Tudge: The Time Before History

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Colin Tudge, The Time Before History : 5 Million Years of Human Impact. New York : Scribner, 1996. 366 pages, with index.

Tudge begins with a provocative observation: If the origins of the modern human species lies some 200,000 years in the past, why do we think of Imperial Rome as ancient history when, on that scale, it's more like yesterday? He proposes to see what can be said about human history before there was history, at least written history.

The idea I found appealing; the execution, somewhat less appealing, but that was mostly a matter of my taste. Naively I was hoping for anthropological deductions about the earliest humans and how they lived daringly but carefully made from the tiniest archeological details. Instead, Tudge has written a leisurely,wide-ranging, and thorough survey about the evolutionary history of human-kind.

Tudge's prose is careful and precise, but I generally found that he used substantially more words to express an idea than I found agreeable and I kept wishing he'd just move along. Others may find such languorous writing more to their taste. Not much in the way of facts about early human history has changed since Tudge wrote his book, but assumptions about what the public can be expected to know and understand probably have, although I'm not so certain that is at the core of Tudge's somewhat plodding style.

I did have some arguments with some of the author's arguments, but mostly they were disagreements about interpretations and meanings, and not about facts and scientific history. Apparently I found tiresome his extended treatment of the question "What makes humans different from the [other?] animals?" I wrote my own answer: "Perpetually asking 'What makes humans different from the animals?'"

I did come across one egregious math error that I suspect happened when the book was being edited for an American market. Here are the examples from two nearby pages:

We know, too, as related in chapter 2, that when the ice ages ended, they could, in any one place, end fast. Twenty years could see a 7°C (44°F) rise in temperature; the difference between a frozen landscape and a temperate one. [p. 301]

Besides, at the trough of the last ice age, 18,000 years ago, the surface of the sea in the eastern Mediterranean is known to have cooled by more than 6°C (43°F), which in ecological terms is huge, and yet the elephants and their miniaturized neighbors came through those harsh times. [p. 302]

Are we really to believe that the temperature of the Mediterranean had changed by a blistering 43°F? "Huge" is one thing, but that's huge! In fact, it's incorrect. Either the author or the editor has made the blunder of using the formula for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit to convert these temperature differences. In fact, since a Fahrenheit degree is nine-fifths a Celsius degree, the two parenthetical values should be 12.6°F and 10.8°F.

Finally, this prose example that concludes Tudge's discussion of whether early humans were, or could have been, responsible for extinctions of large coeval mammals.

So we know that in the late Pleistocene many large animals dies out on three great continents; while in the late Pleistocene and Holocene entire suites of creature disappeared from islands worldwide. So we also know that the creatures we see today, wondrous as they are, are a shadow of the faunas of comparatively recent but "prehistoric" times. We know that the extinctions tended to follow the incursions of human beings. Did the animals simply fade away? Or did we kill them?

Of course we did. Or at least, our immediate ancestors did. I do not know whether they did it inadvertently as highly competent hunters who were also insouciant; or whether they did what they did with regret; or whether they set out, as protomanagers of game., to weed out the species they found least helpful and leave the others to flourish, a scenario that does not seem too fanciful. But whichever way they approached the task, the jury must find them guilty. [p 314.]

-- Notes by JNS

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