I helped Craig review/edit this work before he submitted to his publisher. The NYT review below seems a little cranky and the other reviews were solid. I surely enjoyed Craig’s writing & working with him. rŌbear
Seeing America as Our Ice Age Ancestors Did Image ~ NYT
ATLAS OF A LOST WORLD
Travels in Ice Age America
By Craig Childs
269 pp. Pantheon. $28.95.
Traveling in ice age America, now almost a vanished landscape, strikes me as a strange topic. After all, the first Americans of 15,000 years ago belong in the realm of archaeology, not travel. Undeterred, the adventure travel writer Craig Childs journeys to experience ice age America, beginning his exploration on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, the highest point of what was once the Bering Land Bridge between Siberia and Alaska. He sees wolves and gazes out over the water, imagining a plain teeming with big game. Next we join him on a canoe trip down the Yukon River, a formidable journey, and venture to the Harding Icefield to experience what it would have been like to trek over the great North American ice sheets during the late ice age — if anyone ever did. Childs does indeed get ice and snow blowing in his face, but there’s little about first settlement in these passages, except for a brief discussion of the Bluefish Caves in the Yukon, where some humans camped briefly some 23,000 years ago. Almost certainly they were summer visitors, perhaps from the warmer refuge area of the Land Bridge.
Fresh from his glacier experiences, Childs turns to the once-exposed plains of the Pacific coastal route. He and his family kayak at first, then take a coastal ferry south, hardly an effective way of puzzling out a series of ancient population movements. He talks of computer models that estimate it took 2,267 years to paddle from Seattle to Monte Verde in Chile, the earliest known archaeological site in the far south. The prose here oozes drama. Childs writes of people who couldn’t stop paddling, of small numbers of adventurers who ended up at Monte Verde because it was like their homeland.
Inevitably, the journey moves on to large ice age beasts, starting with the highly controversial 130,000-year-old Cerutti mastodon site near San Diego. Clearly Childs favors first human settlement tens of thousands of years earlier than the conventional estimate of around 15,000 years ago, sweeping aside scientific concerns over Cerutti as seemingly irrelevant. He prefers a “march of bone smashers from the north,” who arrived in a predator-rich land teeming with saber-toothed tigers and other creatures. This is, to put it mildly, an imaginative scenario. He visits Paisley Cave in Oregon, with its fossilized human feces from 14,000 years ago. Next we jump to “a Dangerous Eden,” in Florida, with its sink holes and swamps, occupied at least 14,500 years ago. We learn that an ice age hunt would have involved “musky gore,” with “projectiles sailing.”
Childs’s account of his journey is fueled by his misleading vision of a hazardous ice age America teeming with large, ferocious predators. But his own travels are routine, and on the whole experiences any fit traveler can replicate. His writing style is overly dramatic, smacking of today’s restless television programming, and remarkable only for rare moments of vivid description. “Atlas of a Lost World” is neither a successful travel book nor, with its promiscuous use of good and bad science, does it represent scientific reality.
Scenarios of glacial and postglacial environments in the Americas.
Toward the end of the last glaciation, when there was still a land bridge between what was to become Siberia and Alaska, humanoids started to migrate from northeast Asia across the bridge and into the Americas—right? Not so fast. As Childs (Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth, 2012, etc.) points out in this useful and transporting tour d’horizon of the prehistoric Americas, that theory has lost its authority despite its continued usage. In chapters that hopscotch around in time—45,000 years ago, 13,000, 20,000, etc.—and geography (the Bering Sea to Florida), the author brings readers to prehistoric sites, pointing out where artifacts have been found. He presents each site like a diorama, describing what it would have looked like eons ago, what animals would have roamed the land, and what flora would have been available to eat or to fashion as clothing or a boat. “First people,” he writes, “wildly outnumbered by animals, would have found themselves tossed and trampled by tusks and hooves or torn to pieces by the scissoring teeth of scimitar cats.” Throughout the text, Childs projects a high degree of infectious fascination, pulling readers into his prehistoric scenes. Readers will be impressed by his hardiness as he attempts to experience what an ancient traveler may have experienced. Some of the boats and other conveyances are still used today by far northerners, including the “umiaq, the traditional skin boat…made out of walrus skins stitched together around a wooden frame, eyelets cut through the inch-thick hide and secured with rope.” The author backs up his theses with the latest in archaeological research, and he is clearly thrilled when he hits on some new nugget of information.
A tight weave of professional findings, anecdotes, site visits, and explanations behind ancient artifacts make this book both engaging and indispensable for those with an interest in prehistory.
Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America
About halfway between Georgetown and Killeen, near the banks of Buttermilk Creek, lies a place where people once lived, worked and did their best to dodge sabertooth cats. If you’d been there more than 13,000 years ago, near the end of the last Ice Age, you might have been knapping stone tools from the chunks of gray chert that litter the ground, or butchering a mammoth for dinner. Either way, you would have had a lot of company.
This place, known today as the Gault site, was a popular gathering spot for some of the first Americans. Archaeologists have unearthed traces of those lives — stone flakes, bits of charcoal, the remains of campsites — stretching back as much as 15,500 years ago. It is one of the most significant places from Ice Age North America.
Which naturally makes it appealing for Craig Childs, a writer and explorer who has followed the steps of some of these earliest Americans. In Atlas of a Lost World he aims for nothing less than a history of this continent, captured in an epochal shift as humans migrated into it.
It’s remarkable that Homo sapiens didn’t make it into the Americas until relatively late in human history. From our ancestral birth in Africa some 200,000 years ago, our species spread across Europe, Asia and Australia. Only the Americas remained without humans, isolated by oceans and thick northern ice sheets. When temperatures finally began to moderate, the ice sheets retreated and exposed the way forward: across a land bridge that spanned what is now the Bering Strait, between Siberia and Alaska.
Childs (Apocalyptic Planet, 2012) takes readers on a scintillating dual journey through the geography of modern and Ice Age America in this survey of some of the lands reached by the first voyagers across the Bering Sea Ice Bridge. With fully half the book set in Alaska, Childs provides a fascinating mash-up of scientific history and present-day travelogue as he journeys across the state’s various regions, surveying the land; visiting with scientists and Native scholars; and seeking out the place where anthropology, archaeology, and cultural history meet. While exploring the American West and ultimately embarking on a trip in a north Florida swamp, Childs maintains a self-deprecating humor and a boundless enthusiasm for his subject that makes this narrative an unexpected page-turner. His curiosity is infectious, and the lessons he learns about how Ice Age people lived, what we can learn from them, and who they became resonate with serious staying power. “These first people,” Tlingit writer Ernestine Hayes tells him, “were not becoming Americans, but becoming Tlingit, becoming Navajo, becoming Lakota.” Childs has found history deeper than politics, and in rich, evocative prose, he makes it startlingly relevant to readers. A science title with broad and enduring appeal.— Colleen Mondor