Patrick Skene-Catling

The axeman cometh | 11 August 2016

Mankind was better off in the late Stone Age than now — which saw a flowering of talent, from monumental architecture to the carving of treasured ornaments and talismen

All organic beings descended from a single primordial blob, according to Darwin. Some of them developed sufficiently to leave the commodious depths and widths of the sea to scramble ashore. Was that wise? In this intricately detailed history, David Miles, a distinguished Oxford archaeologist, takes up the story of human evolution since our species and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor about seven million years ago. Between the origin of our life on Earth and the exponential population growth that causes long queues and traffic jams and threatens imminent apocalypse, there was a period when change amounted to beneficial progress.

Miles is well qualified by his experience as director of the Oxford Archaeological Unit, chief archaeologist of English Heritage, archaeological adviser to the Bishop of Oxford and author of numerous excavation and survey reports. He presents his scholarly findings with glints of good-humoured individuality which make his book pleasantly readable, even by lay persons who may not previously have paid much attention to the differences between Palaeolithic and Neolithic tribal behaviour.

His work is enhanced by technologically innovative probing for fossils, animal and human remains and artefacts, and by classifying them with the aid of carbon dating. As he recalls his research on extensive field- trips in Britain and abroad and the conscientiously acknowledged research of other archaeologists, his enthusiasm is infectious. The more that he discloses of the deep past, the clearer it becomes that our distant ancestors were less primitively inept, more capable, physically and mentally, than popularly imagined.

‘The Neanderthals,’ he writes, ‘have often had a bad press as primitives who went extinct.’ He persuasively defends them against charges of uncouthness. Like many other misinformed controversialists, ‘the US Republican politician Sarah Palin referred to one of her opponents as a “knuckle-dragging Neanderthal”’ .Even

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