Traditional university teaching in the United States used to include a compulsory course on the history of Western civilisation, starting with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and proceeding by weekly instalments to the most recent technological triumphs of American genius. This was the staple food of first-year students. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, an Oxford academic with an appetite for writing large books with tiny titles (Truth, Millennium, etc), has no truck with this old-fashioned way of looking at the course of history, and has sketched out an entirely new way of examining the past.
In Civilizations, his new blockbuster, he argues that civilisations often spring up in the most unlikely and inhospitable places all over the world. In examining their histories, he seeks to escape from the traditional chronological narrative, and looks instead at the environments from which civilisations emerge – deserts, prairies, forests and oceans. To make his point, he begins not in the familiar Fertile Crescent but in the most improbable region of all – the icy wastes of northern Scandinavia and the Siberian tundra, where reindeer herders colonised the ice, thanks to the timely invention of the oil lamp. Only after a couple of hundred pages does Abraham finally make a rather shamefaced appearance.
So this book is more about the environments that have proved capable of sustaining life than about the worth or value of the civilisations that have been created to enjoy them. It is a healthy corrective to the ‘decline and fall’ thesis that has characterised much of the earlier writing