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.

A Little Big Tale

Little Big Man (Theaters – December 1970; Streaming – April 2003)  Rated: PG  —M Little 1970  Runtime: 139 minutes

Genre:  Adventure – Comedy – Satire – Western

els:  6.5/10

IMDB:  7.6/10

Amazon:  4.5/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 7.9/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience:  3.8/5

Metacritic Metascore:  63/100

Metacritic User Score:  8.0/10

Awards: NA

Directed by:  Arthur Penn

Written by:  Calder Willingham (screenplay), Thomas Berger (book)

Music by:  John Hammond

Cast:  Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Richard Mulligan

Film Locations: Calgary, Morely, Alberta, Canada; Billings, Crow Indian Reservation, Hardin, Lame Deer, Little Big Horn Battlefield, Nevada City, Virginia City, Montana – Agoura Hills, Los Angeles, Thousand Oaks, California, US

Budget: $15,000,000

Worldwide Box Office: $31,600,000

An ancient and time-worn Jack Crabb (Hoffman), spending his final days in a nursing home, relates his incongruous life of farce and fate to an interested historian.  At the age of 10 a Pawnee raiding party attacks his family and kills his parents. Later a Cheyenne brave finds him and his sister hiding in their destroyed wagon and takes them back to his tribe.  The tribe’s chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) raises the boy and thus begins a series of improbable events that punctuate Jack’s long and full life. Indian on Indian battles, white on red battles, sexually repressed preacher’s wife battles, gunfighter playing, snake oil selling, drunken despondency; all  in a day in the life of a western meme.

Arthur Penn creates a movie of contrasts that is labeled revisionist history but is no more than a comedy situated in the late 19th century American west, incorporating events of historical interest but not necessarily accurate or correct. The contrasts are established through the lives of the story’s actors, their happenstance encounters and experiences highlighting life’s hypocrisy and charades. Jack as a natural gunfighter that cannot stomach killing, a preacher’s wife that seeks pleasure over salvation, a narcissistic general searching for fame through folly. A tragedy’s lessons told through tongue-in-cheek schtick. An effective delivery of farce that unfortunately passed as truth for millions of viewers.

Hoffman takes top billing as lead actor and he delivers a masterful performance both on-screen and as the voice-over narrator, but it is Chief Dan George who shines, turning an ok script into a wonderful exhibition of cheerful existence in the face of our inhumanity. George was nominated for an Academy Award but unfortunately lost out to John Mills in the totally forgettable Ryan’s Daughter. Richard Mulligan, as Custer, turns in a performance that is remarkable in its absurdity, an under-dog role elevated to a tour-de-force of parody. Faye Dunaway’s hilarious representation as a sexually needy whore and preacher’s wife sets the standard for urgency over love, a role reprised brilliantly by Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in the 1974 romp, Blazing Saddles.

Little Big Man is a fun chuckle of a movie that should not be confused for history but as a satire of the past. A movie encompassing a large swath of all western tales encapsulated into a few hours of humor and jest.

 

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.

On the Edge

The Winter Soldiers B Winter Solder

Written by:  Richard M. Ketchum

Published by: Doubleday

Copyright:  © 1973

The short, bitterly cold, beginning days of December 1776 were precarious and demoralizing times for the American rebel army.  The heady days of victory over the British at Concord and Lexington by an improvised and ragtag American militia, were all but forgotten with the landing of 30,000 British and Hessian troops, 10,000 British sailors aboard 300 supply ships and 30 battleships, into the New York during the month of July 1776, necessitating General George Washington and his army to retreat to White Plains, quickly followed by successive calamities: defeats at Fort Washington and Fort Lee, the duplicity of General Lee, and further retreats towards Philadelphia; draining the spirit and potential from the nascent revolution; with the civilian militia counting down their days of enlistment, forewarning the ghosting of the army to a mere shadow of itself on New Years day 1777.

Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers chronicles these early days of the American Revolution, revolving around maddening prospects of the rebel’s embryonic cause and fight, his narrative mirroring and illustrating the first two sentences in Thomas Paine’s, The American Crises (Number 1) pamphlet; read to George Washington’s troops on 23 December 1776, days before the Battles of Trenton and Princeton:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God…

Ketchum’s story is the history of early events in the American Revolutionary War, a history of its armies, a history of its actions and reactions, a history of its participants: George III, General Howe, Admiral Howe, General Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, winners, losers, ambitious men, gentlemen, moral men and scoundrels, above all, a story of grit, guts and gall.

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