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The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East
by Alan H. Simmons
University of Arizona Press   2007  1st ed.   ISBN# 978-0-8165-2442-6   cloth hardback

There is perhaps no greater puzzle for archaeologists and anthropologists to solve than the development of agriculture. Called the Neolithic Revolution, the term was first coined in the 1920s by V. Gordon Childe and was used to describe the first in a series of agricultural revolutions to have occurred in Middle Eastern history, around 8500BC. This period is described as a "revolution" because it was during this time that life for human beings changed dramatically. During this time concepts like personal property, land ownership as well as permanent village life and domestication of some animals arose. Though Childe’s innovative “Oasis” theories for this revolution were later scrapped and modified, his term lives on.  Simmons book summarizes the current thinking about these topics, and we are shown a new diversity of cultures not known before.

Simmons’ book is the result of over thirty years of fieldwork in the Levant, located in the Northeastern section of the Arabian Peninsula bordering the Mediterranean and also called the Near East (both vague areas geographically). The author spends a lot of time pointing out how complex the terminology of research of the Neolithic has become: i.e., there is much argument as to how many geographic variants there are for the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) period. But the chronology of this era seems clear: 10,500/10,200 BP to 9600/9200 BP, based on at least 70 good radiocarbon dates.

The author carefully presents us with the history of excavation and research in the area. Simmons clearly takes the time to contrast prevailing ideas and lets the reader weigh the evidence. This makes his discussions particularly interesting. I found his discussion of the development of ritual behaviors in the PPNA very thought provoking, concluding that, in his opinion, at this early stage, “there was no sharp distinction between the sacred and secular worlds.” His discussions of megasites, what they are and what happened to them, was also a good read.  I also really enjoyed Simmons’ integration of case studies throughout the book. If you are curious about this region and at all interested in the critical theories of early civilization, then you will appreciate the broad selection and even-handed method in which Simmons presents them. Simmons is seeking answers to some of archaeology’s biggest questions.

Research in the Near East continues to show the considerable influence of early civilizations in this area—here is where humans first experimented with civilization!

I highly recommend this book.  The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East is available directly from the publisher’s website, for $55.00 (cloth hardback), by clicking here.

reviewed by Bob Wishoff
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Millennial Landscape Change in Jordan:
Geoarchaeology and Cultural Ecology

by Carlos E. Cordova
University of Arizona Press 2007 1st ed. ISBN# 978-0-8165-2554-6  cloth hardback

Some background definitions (somewhat paraphrased from Wikipedia):

Cultural ecology is the study of the relationship between a given society and its natural environment(first articulated by Julian Steward in a breath-taking volume entitled Theory of Culture Change in 1955) - The central argument is that the natural environment, in small scale or subsistence societies dependent in part upon it - is a major contributor to social organisation and other human institutions, particularly those concerned with the distribution of wealth and power in a society.

Geoarchaeologists study the natural physical processes that affect archaeological sites such as geomorphology, the formation of sites through geological processes and the effects on buried sites and artifacts post-deposition. Geoarchaeologists' work frequently involves studying soil and sediments as well as other geographical concepts to contribute an archaeological study.

With these definitions in mind, it is easier to understand the general scope of this volume, as well as its implications. Author Cordova has written a book which is a righteous read even if, you, the reader, are not the least bit interested in the archaeology of this particularly important region. 

It is absolutely necessary to understand the geological and ecological scenarios of a society in order to put into perspective the reasons for a society’s rise and fall. Studying artifacts alone could never tell you why certain resources were exploited and how they were managed, details certainly extremely important in the larger context of a society’s existence. In places such as Jordan, environmental changes were radical, and thus created stresses which stimulated great innovation in politics, as well as landscape and resource management.

Read this book if you are interested in seeing the relationships elicited through study of these important topics--- see how this kind of research not only helps understand what happened within a region, but how relationships with surrounding regions were affected by changing environmental conditions. “Cordova focuses on geoarchaeological and cultural ecological aspects of research, presenting data from physical, chemical, and biological sources. He examines the changing influence of climate, vegetation, and hunting opportunities on cultural exploitation tactics, as well as the effects of the growing populations and agriculture on the environment.”

With global warming such a hot topic (pardon the pun) in our world today, it’s good to find such a book which can put into context some of the ways in which the ancient world dealt with similar life-changing trends. Another reason to study the past!

Millennial Landscape Change in Jordan can be ordered directly from the publishers, for $55.00 (cloth hardback), by clicking here.


reviewed by Bob Wishoff
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Athapaskan Migrations:
The Archaeology of Eagle Lake, British Columbia
By R.G. Matson & Martin P.R. Magne
University of Arizona Press  2007   1st ed.  ISBN# 0-8165-2489-0   hardback

Much is known about how migration has influenced culture throughout the North American continent, but little is known about the actual timeframes and passage. What is hinted at can be seen in linguistic affiliations between the northern Athapaskan-speaking tribes and the Southwestern Athapaskan-speaking Navahos: one example-- both describe themselves as “Dine,” which means “The People.” This would seem to indicate a migration from the North, but this is difficult to prove from within the archaeological record, i.e., from the material remains.

In Athapaskan Migrations, the authors discuss 25 years of research into migrations of the Athapaskan-speaking Chilcotin Indians into interior west central British Columbia from western British Columbia. What is most significant about this book is that the authors have contrived and tested many new methods for the inference of migration from within the archaeological record. As such, the book will be of particular interest to archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, linguists and Athapaskan scholars alike.

Aside from the background chapter on the project’s history, others cover methodology, settlement patterns, investigation of Plateau Pithouse and British Columbian Athapaskan Traditions, ethnic identification of excavated materialism, the Chilcotin migration and its implications of the greater Pacific Athapaskan, Navaho and Apache migrations, as well as summaries of the excavations.

Athapaskan Migrations can be ordered direct from the publishers for $65.00 (cloth hardbound) by clicking here.

reviewed by Bob Wishoff
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The American Discovery of Europe
By Jack D. Forbes
University of Illinois Press   2007, 1st Edition    ISBN 0-252-03152-0 clothbound

Traditionally, history teaches that traffic across the Atlantic Ocean began with European explorations and the pre-Columbian American populations were isolated by their inability to traverse the seas.  So it is refreshing to come across Jack Forbes’s The American Discovery of Europe, which suggests that there have been instances of Native Americans crossing over to the Old World prior to the arrival of Columbus in the New World. 

 "The story of Ancient Americans as seafarers, mariners, and navigators is, for me, a fascinating although often overlooked aspect of history.  Evidence presented here will show that American Indians were builders of great boats, up to almost one hundred feet in length in the Caribbean, and were outstanding students of the ocean’s currents, storms, winds, and resources.”

Indeed, Forbes begins by recounting a little known account of Columbus encountering shipwrecked Indians in Galway, Ireland in the mid-1470s, suggesting that he was encouraged by their arrival to pursue his far more famous voyage.  He draws extensively from volumes and handwritten asides found in Columbus’s library, offering many challenging views on his motivations for believing a trans-Atlantic crossing was not only possible, but had been accomplished from the west to the east in the past.

His description of the seafaring vessels and habits of Native Americans presents a wide view of their often impressive seafaring capabilities, as well as offering information on the nature of the Gulf Stream and the surprising amount of material that finds its way to European shores from the Americas.  Descriptions of what he sees as possible evidence of Inuits arriving from Greenland to Iceland, the Orkney Islands and Scandinavia in both pre- and post-Columbian times, are intriguing enough to almost seem obvious at times, though closer consideration on his part still instill a reasonable degree of doubt.  

His speculations of possible early Indian incursions in to the Baltic and Iberia (a sort of reverse Solutrean solution) seem to be stretching the evidence he presents beyond the point of credulity at times.  He even brings into play the old question of whether syphilis originated in the Americas and spread to Europe or vice versa, with equivocating speculations that are dizzying.  (“…it is possible to suggest the following scenarios: (1) that the disease had an American origin but that it was carried to Europe by early American visitors, in the meantime dying out or becoming very mild in America until after the Spaniards introduced a new, more virulent strain (which might have hybridized with the surviving American variety); (2) that the disease had a Euro-African origin but was introduced by the Norse after 900 CE, primarily in the eastern part of North America (which could help to explain the abandonment of numerous large urban areas after 1200-1450 CE), but became less virulent after population dispersal; (3) that American visitors to Britain brought the disease back to America, at an early date; (4) that the American skeletons studied show the effects of a different, but perhaps related disease.”)

The final chapter on the arrival of American in Europe courtesy of their captors is one of the more interesting, and one that this reader wishes Forbes had spent more time on.  The clear cut examples of Indian cultures being directly subjected to their equivalent of the New World is a subject that clearly falls under the purview of the American discovery of Europe, and one that deserves wider recognition as a trans-societal encounter.

Forbes draws a large part of his material from extant historical records.  The extent of the literature he collects is wide ranging, drawing from early Spanish, English and French accounts, often juxtaposed with archaeological and maritime background to bolster his claims, as well as a liberal amount of personal contacts with non-academic sources. His interest in the subject has clearly been inexhaustible, and though some of his conclusions are not very convincing to this reader they certainly very thought provoking and often quite unique in their outlook.  Although this reader found it be to almost exasperating and poorly focused at times, ultimately I feel that this is a book that warrants interest as at least a recognition of the possibility of what may have been a far wider phenomena. 

Available directly from the University of Illinois Press website  for $34.95, illustrated and clothbound.

reviewed by Charles Swenson

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Excavating Asian History: Interdisciplinary Studies in Archaeology and History
Edited by Norman Yoffee and Bradley L. Crowell
University of Arizona Press   2006  1st ed.  ISBN#

Old World archaeology is distinctively different from New World archaeology in that, in the former, there is often a written record against which it can compare itself.  It is the written record which is usually best known, the literary record reaching us from the past often seeming much more substantial than the physical artifacts and structures which have come down to us over the ages.  An outstanding example of this integration of historical and archaeological fact is Schliemann’s excavation of Troy inspired by the Homer’s Iliad, but a number of parallels can be drawn with ongoing studies in China, as well as other areas of Asia.

This collection of ten essays, 7 of which originally appeared in the Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, “consider ‘biases’ in both historical and archaeological data that may occasion rival claims to knowledge by archaeologists and historians…The conclusion is clear: Historians of premodern Asia (and elsewhere) cannot ignore the findings of archaeology.  It is a matter of discussion and debate, however, how modern training in the disciplines of archeology and history can incorporate methods and data from the other fields.”

The specific areas of study are wide ranging, incorporating both theoretical concepts and the results of actual studies.  The records from trade routes along the Indian Ocean basin, offer up subjects for study where comparison against the archeological record can not only confirm but even clarify the written record.   The multiple cultural influences with a literary tradition that have traversed areas of Indonesia without an indigenous written tradition are a source of historic background based on a variety of inter-societal conjunctions with literate cultures, allowing a broader, more multifaceted picture to emerge of the prehistoric as they intermingle.  Ancient China and Cambodia are given their due, as well as the rarely studies archaeological correlates of early Islamic history in the Arabian Peninsula.

Ancient Mesopotamia, usually credited with the invention of writing giving rise to the very possibility of written history, is given its due as a fitting example of the benefits of archaeological studies in expanding the historical record.  As Richard Zettler, in his chapter ‘Reconstructing the World of Ancient Mesopotamia: Divided Beginnings and Holistic History’, notes, “…texts do not provide modern readers the background information needed to comprehend them and seldom elaborate core cultural activities, whose details would have been common knowledge.  Moreover, texts are biased, reflecting, for example, the interests of urban elites.  Archaeological remains have the potential to flesh out and enrich textual data and add new dimensions to text-based historical reconstructions.”

This encapsulates the insights this book, which are useful far beyond the Asian constraints of the studies it utilizes.   Currently only in cloth hardback for $55.00-- Click here to order directly from the University of Arizona Press.

reviewed by Charles Swenson

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