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Book Review


Lauren Ristvet. In the Beginning: World History from Human Evolution to the First States (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007). 187 pp, $21.95.

     This is the first in the McGraw-Hill series "Explorations in World History" which, according to the editors of the series, "seeks to convey recent research in World History in a form wholly accessible to beginning students." (vi) Lauren Ristvet surveys early world history in five concise chapters, one each for human evolution, the origins of agriculture, and the appearance of chiefdoms and early states; and two chapters on the elaboration and development of the principle centers of ancient civilization. Her history stops around 1000 BCE in the Old World, but she looks at events in North America up through the Mississippian and Anasazi periods.

     Ristvet has given us a clearly written, stimulating introduction to the often hazily understood beginnings of world history. To be clear, this is not narrative world history of humankind nor a systematic survey of the major cultures of the world. Rather, she focuses on some of the key issues in prehistory and ancient history such as the origins of agriculture and sedentism, the spread of crops, the formation of early states, the creation of nomadism and its relation to agriculture societies, early interconnections between cultures, the origins of social inequality, and the evolution of writing. Her book is especially valuable in presenting the earliest periods of human history that most teachers of history do not feel fully comfortable discussing, since it involves considerable knowledge of anthropology, genetics, and even climatology. Incorporating the latest research in the fast developing field of prehistory she takes the reader through human evolution and the formation of complex societies without bogging the reader down in scientific data. Ristvet, however, does not over-simplify. Instead, she conveys the complexity of these fundamental issues in comprehending the human past. Her clear, engaging style makes the book a real pleasure to read. Undergraduate students should find the book accessible and enjoyable as well.

     Since this is a brief introduction it is not surprising that some topics of considerable interest and debate, such as the human migration out of Africa, are just briefly touched upon. Others are not dealt with at all. Missing is a discussion of the definition and origin of race. Also absent are the issues related to the emergence and classification of language, and of historical-linguistics as a methodological tool Nonetheless, she provides a great deal of information in this slender volume. Ristvet, for example, gives an especially clear and insightful explanation of state formation, and her treatment and analysis of the development of writing is also quite good.

     An underlying theme throughout the book is changing gender roles in history. While avoiding the more extreme claims of proponents of a golden age of matriarchal bliss, Ristvet tends to take a feminist interpretation of history. The author supports the idea of a "female invention of sedentism," (71) but finds later technological developments in agriculture and the rise of the state led to a loss of control by women and a devaluation of their contributions to society. She mentions that archaeological evidence "questions" the argument put forward by feminist scholars that all early agricultural societies in Europe and Asia were peaceful matriarchies that had been overrun and destroyed warlike, horse-riding invaders. However, on the matriarchy to patriarchy controversy in early history she gives support for the existence of cultures that emphasized family, equality and community that were later displaced by male dominated cultures based on hierarchy, individualism, violence and alcohol. Occasionally Ristvet takes a controversial position on a topic. An example is her view of Indus Valley civilization as being stateless. Most of the author's other interpretations are quite standard. She adheres to the traditional definitions of chiefdoms and states, and to the concept of six primary areas of state formation in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Mesoamerica and Peru.

     There are some limitations to the book as a text. It has only five maps and five chronological charts and a few small black and white illustrations. More and better maps would have been useful. A Further Reading section is rather brief; so are the notes. Her sparing use of notes is unfortunate since it would be useful to know the basis of some of her more controversial statements so the reader can situate them in the scholarly literature. To give one example, her discussion of the evolution of human intelligence (12-13) appears to be, at least in part, an argument against the neurological change thesis advocated by Richard Klein and others who see a sudden breakthrough in human intellectual capacity between sixty and forty thousand years ago. Since this book is useful as an aid to non-specialists a note on the scholarly debate and some readings on this would be useful. Furthermore, the book cannot stand alone as a text. In just 172 pages she only touches upon some of the major cultures. Moreover, her interests are those of an anthropologist more than a historian of world cultures. There is a great deal about pottery and farming methods but little on religious traditions, literature or art. Major cultural traditions such as those of the Aegean are mentioned in passing or only to illustrate a general point she is making.

     Although it has some shortcomings, In the Beginning is an excellent introduction well worth reading by anyone interested in world history. The book is filled with insights, interesting comparisons and the odd bits of fact that illuminate major issues in the story of humankind. For the world history teacher Ristvet provides ideas for explaining those early areas of history that are often covered too quickly in survey courses.


Michael J. Seth
James Madison University


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