Cover image for A brief history of the human race
A brief history of the human race
Cook, Michael, 1940-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Norton, [2003]

Physical Description:
xxiv, 385 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


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GN720 .C66 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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

Author Notes

Michael Cook is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Cook is more a provocative questioner of human history than a narrator of it. Intending to point out "to an alert reader" the salient contours of human society today and how they came to be that way, Cook brings commanding erudition to all corners of the world, extending from his expertise in Islamic history to explore China, India, Australia, the Americas, and Europe. As did Geoffrey Blainey in A Short History of the World (2002), Cook identifies the melting of the ice sheets as the key environmental event for humanity. But whereas Blainey proceeds in a political direction, Cook emphasizes the material and cultural side of the story, probing why, for example, agriculture, writing, or a social or religious practice arose in one locale rather than another. In this approach, Cook echoes Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997), a surprisingly popular explanation of how the West outdistanced the rest. Cook ought to capitalize on that same interest. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

List of Mapsp. xv
List of Figuresp. xvii
Prefacep. xix
Part 1 Why is History the Way it is?
1. The Palaeolithic Backgroundp. 3
I. Why Did History Happen When It Did?p. 3
II. Genetics and the Origins of the Human Racep. 9
III. Stone Toolsp. 14
2. The Neolithic Revolutionp. 19
I. Why Has the Making of History Been a Runaway Process?p. 19
II. The Genetics of Domesticated Plants and Animalsp. 30
III. Potteryp. 34
3. The Emergence of Civilizationp. 38
I. Did Humans Make the Only Kind of History They Could?p. 38
II. Writingp. 44
III. Kingshipp. 47
Part 2 The Smaller Continents
4. Australiap. 55
I. A Continent of Hunter-Gatherersp. 55
II. Getting Married among the Arandap. 63
III. Flaked Points and Other Noveltiesp. 69
5. The Americasp. 75
I. From Alaska to the Tierra del Fuegop. 75
II. Mesoamerican Calendarsp. 88
III. The Quipup. 94
6. Africap. 99
I. The African Cultural Gradientp. 99
II. The Age-group Systems of East Africap. 112
III. Shabtis and the Egyptian Way of Deathp. 118
Part 3 The Eurasian Landmass
7. The Ancient Near Eastp. 125
I. The Life and Death of the World's Oldest Civilizationp. 125
II. Downsizing the Pantheonp. 136
III. Archaismp. 142
8. Indiap. 147
I. Why India Was Not Just a Subcontinentp. 147
II. The Nambudiri Brahmins of Keralap. 164
III. Of Gods and Courtesansp. 171
9. Chinap. 175
I. The Making of Chinap. 175
II. Keeping in Touch with the Ancestorsp. 194
III. Shang Bronzes: What's in a Name?p. 200
10. The Ancient Mediterranean Worldp. 205
I. Frogs around a Poolp. 205
II. The Background to Athenian Democracyp. 222
III. Attic Black- and Red-Figurep. 227
11. Western Europep. 234
I. An Unlikely Corner of the World?p. 234
II. The Monstrous Regiment of Womenp. 251
III. Jupiter's Paramoursp. 258
Part 4 Toward One World?
12. Islamic Civilizationp. 267
I. From Sea to Shining Seap. 267
II. Muslim Ethnographyp. 287
III. The Muslim Calendarp. 290
13. The European Expansionp. 295
I. What the Europeans Didp. 295
II. How Some Non-Europeans Respondedp. 308
III. The Sniffing Habitp. 320
14. The Modern Worldp. 325
I. Haves and Have-notsp. 325
II. The Lofty Towersp. 342
III. Jupiter's Paramours Againp. 348
Conclusionp. 354
Further Readingp. 360
Creditsp. 369
Indexp. 373