Monday, February 10, 2014

Lessons In Dead Lives

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern HumansCro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian M. Fagan
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A heavy-browed, hirsute hunter crouches among the undergrowth frozen still...


…silently observing an encampment of creatures much like himself…


…yet decidedly different in their features, the very shape of their heads, their more intricate tools, sharper and finer weaponry, their almost tailored clothing, the utterly foreign sounds they speak, so different are they in fact that the hunter does not recognize them as kindred beings.

He is Neanderthal, a dying race that survived mostly unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years. And these "others"? They are Cro-magnon, the forefathers of modern man. And DNA evidence suggests there may be no link between the two.

Thus begins Brian Fagan's Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans, diving into the face to face meeting of the past and future, of who we could have been descended from and who we did draw our heritage from. Then he goes into the whys, why did this new breed of human survive while the other died out. Many fascinating topics covering our birth as a people are discussed here in, and made possible by recent and ongoing research, new techniques of which are unearthing truths and dashing away old myths.

That last point was my reason for picking up this book. So much of this information is new and replaces a lot of faulty info foisted upon me in school. I wanted to fill in the gaps of my less than stellar educational efforts back in elementary school, as well as to correct some of the misinformation I picked up when I was paying attention.

Fagan provides a great history lesson, using relatively lively scenes depicted now and then between his lectures, and though it's like any other nonfiction book, lectures they essentially are, for lecturing is what Fagan does at the University of California at Santa Barbara, my sort of second home (the town, not the school).

Historians and history lovers are going to gobble this up from cover to cover, but for those with a lower threshold for a dry history lesson there are sections of Cro-Magnon that will range from "late August in Arizona" dry to "Sahara desert on a hot tin roof" dry.

I love me some history big time and I really liked this book, however, I feel like I know more now about Cro-magnon man than I'll ever need to know. And it's the kind of knowledge that's probably only going to come in handy at pub quizzes.

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