Jungle feels as if it has been written by two different incarnations of Patrick Roberts. The first half of the book provides a fascinating account of life on Earth, from the first appearance of primordial slime to the ascent of Homo sapiens. Here, Roberts’s insights are based on his training as an archaeologist and anthropologist and his stable isotope research at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. In the second half he is transformed into a social historian as he describes the many ways in which tropical forests and their inhabitants have been abused.
The word ‘jungle’, derived from Sanskrit, has fallen out of fashion as a synonym for tropical forests. Presumably its choice as title is ironic. As postcolonial critics have pointed out, it has unsavoury connotations: think of Tarzan, ‘king of the jungle’, a white resident lording it over a world of savagery. The Western world, says Roberts, has had a malign influence on tropical forests, not just on how they have been used but on how we perceive them too. Many European and American books and films imply that tropical forests are incapable of sustainably supporting large human societies. Jungle provides a superbly argued refutation of this long-held view.
He begins by providing a thrilling reappraisal of our origins and our dependence on tropical forests. Hominins were traditionally considered creatures of the savannahs, but recent research by ‘daring anthropologists and paleo-anthropologists’ – there are some entertaining Indiana Jones-style exploits in this story – has revealed that tropical forests played