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August 13, 2003

Iceman died fighting & palaeo-fiction

Otzi the iceman had the blood of four people on his hands (metaphorically), likely the result of 1-2 days of prolonged fighting. Let's hope this helps put another nail in the coffin about ideas of a matriarchal peaceful Europe prior to the arrival of Indo-European horse-warriors (Otzi dates from Italy circa 3000 BC, so unless you believe Colin Renfrew, he probably wasn't an Indo-European speaker).

On a related note, I'd like to include a semi-blurb for Stephen Baxter, one of my favorite science fiction authors. He has degrees in math & engineering, but unlike most hard science fiction authors, and like physicist & author Gregory Benford, he can write decent prose. Some hard sf authors, like gravity physicist Robert L. Forward, don't venture much outside the bounds of their technical field in their fiction, but Baxter does. His recent book Evolution is a panoramic survey of the history, past & future, of the human lineage.

Starting in the Mesozoic with the seed of the first proto-primate ancestress, the novel jumps foward in increments toward modern humans, and then to Baxter's projection of what the future holds. It is formatted in a way that allows stand-alone chapter readings, as there really isn't a central plot thread you need to track from beginning to end (I skimmed a few chapters that didn't interest me, the early Cenozoic just doesn't do it for me for some reason). There are plenty of fictionalizations of Neandertals, H. erectus, etc. out there, but if you want bite-sized chunks, this is the book for you. Some of Baxter's speculations are based on sketchy science & history, for instance, he buys into Colin Renfrew's idea that the Neolithic revolution was brought to Europe by Indo-Europeans. Though Renfrew's thesis had some promise, I think that the genetic evidence has come in very mixed (Cavalli-Sforza gave some support to in the early 90s by coupling it with "demic diffusion" into Europe-but now there fights between Sykes & co. with the old school about how important demic diffusion really was in Europe has clouded the issue and that point of evidence), while the linguists & archaeologists have always weighed in against it, ergo, I think it best to discard it for now. But Baxter is pretty well informed about the general outline of current knowledge about early human population movements, depicting the movement of coastal wanderers along coastal southern Asia and the journey from Sahul into Australia, and does it in an entertaining fashion. Being English of course, don't expect an uplifting ending-but there are some interesting speculations that he inserts here & there [1].

A more detailed exposition on Baxter's conception of humanity, and intelligence in the cosmos, can be found in his loosely connected Manifold series. Here is a web site all about Stephen Baxter.

[1] Spoiler: He introduces an intelligent tool-using dinosaurian species as the reason that the Sauropods of the Jurassic were driven to extinction. Though conscious and sapient, they weren't bright enough to avert & anticipate the ecological dead-end that they had stumbled upon.

Posted by razib at 12:08 PM

Re: Baxter. I really liked The Time Ships but I'd have to disagree with you on Baxter's prose. He's a Big Ideas hard sf author, but his characters and style leave much to be desired. The Manifold series is a perfect example of his emphasis on science without much regard to the narrative style. I see Baxter as a guy with much potential, if he improves on his storytelling.

Posted by: Jonathan Wilde at August 13, 2003 01:12 PM

ok jon, perhaps i should rephase, "baxter has great prose...compared to hal clement."

Posted by: razib at August 13, 2003 01:20 PM