The Oxford Illustrated History of the World
Edited by Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Oxford University Press
496pp, 184 colour and black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £30

The latest edition in the Oxford Illustrated History series (whose previous titles have tended to cover smaller themes, such as Medieval England, Modern China, World War Two, and Witchcraft and Magic) is an ambitious undertaking. This book aims to give us a history of the world, from the emergence of Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago to today, in a single 496-page volume. Editor Felipe Fernández-Armesto (Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame) has assembled essays by a selection of historians, covering a range of subjects at different times and in different places, with diseases, cultural exchanges, varying economies, changes in the climate, and more all explored.

As well as being organised chronologically, the book is structured with an all-important eye on the overarching theme of the environment and our relationship with the world. After all, humanity would not have much of a history without the world. The Oxford Illustrated History of the World is divided up into chronological sections; each starts with an overview of the environmental context for a particular period, and then continues with chapters on culture at the time, addressing art and thought, politics and behaviour.

We begin with an introduction to the earliest members of our species, Homo sapiens, and evidence for fully modern behaviour in the archaeological record starting some 50,000–40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are global travellers, Clive Gamble tells us in his chapter of that name. They reached Australia and the Americas, and our species successfully adapted to a range of habitable environments leading different ways of life according to setting.

This notion of divergence, different ways of life, presents an important strand running through the book, but convergence, coming together of cultures, is also prevalent. From the 14th century onwards, maritime routes brought far-flung places closer and closer together. Subsequent centuries saw conquerors travelling to new lands, bringing with them their various religions. Christianity expanded across the oceans, taking root in the Americas, but elsewhere Islam was also expanding into different regions and cultures, creating diverse global
communities united by literature as well as religious belief.

The history of the world's changing climate is an interesting one. It is in the Ice Age that we get early art, spectacular cave paintings and exquisite carved figurines that offer a glimpse of the views on the feminine and on spirituality by the prehistoric people who created them. Later, as the temperatures climbed, the spread and intensification of agriculture led to societies becoming more and more different from each other all around the world. This important development in human history and its impact is explored taking examples from Peru, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Yellow River valley in China, and in Egypt.

Far more modern subjects are explored too, and within the Age of the Anthropocene (1815–2015) the cultural revolutions, ideologies of hate, and some of the chilling conflicts of the 20th century are tackled. Charting the history of the world with a focus on humanity's relationship with a changing environment is a worthwhile approach, particularly as we today face climate crisis and a rapidly warming world. The result is a handy compendium of some of the major moments and periods of transformation in human history, set in a global context.

Lucia Marchini

 

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