Book Review - Understanding Human History

By Stephen Jefferson May 8, 2010 Olson, Steven. Mapping Human History: Genes, Race and Our Common Origins. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. ISBN: 0-618-35210-4. $12.95

Imagine a timeline . . . a written record . . . a map that would take our hand as it traces the history of our very own species to the very beginning. It would be an adventure that could fill our bleak understanding of evolution and the development of human beings today with powerful stories and the overwhelming accomplishments of our ancestors. This is exactly what author, Steve Olson, was determined upon when conducting research for one of his most acknowledged books, Mapping Human History. Mapping Human History invites you across continents adn into the lives of past and present-day cultures as the author attempts to connect the pieces of the puzzle of the human condition in history. Each chapter is intended to concentrate on a specific turning point in history. Whether discussing events that happened hundreds or hundres of thousands of years ago, Olson uses his evidence to show relations and inclusively connect the instances into a thorough analysis of our beings.

Mapping Human History walks the reader through historical aspects of the development of world population. While providing detailed analysis of human evolution, the book stamps a focus on each chapter with either a specific subject, such as genetics or race, or geographical location, including the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. The book then fills each aspect with their own collection of experiences, theories, facts and perceptive eloquent observations that piece together the complex relationships of past generations.

In Chapter 5, "Agriculture, Civilization and the Emergence of Ethnicity," for example, Olson first takes you into the town of Jericho where fossils of the first modern human beings were discovered to reside in. As the story unravels, he gives the reader the main story of the chapter -- here one of the many turning points in human evolution. Each chapter has this form of introduction: an experience Olson had and recounts, a story from the culture that is used thoroughly to explain significent aspects of the past.

With the subject fresh at hand, Olson transitions into the core of the chapter with explanations that support or refute main arguments. In Chapter 5 we learn how the emergence of agriculture affected the residents in Jericho: "The invention of agriculture transformed human life. The domestication of plants and animals led to rapid expansions of populations. Greater population densities helped produce cities, warfare, nations, and most religions" (Olson, p. 92). Olson follows with a clear breakdown of the subject and its characteristics, factors and features.

Olson tends to bring in theories and other written pubilcations to bolster his arguments and stories as he goes along. In Chapter 5 again, fragments of the New Testament and Hebrew Bible are often mentioned in support of the way Olson envisages the development and spread of agriculture in the Middle East. He quotes excerpts from other documents not only to strengthen his main points, but increase the reader's knowledge and enlarge the perspective and enliven the story too.

Genes, race, agriculture, language and religion are just a few of the large topics this book contains as Olson educates the reader about the history of human begins acorss eons, eras, and space across the earth. He presents content that many want to argue against, but through doubt and research and thinking we learn more. At no point is Olson dogmatic; he has approximate truths that fit the evidence at this point in time. We are taught enough to leave us with knowledge to make our own judgements. I urge students and scholars alike to dig into this book as humane and enlightening, informative. I enjoyed it and learned a lot I didn't know.

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Page Last Updated: 25 August 2010