Humankind So Far -- the First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C. (Vol. 1) Edited by Goran Burenhult / People of the Stone Age (Vol. 2) Edited by Goran Burenhult / Old World Civilizations (Vol. 3) Edited by Goran Burenhult / and Others

Article excerpt

We can follow them for only a short distance, the footprints of two remote ancestors who walked side by side 3.5 million years ago. A photograph of these footprints, which were preserved by falling volcanic ash at Laetoli, in what is now Tanzania, introduces the reader to The First Humans: Human Origins and History to 10,000 B.C., the first volume in The Illustrated History of Humankind. The five-volume series traces the path of the human race, from four million years ago to the present day. More than 150 specialists in the myriad sciences that contribute to modem archeology have collaborated in the production of this landmark project, and they tell the tale with enthusiasm and conviction. A fine array of maps and time-charts accompany the text and clarify the often complex but always intriguing story. Inevitably, though, the illustrations and photographs are what capture both our eyes and imaginations.

The richness and variety of human experience and expression seem almost limitless. Diets and lifestyles are as different from one another as those of arctic hunters and fishers are from those of New Guinean fruit and rootcrop growers. The same may be said of domestic architecture, from Omaha Indian earth lodges to Anglo-Saxon high-roofed timber halls to the severe brick houses of the Indus Valley people. This diversity reflects the adaptability, ingenuity, and creativity that seem to be constant, common elements of human history.

Humans have not only adapted to local ecological niches but they have also fine-tuned their lifestyles over time as environments have changed. Few challenges were more far-reaching than those presented at the end of the last great ice age, and no response could have been more successful than that of the hunters and gatherers of twelve thousand years ago, who made the first bows and arrows and contrived a variety of fish traps, to exploit the changing fauna that appeared as the ice retreated.

The ingenuity of humankind from earliest times is evident in how hunters in Siberia, Australasia, and the Americas independently developed carefully controlled ways of heating raw flint and shaping it into stone tools. Ancient Britons erected Stonehenge, the Greeks invented the water clock, and the seagoing people of Micronesia created navigational charts of bamboo. Creative humans discovered how to make practical containers of pottery and forge metal from lumps of clay or rock.

Societies in different times and places devised writing systems to make and preserve a concise record of thoughts, words, transactions, and deeds. Among them were the Egyptians, who emphasized lifelike hieroglyphs, and the Mesopotamians, who rapidly developed their first, pictographic script into a complex writing system involving combinations of wedge-shaped strokes. In both societies, people learned to use visual images to convey not only material and abstract ideas but also the sounds of a spoken language. The Mesopotamians were content to keep their documents on cumbersome clay tablets, while Egyptians and Chinese developed papyrus and paper, respectively.

The power of human imagination is graphically illustrated on page after page of these volumes, not least in the depictions of mythical creatures and supernatural deities. Whether supernatural images were painted in caves in southern Europe, etched on the rocks of Scandinavia, sculpted from stone in ancient Egypt, or carved from wood in North America, they represented a common human response to the contemplation of the unknown. And the monumental temples and tombs of the Aztecs and Maya, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians, and the ancient Khmer of Cambodia all testify to a peculiarly common response to a human dilemma: how to reach out to the gods. …