Book Review: By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean

Cunliffe, Barry. By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (Oxford University Press, 2015) Print and Kindle Editions

As many of my blog readers know, bemoaning the lack of good syntheses is a hobby of mine. We historians churn out monographs by the score, but finding someone who has pulled together a lot of material into a readable, decently illustrated, single book is relatively rare. The best of these are written by authors who have been working in their fields for a considerable period of time, and have collected an enormous amount of material over the years, and have the chops to say, “This is the book I wanted back then, so now I’m going to write it,” and have publishers say “Please, pretty please?” This is one of those books.

I really like Barry Cunliffe’s book. He’s pulling together material from archaeology (his field) anthropology, geography, and history. It has a few blind spots, which I will get to, but overall it is the best synthesis I’ve come across of the development of Eurasian culture from the Neolithic to about AD 1200. In doing so he flips a few tropes on their heads and literally makes readers look at maps in a new way.

Cunliffe’s argument is that far more exchange took place along the steppe corridor connecting the Balkans with Mesopotamia and east to China than we have always assumed. When I was learning basic pre-history, we learned about loci of development, and how Asia and Europe developed similar things independently until about 1500 BC or so, when the first trade started, but even then it was trade and some ideas that went back and forth, not anything really important until paper, gunpowder, and so on came from the East to the West. To boil it down, no real long-distance trade or major cultural exchanges occurred until the first empires got organized in China and South Asia, and Mesopotamia. Cunliffe pushes the dates very far back, and argues that the most recent research has metal-working starting in the Balkans or nearby, then moving east to Asia. Wheat cultivation also traveled west to east, as did domestication of horses, sheep, goats, and cattle (68) (although in that case it started in the central steppes and expanded both directions).

That sort of sets the tone of the book. Every few pages I found out that something I thought I knew was not quite right, or had been refined, or had been knocked completely apart. Granted, I’ve not kept up with Eurasian archaeology, but it is amazing what has changed in the past 30 years or so. Cunliffe does a great job keeping the narrative straightforward, and the illustrations are excellent. I usually lament the lack of maps or the poor quality, but these are ample and excellently done.

What I don’t love: The absence of footnotes. He has a very nice bibliographic essay with major sources, but I want article titles, book titles, and so on. Yes, that would have probably tripled the size of the book and added 20% to the cost, but I would really like to track down some of the articles and special references.

Blind spots: Cunliffe downplays warfare and the effects of climatic events, once you get past the end of the Younger Dryas. Granted, I am an environmental historian, and my mind was in the 1600s when I started reading this, so the Maunder Minimum and the volcanic eruptions that intensified the effects of the reduced solar energy output were on my mind, but I’d like to see more about those sorts of things. The lack of discussion of conflict prior to the rise of “predatory nomadism” in the 700s-400s BC (192-94) strikes me as a strange blind spot. I’m not certain if this is downplayed because of a lack of evidence and so Dr. Cunliffe does not want to speculate, if it is part of a general on-going reaction to the academic bomb Stephen LeBlanc and his students threw 15 years or so ago when they forcefully pointed out the high level of violence in tribal cultures in general and the American Southwest in particular, or because Dr. Cunliffe and his editor looked at the book, decided it was complex enough as it was without going into things like theories of early warfare and inter-tribal conflicts as drivers of population movements and cultural changes.

In all those are small flaws. Now that I have an idea where to dig, I can track down books and articles on my own, and the absence of warfare is in some ways a nice break from my usual reading. I ended up buying the hard-copy as well as the e-book, because I want to have the color illustrations and to be able to flip pages and hunt references easily.

A general reader with a bit of familiarity with the geography of Eurasia and some knowledge of the over all sequence of ancient history will really enjoy this work. If you have absolutely no knowledge of Neolithic-Copper Age-Bronze Age chronology, in that you have never heard the terms used before, I’d suggest trying an introductory book or a visit to a good museum to get a mental outline before you start reading. It will help keep things clear. The illustrations work on a black-and-white screen, but color is better. I disagree with some of his final conclusions, but the book fills in a gaping hole in my library and shook my understanding of prehistory in a good way. For writers interested in world building and development, especially how trade lingers after empires vanish, this is a magnificent resource.

FTC etc disclaimer: I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation from the author or publisher for this review.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean

    • He touches it, but lightly, and you get the impression that for the first 6000 years or so of the story, all is peaceful coexistence and harmonious development and exchange. You can’t convince me that the steppe borderlands were all that quiet for so long, even given the far lower population density and relative abundance of resources compared to later periods.

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