Editor's Choice December 2008

Geography Is Destiny

An epochal new book argues that the events of history we think consequential and monumental are, mostly, trivia
Carmen Redondo/Corbis

Worlds collide Hellenistic images on the dome of a Thracian tomb in Bulgaria

Great archaeologists are often at war with themselves. They aim to explain seismic transformations—social and cultural, economic, demographic, even genetic. But they do so by sifting (literally and figuratively) physical evidence that’s scant and (literally and figuratively) fragmentary. These methods mean that nearly all their publications are narrow and exceedingly dry, even by academic standards. And even on those rare occasions when they venture beyond the journal article or monograph, their writing seldom tempts even the most archaeologically besotted general reader. For instance, although the great archaeologist of Mesopotamia Robert McCormick Adams has revolutionized scholars’ understanding of the origins of urban civilization, his oversize tomes, with their detailed maps of watercourses and settlement patterns and meticulous charts of pottery types, resemble field reports, not works of history. But because archaeology addresses the most basic questions and explores the most profound changes in human history by means of a grossly incomplete record—and perhaps because it was long the province of aristocrats and buccaneers—it has invited the sort of bold interpretations in which speculation can too easily become untethered from evidence. When archaeology is done right, it’s frequently dull; when it’s fascinating, it’s frequently wrong.

So Europe Between the Oceans, at once compelling and judicious, is an extraordinary book. In a work of analytical depth and imaginative sweep, Sir Barry Cunliffe, the emeritus professor of European archaeology at Oxford, has synthesized the voluminous recent record of excavations from Iceland to Turkey, the burgeoning scholarship on DNA and ancient populations, and research on topics ranging from Stone Age shipbuilding to trade in Muslim Spain and from salinity levels in the ancient Black Sea to state formation in Early Iron Age Denmark. This all serves to elucidate the “complex interaction of human groups with their environment, and with each other” in Europe from 9000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.—10,000 years of cultural, social, and material development, starting at the close of the last ice age and ending with the emergence of the European nation-states.

Cunliffe’s approach will jar readers accustomed to being informed of the epoch-making quality of every inauguration speech. Not for him “the events and personalities flitting on the surface” of conventional history. Rather, he focuses resolutely on the underlying forces—primarily geography and climate—that influenced societies, and specifically on the ways those forces shaped and constrained the “intricate social networks by means of which commodities were exchanged and ideas and beliefs were disseminated.” Cunliffe is intellectually indebted to Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of French economic and social historians, which emphasized largely static environmental influences and long-term historical continuity and regarded political events as little more than trivia. The Annales approach works better for the millennia Cunliffe examines, in which very, very few individuals can even be identified, than for the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the periods Braudel assessed.

Geography forms the essential basis of Cunliffe’s history. The waters encircling Europe, the transpeninsular rivers that penetrated it, and its topography, currents, tides, and seasonal wind patterns all determined millennia-old sailing routes, and thus the goods and beliefs transported along them. From Cunliffe’s perspective, even the Roman Empire was just an interlude, and perhaps its main achievement was to institutionalize through its ports, roads, and market centers Europe-wide networks of exchange that had been operating since the Middle Stone Age.

By stressing historical continuity and adroitly employing a wide-ranging archaeological record to highlight mobility and interconnectedness, Cunliffe draws a startling picture. Europe, he demonstrates, was geographically and culturally merely “the western excrescence of the continent of Asia.” His archaeological and topographic analysis shows how for thousands of years the steppe lands linked central Asia to the Great Hungarian Plain, thus providing “easy access” from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Here was a corridor for trade and migration, starting with nomadic groups deep in prehistory and continuing through the preclassical, classical, medieval, and early modern eras with great hordes of Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, Moguls, and Tatars. Knowledge of, for example, the chariot seems to have moved from the Russian forest steppe (the earliest known examples date to 2800 B.C.) to the Carpathian basin in Hungary and, by the 16th century B.C., to Mycenaean Greece and Sweden. Sarmatian horsemen, originally from central Asia, served in northern England as mercenaries in the Roman army.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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