Whenever they have explored human history, most authors and researchers have taken a similar approach — what have human beings done on Earth over the centuries, and what have they done to the planet? Dr Lewis Dartnell, a London-based astrobiology researcher and author, looks at this from the opposite viewpoint: how has the Earth itself shaped human history?
Origins: How the Earth Made Us looks at how the human species was shaped by the environment. The book describes how geological forces drove humans’ evolution in East Africa, and how mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece. Along the way, Dartnell addresses various questions — for example, how are the Himalayas linked to the orbit of the Earth, and to the formation of the British Isles? — as he explores how the planet has affected the species through its long evolution.
“All this began, Dartnell argues, with the tectonic processes that created the East African Rift — the area that today runs from Somalia and Ethiopia down to the coast of Mozambique. The uplift of mountains here caused a rain shadow that dried and warmed East Africa, turned the jungle into a park-like savannah, and enticed early hominins to leave the trees and become game hunters, runners, thinkers, cooks and, eventually, empire builders,” Nature magazine says in an article on the book.
As for democracy in Greece, the mountainous terrain in the country demanded that foot soldiers fight battles there, “each of whom had a say in events, helping to create democracy”, The Guardian explains in its review of the book. “A fascinating chapter explains trade winds, the age of exploration, colonisation and the ‘subsequent history of our world’,” the review in The Guardian adds, describing Dartnell as an “eloquent, conversational guide to these daunting aeons of time”.
The Nature article too showers praise on the author: “His infectious curiosity and enthusiasm tug the reader from page to page, synthesizing geology, oceanography, climatology, meteorology, geography, paleontology, archaeology and political history…”