Spirals in Time discusses shells — all kinds of shells and shelled creatures — with all kinds of weird and wonderful facts… and others I feel like I really should have known. (An octopus is a mollusc!) If you’re interested in shells already, I’m sure it’s fascinating, but I ended up a bit lost and a bit, well… lacking in giving a shit. Scales’ enthusiasm is palpable, but I’m just not interested enough.
Besides which, I totally agree that anthropogenic climate change is real, but somehow being preached at about it in every book I read is beginning to get on my nerves. Yes, thanks, I know all this! I know there’s value in it being there and it’s all true and important, but… arggh! Somehow it’s becoming, unfairly, a pet hate.
This isn’t actually a bad book, just not my thing.
Patrick Nunn’s premise is that oral traditions may preserve details about events from a long time ago — not just decades, but centuries, and even millennia. He goes about trying to prove this by taking inundation stories as an example, linking them to post-glacial sea rise events, and trying to prove that the stories accurately depict the experiences of the tellers’ ancestors. I think his basic point is proven anyway: we know that oral traditions can preserve an amazing amount of detail over astonishing lengths of time. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down long after the events they describe, with clear features showing they were actually performed aloud and passed from person to person in a feat of memory. We know that this survival wasn’t just a matter of a generation or two, because the stories contain clear details that were no longer relevant to the time when the stories were actually written down: weaponry, customs and geopolitics were different, but are preserved in the epics with a surprising degree of fidelity.
However, I think Nunn tries to go too far, and is generally pretty unsound. For one example that made me question his research, he mentions his theory that people originally created rock art as a sort of aide-memoire, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have done anything that didn’t aid in survival — that it must be so, because they wouldn’t have had time for anything other than survival. However, the 40 hour work week is actually a purely post-Industrial construct: modern hunter-gatherers — even living in a world circumscribed by land ownership and industry, i.e. with nowhere near the range they would have had prehistorically — need to spend far less time on subsistence. Anything from 2 hours a day to 8 hours is suggested, most of it on the lower end of that scale; if nothing else, hunter-gatherers had the same amount of free time as modern humans, likely more.
That’s a comparatively minor point, but it definitely made me sceptical. Add to that Nunn’s tendency to use phrases like “it is plausible to assume” and “it seems likely”, and his rather circular attempts to use sea levels to date the stories and stories to date the sea levels, and I’m extra-sceptical. These are mythic stories — things like a kangaroo digging a hole that causes the sea to flood in — and his interpretations are faltering. Does it mean X? Does it mean Y? At one point he says the presence of a particular feature in a story proved it referred to a permanent inundation and then later, though I suspect this was bad editing, seems to say the opposite of another story (it didn’t contain the same feature, and therefore still referred to a permanent inundation — what?!).
I think Nunn attempts to use two things that are necessarily imprecise to date each other, and gets tangled up in the relationship between those. I’d much rather see some underwater archaeology to show that people were living in these locations at the right time, as a kind of independent third corroboration. I think he’s particularly shaky when he discusses stories where drowned buildings are clearly visible beneath the water: it’s obvious that those stories cannot be purely handed down from the time of the inundation, but will have been reinforced, changed, or possibly even invented by new tellers, when the drowned buildings were observed in later times.
The basic premise that oral culture can preserve some astonishing detail from very far in the past is undeniable, and I commend Nunn’s use and examination of Australian Aboriginal stories in particular — I think it was a sound choice given their isolation from other people’s and the strength of their oral culture. I just think Nunn tries to stand up a stool with only two legs (the stories and sea levels), and should definitely have thought about other ways to establish his theories.
Obviously this is not my field in any sense, though I have a background in scientific investigation, so take my opinion for what you think that’s worth. I found the book interesting and largely well-written, even if the arguments are weak. I did find the recounting of every single individual inundation story known to the author rather tedious. There’s something like 21 one of them: pick the best ones, dude. Make a table to compare them. Just… something!
Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Donald Johanson, Maitland Edey
This book might be a little old by now, and somewhat superceded by discoveries of other Austrolopithecines and Homo naledi, but it’s excellent for getting a solid understanding of the issues surrounding how we understand human evolution. It’s also excellent as a way of understanding the kind of environment that kind of research and debate is going on within — things have changed now in several ways, no doubt, but the methods of study and research are still true, and an understanding of the existing fossils –and how they were categorised — from when Johanson wrote is still useful.
I have to admit, I wondered about the obvious sour grapes between Johanson and the Leakeys that came up several times in this book. They were such renowned scientists — and honestly, I’d still remember their names before Johanson’s, despite the fame of ‘Lucy’ — but they were so wrong and so unscientific, in this view. It makes me wonder. Obviously, personal bias is likely to have coloured things here!
My favourite part was probably the final section, in which Johanson discussed theories about why humans are bipedal. It’s clearly argued, and while I agree with the critique mentioned in the book itself (I love the line “I’ve never seen an estrus fossil” as a retort), it mostly hangs pretty well together. (Basically: humans are bipedal to effectively look after children, increasing the number of offspring one woman can have; an advantage over most apes, who keep to one child at a time.)
The Mummies of Ürümchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Mummies of Ürümchi discusses the rather Caucasian looking bodies found, naturally mummified by sand and salt, in the Tarim Basin, northwest China. These bodies were found with amazingly well-preserved textile grave goods, and that is the main focus of this book. Barber tries to discover where these people came from, linking their technology, customs and textiles to what we know of other related people’s.
I wasn’t expecting to read another book so strongly focused on textiles right after I read The Golden Thread, but I guess I came well-equipped. And I love that there’s colour plates with good photos of some of the discussed items — they haven’t fallen prey to the urge to just show the mummies, although several of the plates do.
A little out of date by now, yes, but fascinating.
This was exactly my kind of pop-history: a narrow focus on a particular subject in various different time periods and geographical locations. In this case, Kassia St Clair looks at the development and importance of fabric throughout history, from the earliest fabrics known to modern stretch fabrics used in the Olympics and high tech designs used on the Moon. The obvious fabrics like linen and silk and wool obviously get plenty of play here, with peeks at their influence on history (and the influence of history on them). I found it very absorbing, and enjoyed the way she gave a glimpse of the importance of fabrics in a lot of different contexts.
If you enjoy the Great British Sewing Bee, some of this will be familiar already, but there’s also plenty more to learn…
In this book, Walter Alvarez discusses the problem, process and solution in figuring out how the KT boundary extinction happened (yep, that’s the death of the dinosaurs). Despite the rather sensational sounding title, it’s a thoughtful book: aimed at the layperson, undoubtedly, but still discussing the process of obtaining evidence, and what that evidence means, in some detail. I found his writing incredibly clear, and though I’m not exactly the right person to judge, I think any intelligent and interested person should be able to follow his arguments.
It’s also oddly charming that instead of talking about Luis Alvarez (Nobel prizewinning scientist) by name, or even as “my father”, he’s called “Dad” throughout. “Dad thought up this idea… I spoke to Dad…” etc.
Obviously, Alvarez doesn’t present many downsides to his own theory, and I imagine there have been more refinements and adjustments since this was published in 1997, but it’s still a surprisingly compulsive read. The opening is surprisingly literary, revealing a love of Tolkien.
This is part of a series on “Lost Civilisations”, but Shipley pushes back on that idea from the start — Angkor Wat, for example, was never “lost” to local people; it was “discovered” by non-local people who acted as though locals had no connection to it, and this is a pattern that keeps repeating: Westerners find something monumental and assume that it has been “lost” and the civilisation that created it is dead, etc, etc. I don’t want to get into the truths and lies about that or debate it too much, but I found it interesting and refreshing to view history and archaeology this way.
The Etruscans are pretty enigmatic, and frequently portrayed as such, partly because we don’t have much insight into their language. The amount of Etruscan we have to work with is steadily growing as finds are made, though, and maybe someday soon we’ll know more. Shipley takes the reader on a tour of the finds we have got, focusing each chapter on a single find or site to tease out what it says about the Etruscans on various topics, including the position of women in their society (often portrayed as rather egalitarian). I enjoyed it very much: Shipley writes well and makes her points very clearly. It helps that the book has a lot of colour photographs as well, and the finds are well-chosen: I love the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, in particular.
Definitely what I was looking for. I wonder how good the other books in this series are…
A more accurate, but less attention-drawing title, would be something like “How the Irish helped to preserve the literary records of the Greeks and Romans”. In parts, it’s more of a history of the fall of Rome than about the Irish, and in others, it’s more about the coming of Christianity to Ireland. Cahill’s portrait of St Patrick is rather tender and actually worth the read if you’re interested in reading about a saint who seemed to be a bit of a stand-up bloke, but… none of this is actually about saving civilisation in any kind of general sense.
Which all makes sense, because awesome as Ireland can be, saving civilisation is a bit too big a task. I don’t even agree with Cahill in the sense that Greek and Roman literature and philosophy were that necessary for later civilisation to exist — there would be civilisation, I’m sure: it just wouldn’t be Western civilisation. There’s way too much privileging of the Classical and Christian tradition in this book, in a way that’s kind of gross if you consider how many other civilisations have existed. He’s also a patronising dick about medieval people in general, spouting cliches all over about their views and inner feelings in a generalising and condescending sort of way. Meh.
Cahill is certainly invested in his subject matter, and fascinated by what he’s writing: he portrays St Patrick in particular with sympathy and care. However, there’s that basic premise being all wrong, the condescension towards whole peoples and ways of life, and the condescension to the reader in assuming they’ve never encountered Plato and couldn’t possibly understand what Plato is saying.
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford
It’s an ambitious title, and it should come as no surprise that that’s not really a history of everyone who ever lived. It’s really a story about some of the things we know from our genes, and it’s a bit of a random sampling at that, covering ear wax (those who have studied genetics will find this no-shocker, since wet vs sticky earwax is a fairly common example of a certain kind of genetic trait), kings, disease, migration, redheads, and all kinds of things in between. To me, it read like a grab bag of interesting facts we know about genetics: yes, the facts are interesting, but a coherent argument leading through a book it is not.
Rutherford’s not a bad writer, and he clearly has an eye for a good story, but… first of all, this level of pop-science is a bit too pop for me now, and secondly, it’s a disorganised mess.
Threads of Life is a history of the world through sewing, from the Bayeux Tapestry to modern protest banners. Obviously, part of the reason it caught my attention is that I’m doing a fair bit of sewing (cross-stitch) myself at the moment — but also, I’m a sucker for this kind of micro-history that focuses in on one particular element of the human experience of history. In this case, there’s a lot of personal musing too: the author has been involved with a lot of community projects and art initiatives encouraging people to sew, bringing communities together through sewing, etc. There’s a healthy amount of history too, though, discussing how embroidery is viewed and how that has changed, discussing the roles embroidery has played in all kinds of situations.
Overall, it’s an interesting book, and there are all kinds of things I had no idea about that I’d love to see, like the quilts made by women in captivity during wartime. All of it makes me want to sew, and to be political with my sewing as well — if I could design worth a damn, I’d be cross-stitching Jo Cox’s (somewhat paraphrased quote): “We have much more in common than that which divides us.”
Overall, the author tries to get more than just a Western perspective, and to include people from all walks of life and how they’ve used sewing — both as something that is useful in itself, and as a form of self-expression. The abridged BBC programme about this book is good, but very much abridged: it’s more of a taster than a full idea of everything Hunter covers.