A Brief History of the Human Race

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Overview

"Enthralling....If so compact a book can be magisterial, [this] is it.—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World... "A smart, literate survey of human life from paleolithic times until 9/11."—Edward Rothstein, The New York Times
Why has human history been crowded into the last few thousand years? Why has it happened at all? Could it have happened in a radically different way? What should we make of the disproportionate role of the West in shaping the world we currently live in? This witty, intelligent hopscotch through human history addresses these questions and more. Michael Cook sifts the human career on earth for the most telling nuggets and then uses them to elucidate the whole. From the calendars of Mesoamerica and the temple courtesans of medieval India to the intricacies of marriage among an aboriginal Australian tribe, Cook explains the sometimes eccentric variety in human cultural expression. He guides us from the prehistoric origins of human history across the globe through the increasing unification of the world, first by Muslims and then by European Christians in the modern period, illuminating the contingencies that have governed broad historical change. "A smart, literate survey of human life from paleolithic times until 9/11."—Edward Rothstein, The New York Times

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
If God took a scientific interest in the human race, and could write briskly and with wit, he might produce a book like this survey. By reading it, one sees how much of the world's history was determined by geography and climate -- "location, location, location," as they say about real estate -- and how apparently trivial events or seemingly insignificant cultural attitudes may gradually affect a nation's destinies. — Michael Dirda
Publishers Weekly
Princeton University professor Cook, a specialist in Islamic history, ambitiously attempts to convey the general shape of human history over the last 10,000 years. As Cook makes clear from the outset, we're in the midst of a lucky spell regarding global climate, which has been mild over the last several millennia. Taking advantage of this "window of opportunity," humans began to do something revolutionary: farm. Cook emphasizes that farming was the beginning of civilization, and it all started in the Middle East. Cook's focus on the impact of environment and geography is clear in his chapter on Africa, "in which we can expect the history of the continent to be marked by a steep cultural gradient, with the advantage going to the north," where close contact with Eurasia and more suitable climate led to farming and the domestication of animals earlier than in the south. Cook's method is to first sketch an overview of a particular region's history, and then to analyze in depth a couple of its cultural developments. Thus, he offers us interesting explorations of Greek pottery, Chinese ancestor cults and marriage rites among Australian aborigines. Toward the end of his survey, Cook examines the rise of industrialism in Britain and how it posed a challenge to the rest of the world. One highly relevant challenge to Western modernity that Cook emphasizes is Islamic fundamentalism. While Cook does an excellent job covering the main themes of world history, his narrative at times reads like a college survey course: lots of enticing information, but too sweeping. 15 maps, 30 illus. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Cook (Near Eastern studies, Princeton Univ.; Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought) here attempts a daunting task: to survey the human race, with an emphasis on the rise of civilizations around the planet. After a short section on the Paleolithic period, Cook moves on to a discussion of the Neolithic revolution, agreeing that the invention of agriculture was the necessary prerequisite for the development of civilization. The author examines the course of civilization on all the inhabited continents by first presenting an overview and then focusing on one or two salient aspects of each particular civilization. Thus, for example, when surveying China the author focuses on the cult of ancestor worship and on Shang bronzes. The difficulty with this fast-moving approach is that so much of a civilization goes unremarked upon. This book works best as an introduction to the vast study of human history, but it can be useful in encouraging students and lay readers to explore our human past. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.-Robert Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cook takes a break from his specialty (Near Eastern Studies/Princeton) to assuage his hunger for historical overview. The author frames his survey of the development of societies and civilizations with one overarching question: Why did human history happen the way it did? The lapse of bitter Pleistocene ice ages in favor of the Holocene warmth in which we still bask is an easy factor to isolate, but he goes on to do a creditable job of addressing other aspects of the same question in nearly global terms, continent by continent and society by society. A crisp, informal style lets him address the latest interdisciplinary thinking without ponderous accrual. Cook notes, for example, that DNA studies not only illuminate the trail of human descent with new clarity, but do the same for plants that became the breakfast-of-champions civilizations, such as wheat, now known to have been first domesticated some eleven thousand years ago in a discrete region of Turkey. Relishing the surprises and oddities that line history’s march, the author lavishes them on the reader. A Phoenician script that supposedly died with Carthage in the second century b.c. is still employed in North Africa, where the Tuareg people have handed it down exclusively from woman to woman. Well aware that politics is an ancient art, Cook suggests Buddhist monks gained firm footing in India due to "the patronage of rulers who found them no less eligible than Brahmins as providers of the religious endorsement without which it is hard for a king to look good." When he does wax academically precise, as in explaining Mesoamerican calendars in which years have a bad habit of repeating themselves, or discombobulated East African tribalrituals that wind up initiating toddlers along with octogenarians, Cook has a point: Humans in groups may tend to persist with their own devices even in the face of systems that work better. Almost breezy, but packed with relevant perspectives.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393052312
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/19/2003
  • Pages: 385
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Cook, a specialist in Islamic history, is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps
List of Figures
Preface
Pt. 1 Why is History the Way it is?
1 The Palaeolithic Background 3
2 The Neolithic Revolution 19
3 The Emergence of Civilization 38
Pt. 2 The Smaller Continents
4 Australia 55
5 The Americas 75
6 Africa 99
Pt. 3 The Eurasian Landmass
7 The Ancient Near East 125
8 India 147
9 China 175
10 The Ancient Mediterranean World 205
11 Western Europe 234
Pt. 4 Toward One World?
12 Islamic Civilization 267
13 The European Expansion 295
14 The Modern World 325
Conclusion 354
Further Reading 360
Credits 369
Index 373
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