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 tribal rituals 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.