There’s a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia.

I’m no student of ancient culture.
Before I talk, I should read a book.
But there’s one thing that I do know:
There’s a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia.

–The B-52s


I’m always pleased to find in the Blind Guy Library catalog a book about some cool nerdy subject that isn’t marked “for grades 3-6.”  So I was glad to see Norman Cantor’s Antiquity: The Civilization of the Ancient World.  Cantor was a real historian, though a bit prone to the crabbiness to which the opponents of the academic revolution are sometimes prone.  I personally am sympathetic to the idea that Dante and Chaucer are as worthy of study as Harry Potter and Tank Girl, but the cause is not best served by adopting a “You kids get the hell offa my lawn” attitude.

Anyway, the book claims to offer what every educated person should know about the ancient world.  This is a bit depressing–I would rather learn something fascinating than something I am supposed to know already–but you’d expect such a book to be accurate, if not inspiring.  With that in mind, here are a few tidbits from, so far as I can tell, page 1:

It is possible that humans and chimpanzees are descended from the same species of animal, long ago extinct, or that humans evolved from chimpanzees who gave up swinging from trees in order to find food on the ground.

Does anyone really think that the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, about 6 million years ago, was a modern chimpanzee?  Surely both species have evolved in that time span, preserving some features of the ancestor and abandoning others.  I imagine that the ancestor would look more chimp than human to most of us, due to a lazy but pervasive havit of thought that makes difference more salient than sameness. 

To use human examples, a person who in some way falls halfway between group A and group B will typically be perceived as a B by members of A and as an A by members of B: Neil Gaiman sounds like a Brit to Americans, but I’m pretty sure that Brits hear his accent as American.  When Langston Hughes went to West Africa as a merchant seaman, he was dismayed to find that the locals thought he was white.

And it’s downhill from there:

Around 100,000 years ago, the humans reached the Nile delta and the Mediterranean Sea, and began to spread east and north from there. By this time they had learned to be farmers, to plant seeds, to irrigate their crop lands and to build villages and towns, drawing their sustenance from the cultivated earth.

My understanding is that the invention of agriculture is the main boundary between the paleolithic and neolithic periods, about 10 or 12 thousand years ago.  If people have found ruins of 100,000 year old towns, shouldn’t we have been told?  Even supposing that this book is a textbook written by an anonymous hack rather than a guy with a Ph.D. from Princeton, shouldn’t someone at the publishing house have read it before killing all those trees?
The humans reached Europe–at first, the territory adjacent to the Crimea and the northern shores of the Black Sea–about 10,000 BC.

Well, humans have been in Europe for a million years or so, but even if we restrict ourselves to the most recent wave of ultra-modern homo sapiens sapiens…you’ve probably heard of those cave paintings at Lascaux, which are about 15,000 years old and are nowhere near the Crimea.  The modern humans arrived in Europe 35,000 or 40,000 years ago.

The very next sentence gives us a clue that the trouble may be more with arithmetic than history:

Based on their excavations, archaeologists tell us that earlier, around 6000 BC, two centers of rich and highly developed civilization had emerged in the Near East…


Maybe things improve once page 1 is out of the way, but who wants to find out?  I’ve always felt that the writer should put at least as much effort into producing a book as I put into reading it, or else s/he should pay me instead of the other way round.

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One Response to There’s a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia.

  1. Pingback: Best of 2011, Bookwise-speaking | lippenheimer

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