Lewis Dartnell’s book may be a little heavy-handed when it comes to geographical determinism, but many of its arguments are indisputable. He explores the ways in which humanity’s evolution – the places we live, the machines we build, the food we eat – has been steered by the intricate processes of the natural world: everything from plate tectonics to terrain, and from climate bands to volcanoes.
The book does not contain too many revelations, but it provides answers to a host of fascinating questions. How come East Africa was where it all started for humanity? How did the whirligig of ice ages and interglacial periods dictate human migrations? Why was millet such a hit in China, while Americans tucked into squashes? On a few occasions everything gets a little bit epic – ‘we’ll travel to the ends of time – and beyond’ – but the book is enthusiastic and brimful of facts. The maps are great, too.
The most interesting sections are the painstaking analyses of the riches the Earth provided and how we utilised them. The metals usually get all the press – if I see one more diagram of how many metals are inside my mobile phone I might scream – but the rocks are worth just as many headlines. I had no idea granite could be so fascinating, so please treat your worktop with respect. A chapter on the ‘geography of the seas’ is also excellent value, showing that the oceans have as rich a history as any landmass.
Dartnell’s great achievement is that while he crams in a great deal, the reader doesn’t feel rushed. It moves from the dawn of agriculture, to ancient Mesopotamian merchants to the coal-fields of England without a bump.
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