I am excited! I received a book a few days ago that returned my mind to much we were taught at school and a great deal more I’ve read over the decades since.
The book, Big History, from the Big History Institute associated with Macquarie University, is worthy of a place in the majority of Australian homes, let alone every one of the nation’s 5,000 primary schools. Beyond that, a credible argument can be made for several copies to occupy space in the libraries of our 1000+ secondary schools where Big History would act as a worthy backup resource to lessons taught in class. In fact, it might be seen as a mnemonic adjunct to the textbooks – or their electronic equivalent – required for teaching the sciences, an effective index of core values needed for educational advancement.
It begins, naturally enough, with a discussion of our origins, the centuries of man’s observations and dialogues that led, finally, to the Big Bang theory, before turning back to early cultures and how our forebears perceived mankind’s development. Of necessity, it goes even further back to what existed before the Big Bang: was it nothing or is it, perhaps, a multiverse from which new galaxies continue to appear? Such argument, unsurprisingly, brings to mind the Large Hadron Collider and man’s attempt to recreate conditions similar to those that occurred at the birth of the universe… But that’s my mind getting ahead of the book.
There is a logical progression. The work is separated into eight chapters: The Big Bang, Stars are Born, Elements are Forged, Planets Form, Life Emerges, Humans Evolve, Civilisations Develop and Industry Rises, each threshold divided into pertinent sections.
At this point, I stress that, although it must inevitably carry an amount of factual data, Big History is a long way from just another dry old textbook. As a single tome, it has to cover a huge field of information; with only 360 pages, it must do so sparingly. It should be noted, too, that it is not without a certain element of humour. In a section entitled Males and Females Emerge, for example, we are told, “In each species of animal, half became females… focused on nourishing their offspring. The other half – the males – became fighters and show-offs.”
One of the strengths of the publication is its standard of artwork. As behoves such a volume, pictorial and diagrammatic quality are excellent. Two of the plates with which I was so greatly taken – and there are many – are those portraying prehistoric clothing and early settlement:
- The photographic recreation on p215 is a woman in clothing dating back as much as 50,000 years. Not exactly handsome, she is at least recognisable as one of our hominid forebears. She wears a top that may have been made from woven hemp and nettle and perhaps tinted with vegetable dyes, a woven string skirt and quite complex jewellery using stone, shell, bone and ivory, sometimes worn on wrist and neck , sometimes woven into the clothing. Much of the evidence for this, although indirect, came from remains found in the Abri Pataud cave site in Aquitaine, France.
- A fascinating reconstruction, on pp256/7, is that of Catal Höyük in Central Turkey, a village dating back 7,600 to 9,300 years. Although it has no purpose-built defences, its very construction provides a level of natural defence. It is built behind thick outer walls and contains hundreds of small houses (an average 4m x 5m) packed in cells likened to a beehive. Walls were mud, with the probability they contained high-set windows; roofs were flat, timber beamed, made of woven reed and mud and used as thoroughfares. Entry to most homes was by ladder through a rooftop opening. People are portrayed in their everyday lives, cooking, dyeing, weaving, tending animals, and in religious celebration.
As a book, Big History provides a cohesive look at man’s progress through the industrial revolution and subsequent waves of innovation: mechanisation, the steam age, the electrical age, the aviation and the space age and, most recently, the digital age. It then admonishes that we must be on the cusp of a sixth stage of development, sustainability. “The ability to harness new forms of energy… may determine the fate of our species.”
It would be justification enough were there to be one reader among the young – those who will lead us into the future – who, by reading Big History, gains the start that allows him to direct our way along a path better than the doubtful one on which we have presently embarked.