Steven Mithen 2003. After the Ice. A global human history 20,000-5,000 BC. London: Wiedenfield & Nicholson, 622 pp.

This is a vast survey of the global archaeological record of human settlement through the Holocene, but because the book was written before the discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar (where the dig started in 2006), there is precious little on my immediate interest, the Neolithic record in the Orkneys. I’ve only read the first ~200 pp, which is mostly accounts of sites in Western Asia followed by Northern Europe, but the Scotland component is mainly about where Steven Mithen has himself worked, in the Hebrides.

Steven Mithen alternates the telling his story through the device of an imaginary first-person visitor to the sites which archaeologists know from digs. It sort of works for a while, but soon seems dreadfully dated and self-indulgent. Nevertheless, there is a lot to learn, and the extensive endnotes and bibliography are great.

Here is a chronology of some of the settlements chosen by Mithen for his account, plus some dates from recent work in the Orkneys from Orkneyjar. Also a few other dates as points of reference:

  • 20,000-12,300 BC - Ohalo on the Sea of Galilee. Hunter-gatherers with temporary “settlements” of earth and wood huts.
  • 17,000 BC - neolithic paintings in the Font-de-Gaume in the Dordogne.
  • 13,200-12,400 BC - Gough’s Cave in southern England. Evidence for cannibalism.
  • 12,300-10,800 BC - Ain Mallaha and other eastern Mediterranean sites where Natufian culture has been found. First evidence for more permanent settlements and crop domestication.
  • 11,000 BC - By now humans are living throughout southern England.
  • 10,800-9,600 BC - Younger Dryas drought and cold: crop failures forced people to abandon settlements, at least in the Levant, and return to being nomadic hunter-gatherers.
  • 9,700-8,500 BC - Jericho in the Jordan valley. More benign climate returns and Neolithic humans raise crops again.
  • 9,250 BC - Cramond, Endinburgh. As of 2003 the oldest date for a settlement in Scotland.
  • 7,500-6,400 BC - Rising sea levels submerge Doggerland beneath the North Sea and cut off Britain from Europe.
  • 3,800 BC - The Knap of Howar occupied on the island of Papa Westray. Oldest Orkneys date?
  • 3,400-3,100 BC - Earliest structures at the Barnhouse Settlement, Orkneys.
  • 3,300-3,200 BC - Earliest structures built on the Ness of Brodgar, Orkneys.
  • 3,200 BC - Early buildings at Skara Brae, Orkneys.
  • 3,100 BC - Stonehenge phase 1. Earthen ring.
  • 3,000-2,900 BC - Standing Stones o’ Stenness constructed, Orkneys.
  • 2,900-2,750 BC - Barnhouse Neolithic settlement abandoned, Orkneys.
  • 2,800-2,700 BC - Maeshowe tomb constructed, Orkneys.
  • 2,700-2,500 BC - Pyramids of Egypt.
  • 2,600-2,500 BC - Construction of Ring of Brodgar.
  • 3,000 BC - Stonehenge phase 2. Cemetary and Aubrey holes.
  • 2,550 BC - Stonehenge phase 3. Stone henge.
  • 2,200 BC - Skara Brae abandoned.
  • 1,900 BC - Temple of Knossos built. Crete.
  • 1,400-1,300 BC - Temple of Knossos destroyed.
  • 610-546 BC - Anaximander. Miletus, Turkey.
  • 570–495 BC - Pythagoras. Samos, Greece
  • 470-399 BC - Socrates. Athens, Greece.
  • 432 BC - Parthenon built. Athens.
  • 43-410 AD - Roman occupation of England.
  • 79 AD - Eruption of Vesuvius destroys Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Other parts of this thick book deal with Asia, the Americas, Australia and Africa. Maybe I’ll get to bits of those one day.

It seems that Steven Mithen’s other books are not so tempting after all. From my browsing they seem to all be more opinionated and less evidence based: A Prehistory of the Mind (1996), The Singing Neanderthals (2005), To the Islands. An archaeologist’s relentless quest to find the prehistoric hunter-gatherers of the Hebrides (2010).