux.