Books : reviews

David Miles.
The Tale of the Axe: how neolithic revolution transformed Britain.
Thames and Hudson. 2016

We, modern humans, are one of the youngest species on the planet. For our first hundred thousand years we survived as hunters and foragers, moving about the land, following seasonal resources. Only some ten thousand years ago, faced with climate change and rising populations, did humans revolutionize the ways in which we engaged with the world around us. By domesticating plants and animals we transformed our settlements, social relationships, diet and beliefs.

Focusing on the British isles, David Miles explores this period of societal change – the Neolithic, or ‘New Stone Age’ – using the most iconic artifact of its time, the polished stone axe, as a guide to the revolution that changed the world. These formidable creations were not only crucial tools that enabled the first farmers to clear the forests, but also objects of great symbolic importance, signifying status and power, wrapped up in personal expressions of religion and politics. Mixing anecdote, ethnography and archaeological analysis, David Miles vividly demonstrates how the archaeology on the ground reveals to us the evolving worldview of a species increasingly altering their own landscape; settling down together, investing in agricultural plots, and collectively erecting massive ceremonial monuments to cement new communal identities.

As a direct result of the invention, and intensification, of agriculture, the planet entered the Anthropocene, or the current ‘age of humanity': an era in which we are changing the world around us in significant, accelerating and often unpredictable ways. Our ancestors set us on the path to the modern world we live in; now seven billion humans must face the challenges that presents.