Out of Eden

The Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Stone Age to A.D. 600B Mediterranean 2004

Written by:  Robin W. Winks and Susan P. Mattern-Parkes

Published by: Oxford University Press

Copyright:  © 2004

Homo erectus, an upright fellow, showed up during the Pleistocene about 2 million years ago and quickly dispersed throughout Asia and Africa even though his starting point is ambiguous. After mucking about the tropics, the lack of clothes makes it difficult to take skiing vacations in the Alps, decided to take on a bigger brain and chin with less eye brow protuberance, and developed into our mum: Homo sapiens, a couple of hundred thousand years ago.  Some say we came from east Africa, others say east Asia but regardless of our origins we showed up in what is now Israel around 100,000 years ago and our quest for ever larger cell phone screens and civilized table manners had begun.

Agriculture, originating about the 12th century B.C., traces its roots back to the fertile crescent; beginning at the Jordan River progressing north and northeast to the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and then back down south to the rivers’ marshlands, eventually pouring into the Persian Gulf.  By 9500 B.C. man was cultivating wheat, flax, rye, peas, and other crops that brokered the way for cities, government, laws, and taxes; otherwise known as civilization.

The earliest civilizations are conveniently timed to the discovery of bronze around 2500 B.C.  Bronze tools and weapons, an amalgam of copper and tin, galvanized the rise of city-states and empires until the tin ran out in 1200 B.C., then the Dark Ages set in. Virtually every major city in the eastern Mediterranean was sacked and burned during the first 50 years of the advent of these interesting times, many to disappear from the map forever. The technology to smelt carbon steel brought a renewal of civilization during the Iron Age and the cementing of the Assyrian Empire–for awhile.

By the end of the Iron Age the bright lights of civilization have shifted from Mesopotamia to the northern shores of the Mediterranean; first settling into the Aegean peninsula around the 8th century B.C. before migrating to Rome in the 3rd century B.C.  By the 3rd century A.D. Rome was a spent force and the remnants of the empire shifted back to the eastern Mediterranean in Constantinople.

Christianity’s rise followed Rome’s decline through the Mediterranean. The rapid spread of Christianity is somewhat of enigma, as are other philosophies or religions such as Buddhism and Islam, but the prevailing thoughts are that church improved the lives of its followers and promised a way to life every after.

The authors, Drs Winks and Mattern-Parkes, professors of history at Yale and the University of Georgia respectively, have written a short history of the region that engrosses and enlightens without preaching.  If interested in the history of the Mediterranean from the Stone Age to Islam, this is quick read and is eminently readable.

 

Fact or Fiction

After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC B After Ice 2003

Written by:  Steve Mithen

Published by:  Harvard University Press

Copyright:  © 2003

The Earth has experienced at least 6 major episodes of glaciation in the past. Three in the Pre-Cambrian, which is a time older than 0.542 billion years (Ga) and three in Phanerozoic, a time younger than 0.542 Ga. All appear to have had a profound effect on life on Earth; not so much the beginning of  any particular ice age but what occurred when the glaciers melted. The first glaciation, Pongola, occurred from approximately 2.9 to 2.75 Ga. The end of this glacial period saw a build up of oxygen in the oceans until it reached critical levels and began charging the atmosphere. Around 2.45 Ga, oxygen levels reached levels sufficient to cause cooling of the Earth, by removing greenhouse gases, and thus starting the second glacial period, the Huronian from 2.4 to 2.1 Ga. Shortly before or after the glaciers melted, around 2.2 to 1.6 Ga, eukaryotes, cells with a nucleus, appeared. Eukaryotes are everywhere, you, your cat, your flowering plants that your cat eats, the spiders in the corner of your bedroom that your cat will not eat, everywhere. Next up is the Cryogenian, a glacial period in Earth’s history occurring from 0.720 to 0.635 Ga. Shortly after they melted, the ozone layer was created, a cloak desperately needed to protect life from the harmful rays of the sun.  The Cambrian Explosion of life followed the ozone creation.  Moving on to the next glacial, the Andean-Saharan, occurring from 0.450 to 0.420 Ga, predominately in the Silurian Period but also sucking up some of its predecessor’s, the Ordovician, time. This glaciation is followed by significant accumulation of life, plants and animals, moving beyond strictly marine habitats to occupy solid land and Amazon distribution centers. The Karoo Ice Age, from 0.360 to 0.260 Ga, is followed by the largest extinction event this planet has ever seen, occurring at the end of the Permian and the beginning of the Triassic.  At this point glacial melting does not appear to be the causative event for the extinctions but may have provided a nudge. The final event, known as the Quaternary Glaciation, started 2.58 million years ago and is still active today. Currently we are within what is called an inter-glacial period. These inter-glacials are preceded and followed by glaciers marching towards and receding from lower latitudes.  Note to self and you: these glacial periods last much, much, much longer than 2.58 million years. With the exception of Antarctica and Greenland, the current set of glaciers reached their maximum extent about 20-25,000 years ago and have slowly retreated, essentially disappearing  by 9600 years ago. Around 25,000 years ago, human populations started to increase.  By 9600 years ago his technological progress exploded.

Dr. Steven Mithen, the author of After the Ice, attempts to record our history from when the ice sheets began their retreat to the time the Sumerians first developed a system of writing 5000 years ago, a period partially covered by what we now call with the broad brushed term; pre-history.  Dr. Mithen primarily uses an archeologist’s box of tools to decipher ancient Homo sapiens sapiens style of living, their diet, housing, religion, culture; their existence and growth as a species, all from a time when our ancestors were not consciously plastering their material world with sticky notes.

After the Ice is a global tour of archeological finds and their interpretations, from our hunter-gather roots in the Pleistocene to a more sedentary and cosmopolitan life as a farmer, artist, city-dweller; parsing one continent at a time. There is little in the way of original research in this book, more a compendium of secondary source material, known sites, and the results obtained from them. Exactly what I was looking for when I picked up this book to read.

The author covers most of the major sites and imparts to us what all the shell debris, bone carvings, and flint scrapings mean. He does this beautifully and when confronted with differing possible interpretations, he carefully constructs a point-counterpoint argument to help resolve the issues.  His discussion and synopsis of the initially controversial, Monte Verde site in Chile, which ultimately pushed humanity’s origins in the Americas back about 2500 years, from Clovis times to 14,500 years ago, was expertly relayed to the reader, leaving little room for alternate meanings: a real education one may add.

This book and author excel when relating the artifacts found and their possible meanings and its thoroughly fascinating stuff, but he manages to turn the affair into an awful, muddled mess of narrative excess by introducing a time-traveling archaeologist, John Lubbock, to add color to the play-by-play.  John Lubbock, who actually was an eminent archeologist in the late 1800s, observes humans at various times and places in our pre-history, providing second person comments on the existing state of humanity and the world.  It’s all a bit much and very distracting, annoying even.  An all too common example; meaning to give an example, I just opened the book, put my finger down and copied whatever was there:

Lubbock left the cave at Lukenya Hill with a hunting party late one afternoon.  As they walked, spider’s webs within the grass were illuminated by the setting sun, momentarily exposed in a narrow band between clouds and distant mountains.

Keep in mind this happened 1000s of years before writing was invented so this is little more than pure unadulterated fiction. To add authenticity and license to his fiction he occasionally appends a footnote. And it’s liberally interspersed throughout the book amounting to equal parts Lubbock fantasy to Mithen facts.  Take out Lubbock and the book goes from a blathering 600 pages of confusion to 300 pages of something that may be worth reading. Mithen just can’t seem to make up his mind, does he want to write a factual history or historical fiction.  Actually he did make up his mind, he decided to do both.

I initially tried to skim Lubbock’s narrative and just stick with Mithen’s discussion but the author so intertwines them both that bypassing one makes nonsense of the other. This could have, should have been a great book dealing with the world’s archeological quest to unravel our past.  There are moments in the book where Mithen brings his and his colleagues’ science to life but in the end it just too dang hard to enjoy the meat when he coats the entire thing in Lubbock’s wispy, sticky cotton candy.

I am once again on the lookout for a decent account of humanity’s pre-history.

Wine, Wine, Wine

The Home Winemaker’s Companion B Wine 2000

Written by:  Gene Spaziani and Ed Halloran

Published by:  Storey Publishing

Copyright:  © 2000

Give me wine, wine, wine, all the time, time, time
Give me wine, wine, wine, all the time, time, time
‘Cause when I get it, I feel so doggone fine

Well, a little bit o’ wine is never bad
People drink wine to keep from feelin’ sad
‘Cause when I get it, I feel so doggone fine

Give me wine, wine, wine, all the time, time, time
Give me wine, wine, wine, all the time, time, time
‘Cause when I get it, I feel so doggone fine

Well my grandmother loved wine so much
It even took her off the crutch

Give me wine, wine, wine, all the time, time, time
Give me wine, wine, wine, all the time, time, time
‘Cause when I get it, I feel so doggone fine

Wine Wine Wine by Maxwell Davis and Floyd Dixon ©1976?

Many years ago I read an interview of an Earth scientist, a geophysicist, in a technical journal discussing his life’s work.  I no longer remember the man’s name or much of what he said in that article; in fact the only thing I do remember, and I have absolutely no idea why it has stuck with me, is a comment that he made on the subject of red wine. Why that was germane to the article also remains a mystery to me but the quote was succinct and indubitable, and I believe I can recite it verbatim: “I wish I had started drinking red wine much earlier in life.”  I can only add that I whole heartedly agree.  My red wine drinking days started, regrettably, way too late in life. At my age one realizes that life is short, so let’s get on with it.  Get on with the good things in life that is.

I enjoy all things about red wine; researching, reading, writing, buying and above all else drinking.  The next step in my journey is to start making my own red wine, learning the steps and methods that go into creating a drinkable, and hopefully, a good red wine.  An excellent first step is to study and learn from this book: The Home Winemaker’s Companion.

The book is compendium of need-to-know facts and processes about making wine in your home.  Making wine is not rocket science but discipline and patience are required. It starts out listing and describing the equipment, the hardware, the tools, you will need, both what is essential and what is useful but not entirely necessary.  Some of the materials you may already have in your home such as funnels and measuring cups but likely you will need to invest in some 6-7 gallon food-grade pails and carboys for fermenting and aging your wine plus some basic tools such as stirring paddles and large bottle brushes.

Next come the ingredients other than the grapes themselves; yeasts, cleaning and fining agents and other simple or specialty chemicals needed to ensure a successful wine. The book helpfully lists numerous yeasts that are needed for various varieties of wine.

Cleanliness and sanitation of your equipment is a must for making wine.  The book states over and over the importance of sanitation, and describes the proper methods and chemicals needed to ensure clean and sanitized equipment.

The book then describes the basic steps in actually turning your grapes into wine.  This includes, but not limited to, testing for sugar and acid, racking (transferring to another container) your wine, imparting an oak flavor, and finally bottling and corking your wine.  Save your old wine bottles for reuse but purchase new corks.

Before the book gets into the actual recipes for the various red and white varieties of wine, it discusses the advantages, and disadvantages, of using kits and grape concentrates versus crushing and maceration of your own grapes.  Once you decide your starting point on the initial condition of the grape, you can select the actual recipe, all of which include detailed, step-by-step instructions.

The final, and maybe the first, step in wine making is patience.  Patience to allow the wine to ferment, age and improve.  My initial plan is to allow the wine to age in glass carboys, oak and bottles for at least 2 years.  Success will take some time to determine.  I do hope I have the patience.

Desire and Chocolate

A Legacy Made in Chocolate Edited by Lydia Bell and Fiona Sims, published by B Godiva 2016Illustrated London News Limited, © 2016.

Godiva is may favorite chocolate.  When I have Godiva chocolates in the house I worry about gaining weight but I usually don’t because the rest of the family always, and I mean always, beats me to the box of goodies and gobbles them up before I can over indulge.  I know I should hide them, keep them for myself, deny the pleasure to others but that would just be curmudgeonly selfish. I think I can do that.

The art, biography, and history of the Drap family and their boundless love for all things chocolate is contained within the covers of this short, but lavishly illustrated book. The pages of this book bring to life the Belgium family’s chocolate odyssey, beginning in 1926, as they continually generate smiles of gratitude and gastronomic satisfaction for over 90-years.  Laid out in opposing columns of English and French, this album of confectionary delight brings to the reader Godiva’s inspiration, their style, and their passion for making everything chocolate.  Inspiration from the fashion houses of Paris and Brussels. Style from the Belgium arts university, La Cambre and artists of renown such as Oli-B. Passion for chocolate from the leading Chef’s and chocolatiers of Belgium.

This is a visually captivating book bringing to your eyes what Godiva’s chocolates bring to your palate: sensual, divine pleasure.  The book will only take a few leisurely hours of your time, but be forewarned, your desire for Godiva truffles will be magnified a hundred fold.

A Little Package of our Past

World History: 50 Key Milestones You Really Need to Know B 50 History

Written by:  Ian Crofton

Published by:  Quercus

Copyright:  © 2011

Attempting to describe 12-15,000 years, since the big ice fields melted, of human endeavors in 200 pages and 50 topics would seem presumptuous and futile, and you would be right, but one has to start somewhere and the first steps can and should be small but decisive.  One can quibble about the exact 50 topics, and I will do just that in a bit, but the author, Ian Crofton, performs the task with aplomb, and provides the maximum amount of useful information possible given the limiting format.

This book is a quick and fun read for both those without a broad or deep introduction to human history or those that just want to refresh their memory on once familiar, but long forgotten topics. Even if you are familiar with all the topics in the book there will be a sufficient amount of new informational tidbits to make it worth your time. For myself, as one example, I found the observation that our ancestral hunter-gather cousins versus the first cereal grain farmers, were healthier, due mainly to their higher protein intake from a meat rich diet, was new and interesting.

Each “idea” or event is developed, chronologically, over 4 printed pages that includes a short thesis, an expansion of that thesis, a timeline of notable events, a famous quote(s) and an ending synopsis of the discussion.  The publisher of this book, Quercus, has published at least 27 other books of a similar nature and format that explore the great topics of the human experience including: architecture, art, astronomy, big ideas, biology, chemistry, the digital world, earth, economics, ethics, the future, genetics, the human brain, literature, management, math, philosophy, philosophy of science, physics, politics, psychology, quantum physics, religion, science, universe, war, and world history. I believe they continue to add more topics as the years go by.  I have several of the topics, listed above on my already too fat reading list.

Not to detract from the topics that the author has chosen, his are all defendable, but for myself I probably would have included 5 different topics devoted to: the Iron Age, Israelites of the 12th century BC, 1st century Christianity, Sumerians development of an alphabet in 300 BC coupled with Guttenberg’s first printing press in the 15th century AD, 18th century BC Babylonian Hammurabi’s, and 7th century BC Greek Draco’s legal codifications, and finally the advent of computers in the 20th century and beyond.  Adding 5 topics requires that 5 be removed. I would likely leave out: Empires and Kingdoms of Africa, The Bubonic Plague, the Vietnam War, integral to the late 20th century US, but will likely be a footnote on communism in the future, and lastly, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the post 9-11 topics, at a minimum, combined into a topic on 21st century divisions in civilization and culture, as if that were something new. On further thought, maybe just leave those last two topics out completely, mainly because they are too fresh to decide their seminality to our future development as a species.

That leaves our list one shy of 50. What topic(s) would you add?

Where the Money Is

The Billionaire’s Vinegar B Billionaire's Vinegar.jpg

Written by:  Benjamin Wallace

Published by:  Three Rivers Press

Copyright:  © 2009

Originally Published by: Crown Publishers

Copyright:  © 1994

On 5 December 1985 Kip Forbes, son of Malcolm Forbes, acting as his father’s agent, sat in Christie’s London auction room waiting to bid on a 1787 bottle of Chateau Lafite, supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the U.S. Forbes had intended to bid no more than £5000 for the bottle but when the bidding ended and the dust settled, he had set the price record for a single bottle of wine; tendering £105,000 or about $156,000 at the then current exchange rates.

Almost from the beginning the wine’s authenticity was questioned. The place it was discovered and how many bottles were found at the site has never been fully or satisfactorily revealed. Students of Jefferson could not find any conclusive proof that the former president ever possessed this wine; important because Jefferson catalogued and inventoried everything. Dating techniques were unable to assign a definitive date except give it a range of somewhere between 50 to 200 years old. The engraving on the bottle was certified old, and new by different experts.  The wine, when opened, actually a different bottle from the same Jeffersonian lot, was delicious; a very rare occurrence for a 200-year-old bottle of red wine.

The Billionaire’s Vinegar is the story of this suspect bottle of wine, and the exclusive club of people who are connected with it. Benjamin Wallace tells this tale of mystery and intrigue through the use of short vignettes and biographies of those involved, much as if he were writing a series of magazine articles; not surprising since that is what he does for a living: write magazine articles.  He presents the evidence that exists in excruciating detail, but it is not enough to truly settle the debate, although he convincingly posits that the whole affair was a con.

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks he replied, supposedly, “because that’s where the money is”.  The rare and old wine market is an expensive hobby, open only to those whose pockets are deep and full.  Always an attraction for those dissatisfied with their shallow and empty pockets.

Paul Revere

Paul Revere’s Ride B Paul Revere

Written by:  David Hackett Fischer

Published by: Oxford University Press

Copyright:  © 1994

American grade schoolers are taught, are told, that Paul Revere, in the cold, wee hours of 19 April 1775, galloped fiercely through the countryside west of Boston, taking the back roads connecting the small hamlets of Lexington and Concord, yelling at the top of his lungs, “The British are coming”; a story that has passed down through the generations since the Revolutionary War. Dramatic in the telling, yes, correct, not so much. The truth of what happened that night is no less dramatic, extraordinarily dramatic in fact, considering that the American rebels went up against the greatest army and navy on the planet during the latter half of the 18th century, and triumphed.

Warning the Boston countryside of the imminent arrival of British Regulars was not a spontaneous reaction, by the patriot Paul Revere, but a well planned counteraction, with the main details worked out well in advance of the Redcoats march towards Lexington and Concord. Alerted by a Boston stable boy, who revealed that the British officers, in the late afternoon of 18 April 1775, were preparing their horses for a march; the pre-arranged lamp signal, one if by land, two if by sea,  was lit in the tall steeple of Christ Church, tipping-off the rebels that the British were going to take the shorter water route to Concord. This set off a cascading series of events that put into motion upwards to sixty patriots charging through the Boston countryside, alerting and assembling the Minuteman army, warning John Hancock and John Adams of their imminent arrest and hiding rebel assets.

The years preceding the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 saw a significant percentage of self-government seeking colonists locked in a high stakes match of wills with King George III and the British, specifically, the Massachusetts headquartered, Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage, chief of British forces in America and as such the most powerful man in the colonies: General Gage, likely understanding the game being played, resisted brandishing the sword to the very end, when events spiraled out of his control forever in the spring of 1775.

The independence minded colonists, the Whigs, mainly operating from the greater Boston area, resisting the British rule at every turn, prodding them to be the first to use excessive violence against the colonists, to draw enough blood and take sufficient lives that it would light the fuse of war.  The Boston Massacre of 5 March 1970 almost lit that fuse, but the Whigs were not ready for war, they lacked organization, men, materials and most important of all, a plurality of support from the population.  John Hancock, Sam Adams and Paul Revere tamped down the populace’s anger after this event, dampened the fuse of war to await a more felicitous time and place: Concord and Lexington, 19 April 1775.

David Hackett Fischer, currently University Professor and Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University, has written a meticulously researched account of the days leading up to the battles of Concord and Lexington, and the subsequent battle for the hearts and minds of the colonists and British alike; delving into American and British military depositions, pension applications, claims of damages, Thomas Gage, Paul Revere, and other participants’ personal papers, American and British government documents, newspapers, terrain studies, Boston association members, local histories, histories of histories, family trees, weather, tides, phases of the moon; a seemingly inexhaustible list of sources that the author combines into an enjoyable, detailed narrative, in places a bit slow, but always interesting, of the early spring days of 1775 that laid the foundation for the United States of America.

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