Review: Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations, audio course by Brian Fagan

Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations
Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations by Brian M. Fagan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fairly light course/audiobook (if it’s college-level as advertised, it’s 1st year stuff at most).

This lightness is, as one might guess, due to the breadth of topics. Millions of years of prehistory and coverage of many early civilizations insures shallowness. Since buckets of ink have been spilt on books on various civilizations, I think a better strategy would have been to have omitted the early civilizations stuff and focused on the more rapidly advancing field of prehistory and human evolution.

Fagan lectures from an eurocentric point of view. Understandable perhaps, but it nonetheless is annoying at times. Frequent references, for example, to the 1st century CE to “the time of Christ” add nothing and are probably a turn off to some. Calling the Spaniards who decimated the civilizations of the Americas “adventurers”, as if they were just some guys looking for fun times, left a bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, at 10 years old, some of the information is starting to show its age. Significant advances and discoveries in paleogenetics, archaeology, and historical linguistics have occurred in the decade since this course.

So, in the end, it’s probably worth it as an introduction, modulo the datedness, but for serious information find something more specific and current.

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2 responses to “Review: Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations, audio course by Brian Fagan

  1. Shame to hear it’s not so great – I would have got a copy from the title. Any recommendations along the same lines for an enthusiast?

    • For human evolution, despite it being a little dated as well, I would strongly recommend “The Third Chimpanzee” by Jared Diamond. You could follow that up, for the most current info, by Nicholas Wade’s “Before the Dawn”. Fair warning, I’m not done with “Before” but it’s excellent so far at the 70% mark. 😉

      For more prehistorical focus (as opposed to evolutionary) I would select something focused on the region you are interested in. For the Americas, “1491” by Charles Mann was a great and very current read. For west Eurasian… not sure. There’s so much to choose from and I haven’t read any of the recent stuff yet. Eastern and south Asia has sort of the opposite problem since it has not been well-studied paleontologically/archaeologically. Africa too is in this boat mainly for political reasons – it’s not very safe.

      I have a big queue of books on these topics I am plowing through and will post reviews of some of them at least.

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