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Review: Patterns In Prehistory by Robert J Wenke

Patterns in Prehistory Cover, by Robert J Wenke

Patterns in Prehistory by Robert J Wenke is a wonderful book. I started reading it to find descriptions of earlier cultures as part of the research for a novel I’m writing, and I was not disappointed. It’s a masterpiece in explaining and exploring the development of human beings as they adapt to the environment, and what particular stages of development mean in terms of cultural practice, agriculture, population growth, and much more.

Wenke starts the book by asking the question “what is culture?”, among other things, and the answers are challenging. Wenke’s approach to the whole book is revealed in that first chapter. He is not there to promulgate his own definite theory of human development, but to do a survey across numerous experts in archaeology, palaeo-anthropology, palaeontology and much more besides. The breadth and detail and the sheer level of research is deeply impressive.

There are surprises along the way. One of the answers to that question about culture is to define it as a means of using energy more efficiently. That is: that when you learn how to do something (make pots, grow crops, build spaceships, etc), the next generation isn’t then forced to discover it again. They are taught how to do what the previous generation learned through culture. “On the shoulders of giants…” etc. That’s only one definition, but it shows you how you’re going to have to think around things and entertain fresh perspectives.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the fossil record of the earliest hominids, right back to australopithecus and earlier, then reconstructs the life of early humans through the findings of experts. This is not a speculative psychological book – it tells you what evidence has been found and what that points to. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely gripping to see human traits begin to reveal themselves early on, and to follow the development of a recognisable human life even among early hominid primates by studying the fossil record.

The survey is of the whole world, with Wenke looking at whatever archaeological evidence is available and comparing how different humans developed in Africa, China, Indonesia, Europe, the Americas and so on. This is the format for each section of the book.

So it is that we follow human development through Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens Neanderthelensis to Homo Sapiens Sapiens. It’s not a straight line, though, as Wenke makes clear. There are overlaps in the species coexisting at times, with some interbreeding, or huge gaps in the fossil record. Yet there are startling moments when a completely different species shows itself to be recognisably like us. It’s brilliant.

Thus we go on through the development of hunter-gatherer cultures, fisherfolk and others of the Pliocene and Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, until suddenly, maybe 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, there’s a step-change in culture as the great civilizations arise. Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, China – all apparently reliant on the new invention of agriculture which appears to have happened spontaneously across the world, leading to a rise in population and technology – and the building (in most cases) of massive monumental architecture. Or so one might think… but what is interesting is that the monumental architecture and rise in population occurs just before the agricultural innovations begin to show in the archaeological record… That, in itself, is a puzzle!

What’s also strange to contemplate is how humans took literally millions of years to get to that point, but from there to the modern day was only a few thousand years. It’s giddying to consider how the gallop of cultural development accelerated so fast in that brief time, that we are now able to destroy the world with the technology of our cultural “advances”. It’s quite a thought: that nuclear weapons are in the hands of people not so different in outlook and potentials from those who knapped stones in the Middle East and created the cultures of the New Stone Age.

This extraordinary book invites you to contemplate the roots of our humanity, to ask how the world we live in now grew from the minds of humans and pre-humans at the very dawn of consciousness – and sheds light on the very nature of being. Highly recommended.

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai – Matt Wingett Book Review.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban

I’ve just finished reading I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, and I’m far more moved than I expected.

This is partially because of the excellent skill of the co-writer who has interviewed and put together this powerful account of a young girl’s life in the Swat Valley in Pakistan – but it’s more than that. It’s also a story of great personal suffering as the result of simply wanting to do something we take for granted in our lives – the chance to learn to read and write, and from there to learn more things.

There is something deeply authentic about the way Malala’s story unfolds. From her early life she faces the deep conservatism of the Pashtun tribal system which does not celebrate the birth of a girl and fetes the birth of a boy. As their first child, her parents are deeply proud of her and her father is aggrieved when his father won’t bring gifts to celebrate her birth. Since Malala’s grandfather didn’t acknowledge her birth, he prevents the grandfather from then celebrating the births of the boys who came after. Radical thinking for Swat Valley.

Thus Malala grows up supported by a father who is an educationalist, living at first in utter poverty as he borrows money to try to start a school – and several times being flooded out by unexpected deluges. But slowly his reputation grows, and the school he sets up becomes well attended. Scenes of village life and the beauty of the Swat Valley are lingered over in the book, with idyllic scenes of the girls playing among the ruins of the Stupas of the former Buddhist religion that fell into disrepair over a thousand years before.
This section is rich and powerful, and the structuring of her slow rise to becoming a renowned local speaker as a schoolgirl, all the while encouraged by her father who has a strong belief in girls’ education is brilliantly evoked.

Then come the Taliban, as part of the overspill of the war in Afghanistan. The political background to their rise in the Swat Valley is clearly explained. Malala describes how, in order to bolster previous governments, former dictator-presidents had made Pakistan a Muslim state – encouraging a hardline Muslim attitude to life in contrast to the everyday Islam that Malala and her classmates enjoyed at their enlightened school. Thus, the arrival of the Taliban is sanctioned at least tacitly by central government and the Pakistani secret service.

The Taliban’s rise to power has a chilling lesson for anyone concerned with freedom. A self-appointed Talib, or teacher, a man called Fazlullah starts a radio station, apparently deeply pious and benign in intent. In natural disasters, it is always the Taliban who arrive on scene first to help, while Fazlullah’s pronouncements on the radio are approved of by the populace, who see his observations about the length of a man’s beard or whether women should go out covered up or not as wholly in keeping with the Qur’an’s holy message.

But over time, as Fazlullah’s influence spreads, the message hardens until he has turned the population in such a way that it accepts the whipping of people in the streets, and shrugs at the murder of those they disapprove of. All videos and CDs are handed in and burned. No ideas other than Fazlullah’s ideas are allowed. And slowly some of the population begin to wake up to what has happened, despite many also approving of his hardline message.

In many ways my blood ran cold with this. Because although the techniques are different in the West, I see the same creeping doctrine of Far Right organisations in the West mirroring this rise. Brexiteers spread division through lies about Europe, while suggesting that Britain in some way has a special place in the world – a playing to the myths and the hankerings of the general populace, whilst hiding their Far Right agenda. The same happened with Trump in America – normalising extremism and demonising the enemy. It is extraordinary how the techniques of misinformation are echoed in this story.

That Malala reports all this in anonymous reports for the BBC makes her secret alter ego a natural target for the Taliban.

The upheaval and displacement that comes for Malala and her family is well reported – but eventually the secret of her identity comes out.

The final section of the book deals with the revenge of the Taliban. The personal suffering her shooting causes is brilliantly handled, and the reality and colour of the lives of the family are truly vibrant. I confess, I cried.

This is a great book.

It’s available here.