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Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America

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From the author of Apocalyptic Planet comes a vivid travelogue through prehistory, that traces the arrival of the first people in North America at least twenty thousand years ago and the artifacts that tell of their lives and fates.

In Atlas of a Lost World, Craig Childs upends our notions of where these people came from and who they were. How they got here, persevered, and ultimately thrived is a story that resonates from the Pleistocene to our modern era. The lower sea levels of the Ice Age exposed a vast land bridge between Asia and North America, but the land bridge was not the only way across. Different people arrived from different directions, and not all at the same time.

The first explorers of the New World were few, their encampments fleeting. The continent they reached had no people but was inhabited by megafauna—mastodons, giant bears, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, five-hundred-pound panthers, enormous bison, and sloths that stood one story tall. The first people were hunters—Paleolithic spear points are still encrusted with the proteins of their prey—but they were wildly outnumbered and many would themselves have been prey to the much larger animals.

Atlas of a Lost World chronicles the last millennia of the Ice Age, the violent oscillations and retreat of glaciers, the clues and traces that document the first encounters of early humans, and the animals whose presence governed the humans’ chances for survival. A blend of science and personal narrative reveals how much has changed since the time of mammoth hunters, and how little. Across unexplored landscapes yet to be peopled, readers will see the Ice Age, and their own age, in a whole new light.

354 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 1, 2018

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About the author

Craig Childs

31 books325 followers
CRAIG CHILDS is a commentator for NPR's Morning Edition, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Men's Journal, Outside, The Sun, and Orion. He has won numerous awards including the 2011 Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, 2008 Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure, the 2007 Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, and the 2003 Spirit of the West Award for his body of work.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 220 reviews
Profile Image for P. Kirby.
Author 5 books68 followers
August 16, 2018
Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America is an elegiac meditation on the possible history of humans in the Ice Age Americas. I say "possible" because the picture drawn by Childs, compiled from the research of scientists over the decades, remains out of focus, a function of the immense span of time that has passed and the paucity of artifacts available.

For me, the book is also an examination of humanity's refusal to think far in the future. By that, I mean the flagrant overuse (over-hunting) of the Ice Age's megafauna. Humans weren't the only forces that drove most of the megafauna--mammoths, mastadons, camels, horses, giant ground sloths, short faced bears, dire wolves, American lions, etc.--into extinction, but there is a clear pattern of over exploiting the larger fauna.
Why did they hunt the biggest animals on their landscape, when squirrels and rabbits have been shown to be three times more efficient as a source of calories?

The answer, as posited by the text, is pride, hubris and a culture where power [and manhood] is defined by the ability to make things dead. (Also, I imagine, because mammoth tastes better than squirrel.)

A hubris that never thinks ahead, lives in the now, and basically shits where it eats. The kind of thinking that still goes on with modern humans. At least you could argue that Ice Age people didn't have the knowledge base we do and could be excused for their excesses.

Atlas of a Lost World is packed with fascinating details--like how Ice Age people used bones, rather than wood, to fuel their fires--but not entirely "sciencey." Both because Childs isn't a scientist, but also because the narrative vacillates between descriptions of ancient landscapes and Childs' own experiences trekking and camping in the areas in question.

The dude is hard core, by the way, going as far, in one case, as to spend a night without a tent on a frozen Minnesota lake in temperatures that dipped 20-degrees below zero.

For me, a good deal of the book's appeal are the locales, including my own backyard, as it were, in New Mexico. I'd find myself, while out walking through the Rio Grande bosque, imagining what the landscape would have looked like. Would any of the great cottonwoods been present, clustered around the river? Or would this have all been grassland, the trees mowed over by mammoths and with packs of dire wolves slinking through tall grass?

My dog, a former coyote hunter, is brave, but even she'd probably run like hell at the sight of dire wolf. LOL.

There are certainly more technically complex treatments of the movement of early man across the Ice Age landscape, populating the Americas, but Atlas of a Lost World, with its mixture of science and anecdote is lovely and very approachable for the layperson. Recommended.

(Library book)
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,901 reviews220 followers
October 30, 2020
This book is a pleasing blend of science, history, and memoir. As I read it, I felt like I was accompanying author Craig Childs back into prehistory. He traces the arrival of the first humans in North America and describes artifacts that tell how they lived and died. Childs travels to various archaeological sites, covering a wide swath of North America, with stops in Canada and the US, including Alaska, Oregon, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Florida, and more.

The book is structured in a loosely chronological order, from approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. He investigates discoveries of the bones of mastodons, dire wolves, giant bears, mammoths, bison, lions, and sabertooth cats. He looks at the evidence of tools, plants, and diets. He includes interviews with selected scientists who provide expert viewpoints on dates, migrations, and lifestyles of these ancient people.

This book is right up my alley. One of the aspects I liked the best is the personable way these potentially dry topics are covered. The author has made it into a travelogue of sorts. He describes his traveling companions, and what they saw and did at the various sites they visited. This book examines so many fascinating topics, such as archaeology, anthropology, paleontology, ecology, geology, and geography. I you like to read about one or more of these, it is a wonderfully entertaining glimpse into the a past era.

Profile Image for Jaksen.
1,332 reviews57 followers
January 26, 2019
Interesting, provocative book.

A survey of what happened when, where, how and sometimes why. Mr. Childs has traveled extensively, all over North America, sometimes in a truck, other times on foot, in a kayak, on all-terrain vehicles. Once he settles into a location - a desert, a forest, a swamp in the southeast - he gives an overview of the present-day topography, the climate, the plant and animal life. Then he reaches back in time...

To give another view, of what the area was like 12,000 years ago, or 20,00o, or even farther back. Based on paleontological and archaeological finds, he paints a realistic picture of the animals - and the people who hunted them. What current research is showing is that there wasn't merely one group who crossed the Bering Strait - through Beringia, the land bridge - into Canada, Alaska and the northwest corner of the US, but lots of groups. I mean lots and lots and...

That wasn't the only way they got here either. I've long thought - and I'm no anthropologist - that it would be such a waste if people didn't also use boats to travel down the west coast. I mean, the shorelines almost anywhere in the world are such a vast reservoir of natural resources, the main one being FOOD. I am always astonished when certain persons on a certain popular TV show run around trying to find food and end up eating a lot of RICE when the ocean is RIGHT THERE. And if they can't get fish, cuz they are such lousy fishermen, why don't they start digging around, looking for air holes in the mud, find some clams or other shellfish and...

I'm a Cape Codder; it's how my mind goes.

Back to the book. So once Mr. Childs settles into an area, sometimes alone, sometimes with family and/or friends and even the odd stranger he picks up in his travels, and once we feel at home in the present, he dives back into time itself. Imagining the animals - the giant mammoths and mastodons, or bison or giant sloths, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, and so on which fossil evidence shows lived in the area. How people hunted them, what kinds of tools and weapons they used, etc. He doesn't pull facts from the air. All his work is based on what has been found in that area, how the tools were made, where the materials came from - local? Or brought in from a hundred miles away? The documentation is well-done; the theories on how people moved, ate, lived, and came from is all meticulously-researched. The writing is clear, down-to-Earth, and when there are competing ideas or theories about an area or a location, he cites them all.

The thing I took away from the book was this - that the more we learn, the less we know, because so many new questions open up. Thing is, the North (and South) American continents were populated - even if sparsely - for a verrrrry long time, and by different groups - clans, tribes, and ethnicities. It wasn't, hey, this group crossed over from Asia and presto! Ten to twenty thousand years later we have the native Americans who are still here today.

Nah, it was much more complex than that, and a lot more interesting.

Five stars
Profile Image for Tracy Rowan.
Author 15 books25 followers
September 13, 2018
This is not a scientific text. Not even close. What this is, is a lyrical travelogue through ice age sites in America. Childs doesn't show us The Story of prehistoric man on this continent, but rather A Story, filled with possibilities, even probabilities, based on evidence of tool-making, camp sites, kill sites, and his own vivid imaginings of what his experiences in these places might have been like ten or fifteen thousand years ago.

Moving back and forth from his own travels to his recreation of ice age life in the same spots, Childs captures a deep sense of what early man must have endured to be here, and what he must have found to keep him here. Childs tracks the megafauna like mammoths and mastodons, the evolution of knapped stone tools, migration patterns. He thinks deeply about the meaning behind what he finds, and creates what feels like a dialogue with the earth, and the spirits of those who who first walked here.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the discussion of first humans. The dates for the first human habitation of the Americas keep getting moved back in time as research -- often vigorously denied and equally vigorously defended -- unearths earlier and earlier human made objects. While Childs seems to believe the evidence for far earlier habitation, he is careful to present different points of view.  He even mentions the "Solutrean hypothesis" which posits that the earliest human migration to the Americas came from Europe about 21,000 years ago, not Asia. He's quick to point out that the hypothesis is most popular with white nationalists who choose to believe that the origins of the Americas were European not Asia. He is also is quick to point out that even if it was true, something genetic research has cast serious doubt on, Solutrean man would have been very far from modern Europeans and much more like Cheddar Man. 

Childs asks a great many questions, and presents a great many possible answers, but what he gives us is a highly personal view of ice age life, filtered through his 21st century life and experience. He hasn't written a scientific treatise, he's written a love letter to a time and place long gone, but deeply important, and very much to be cherished as what makes the Americas what they are today.

Profile Image for Stephen Simpson.
638 reviews10 followers
May 28, 2019
Interesting subject; crap execution.

The writer's "style" is that of wannabe novelist/poet, and it hampers the quality of the work.
What's worse, and the reason I stopped reading halfway through, was the statement on page 144 that cottonmouth bites are "frequently fatal". The last confirmed fatal cottonmouth bite in the U.S. was in the early 70's, and there are dozens-to-hundreds of bites (estimated) per year.

Maybe this is a minor quibble, and it certainly isn't relevant to the main thrust of the book, but if the author couldn't get this fact right (one that can be confirmed in about 90 sec of googling), for a book published in 2018, can anything presented as fact really be trusted? If he's so willing to just go along with folklore and myth instead of factchecking, what's the validity of this book or the information therein?
Profile Image for Ross.
753 reviews30 followers
January 7, 2019
Most of the book are the author's personal experiences which were of zero interest to me and I gave up on it after about 10%.
Profile Image for Jonna Higgins-Freese.
708 reviews47 followers
July 22, 2018
I have a bit of a reader-crush on Childs. His blend of personal narrative and succinct, vivid, relatable and compelling summary of archaeological research evidence makes for compulsive reading for me. This despite the fact that much of what he writes -- about half of each book, really -- is to some extent "nature writing" in which I have little interest. Perhaps this is because the landscapes in which he tends to travel are harsh, and so he's not a pastoral nature writer. He understands that there was never an idyllic time when humans didn't have (as the Buddha says) 83 problems.

At any rate -- this was tremendously interesting.

He writes of a valley from which flows a tributary to the Yukon, which holds evidence of human occupation and hunting 24-27,000 YA -- evidence which was at first dismissed because it didn't fit with the received wisdom that humans only arrived in North America 13,000 years ago. (27-28)

Meadowcroft Rockshelter, southern Pennsylvania, evidence of humans 14-16,000 YA, below that hearths and carbonized basketry with dates 20,000 YA
Chesapeake Bay -- mastodon bones with human blade with a maximum date of 23,000 YA
Cactus Hill site, VA: quartzite blades, charcoal 18,200-22,000 YA
OR, TX, FL: 14-15,000 YA
Monte Verde, Chilean Patagonia, 14,500 YA human encampment, habitation layer with clay-lined pits 38,000 YA
Serra da Capivara Brazil: chipped toolstone 20,000 YA
Taima-Taima stemmed projectiles 15,240 YA - similar to those found at Monte Verde, indicating coastal migration around the ice (39-40)

Why? "People do shit." (41) - and maybe because they saw birds migrating over the ice and knew something was there.

The oldest osteological evidence is of children: "it has never been easy to lose a child, not now, and not in the Ice Age" (80) "Paleolithic human remains tend to be children, not because their bonesa re somehow more long-lasting, but because their bodies were more likely to be cared for" (82)
Anzick Boy from eastern Montana: 13,000 YA -- carefully buried with red ochre
Yucatan, teenage girl in spring, 12,900 YA

Increased lengths of coding for the dopamine receptor D4 is correlated with novelty seeking; "the presence of D4 is correlated with an individual's distance from the land bridge. North America, with the clostest access to the land bridge, shows 32 percent of samples with D4 elongation. Central America comes in ahead with 42 percent, and South America reaches an average 69 percent, as if people neded that much more _umph_ to reach that far south." (51). [Though this signal seems too neat to be true - -what about evidence he later presents from the southeast of migration from Spain?]

"The first mirgrants into the Americas came along multiple routes and at different times before, during, and after the height of the Ice Age. It was not a single, small colonizing population, but many separate arrivals." (88)

Or even earlier? Snowmass shows quarter of mastadon carcass submerged with equally-sized rocks, Ten instances of possible human-shattered megafauna bones from the La Sena site in Nebraska and Lovewell in Kansas from about last glacial maximum (24,500 YA); San Diego shows 130,000 YA remains of mastadons with smashed bones, stone cobbles not near a natural source. "it may fit a more realistic migration model where hominids arrived not in one single time period, but many" (107).

spring in Texas shows signs of earliest human presence pre-Clovis, 15,500 YA; signs at site point to Siberia, Iberia, and Monte Verde, the archaeologists saying, 'We don't know where we came from. Maybe everywhere.' (118)

Solutrean artifacts 21,000 years old appear to be from Iberia, perhaps from hunters following auks across the sea ice (140). Some believe this is what became Clovis, an ideology and symbol system as much as a weapon system, "symbolic and beyond function," which might also explain how/why it spread so quickly (141).

Fine early points, not in Western stemmed tradition, from east coast date to 18,000-20,000 years ago (157)

all Clovis points appear to have been rubbed with red ochre (168)

Clovis technology spread from coast to coast within 200 years. "Similarly fluted points made it as far as the bottom of South America and to the edge of the Bering land bridge in Alaska, with one possible specimen found in Siberia, making the land bridge a two-way street . . . . how do you become a man if you can't find the mammoth? I think the whole Clovis thing out in the Far West was entirely going after mammoths, looking to get that status. We don't find that many Clovis settlements I the West. They were coming out here looking for that last population of mammoths so they could fulfill their religious duty." Bruce Bradley, from the University of Exeter, "believes this new big-game projectile is a sign of a much larger ideology that took hold faster than technology should have spread, thus his word 'cult.' The first wave of human arrival - barring Steve Holen's evidence of early bone-smashers and Dennis Standford's Solutrean incursion - is by West Coast around sixteen thousand years ago. The second was a later influx around Clovis time when an ice-free corridor linked the Far North to the rest of the New World."

But while 16,000 years ago was "ideal for human survival -- plenty of water, the cold slipping away, permafrost leaving the ground, grasslands rich in megafauna -- Clovis arose when the good became too much. Ice dams were bursting, shorelines disappearing. thirteen thousand years ago, a glacier dam broke in Montana and took out half of Washington State and some of Oregon and Idaho. Ebullient masses of mud and glacial silt carried off bloated mammoth carcasses and archipelagos of drowned horses, everything inundated but the highest buttes and mountains. One waterfall was three and a half miles wide, water plunging four hundred feet into a cavity carved suddenly from the earth . . . Both Clovis and stemmed artifacts have been found in the area, meaning that this flood would have been witnessed by human beings. . . . In Central Mexico, volcanoes were erupting . . . A controversial comet impact may be in the mix, too . . . some stellar event left a blast of high-energy photons and possibly lethal UV radiation in marine cores and tree rings about 12,380 years ago -- either a core-collapse supernova nearby in the galaxy, an immense solar flare from our own sun, or remnants of a bolide impact to the atmosphere. These events, together with thousands of years of epic flooding, dramatic sea-level rise, and the swift decline of charismatic megafauna, would have caught people's attention." Clovis may thus have been an apocalyptic culture, forged as a way of making meaning in the face of these events.
Profile Image for Laura.
245 reviews6 followers
November 13, 2018
Well written but filled with too much rumination from 21st century man.
Profile Image for Jamie Smith.
488 reviews76 followers
November 15, 2019
Craig Childs is passionate about prehistory. He seems to be familiar with every archaeological dig from Canada to South America, which allows him to make connections between peoples and times, some of them conjectural but none entirely implausible. He is skilled at being able to take one or two artifacts and build from them a sequence of ever expanding cultural connections. His connect-the-dots style reminded me of the philosopher Rousseau: if you accept premise A and premise B follows logically from it, and C, D, and E follow from B, pretty soon you have an entire system laid out before you. In Childs’ case take a spear point, a piece of red ocher, and a couple of bones and add in an understanding of ancient climatology, and suddenly long vanished peoples start to come alive.

His interest in experiencing the wild first hand sometimes put him in alarming situations, such as wandering away from an Alaskan village in the middle of the night with no weapon or other form of protection, and then realizing that the animals coming toward him looked like wolves. Oops. At another time he and some friends went off deep in to the Alaskan bush and made camp on an island in the river. A large black bear jumped in from the bank and swam toward them. Once again, they had no weapon and no way to defend themselves, and if that bear had not misjudged the strength of the current and the angle needed to get to them things could have ended badly. Finally, to experience what it was like to live in the Arctic cold, he spent a night on a frozen lake when the temperature was 20 degrees below zero, and he brought no tent. I wonder if people start backing away from him when he suggests heading out into the wilderness for some fun.

There is good science in this book, especially when it ties together climate, geology, and the surprisingly sophisticated stone and bone tools and weapons the early peoples used. It is not, however, a science book, and the style is markedly different from what someone like a professional archaeologist would have written. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until he described the bones and grave goods of a particular site, and said the person was probably a tribal shaman. “Shaman,” that’s the word I was looking for. Childs’ intense personal commitment to ancient sites combined with his holistic approach to interpreting the data and modern re-creations of the tools and techniques draw the reader in but can also seem wacky at times, a shamanistic approach to his subject. Sometimes his writing gets so florid it made me smile, and wonder if he really should have been a fiction writer, as in “Storm clouds split into ghost fingers through the mountains and streamed over the dead lake.” (p. 191) At another point he plays hide and seek (seriously) with some other researchers and pretends to be the last of the mammoths evading a human hunting party. That’s going pretty far down the rabbit hole of immersion in one’s subject.

For the reader with little previous knowledge about the early inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, the book has lots of interesting information. The arrival in the New World was almost certainly not a single event but was repeated by many peoples over thousands of years, and the journey was not just one-way, since artifacts with clear North American designs have been found in Siberia. Although the most ancient known sites are from about 20,000 years ago, there are suspicions that humans may have been here much longer than that. When the ice started to retreat some people found open passages that led them south, and others seemed to have moved down the coast in boats. Childs makes the interesting point that birds may have played a significant role in the migration south; the tribes would have seen them arriving in the Arctic during the summer and understood that they must have a winter home, somewhere warm enough to survive when cold and darkness returned to the North.

One of the most interesting discussions is about the spread of Clovis culture and its distinctive stone tools. The Clovis spear points strikingly resemble those of the Solutrean culture from Western Europe, and the argument is that during the last of the ice ages, when an ice bridge stretched from Europe to what is now Canada, people could have migrated along the edge of the ice to the New World surviving by fishing and sealing along the way. Although the Solutrean Hypothesis is not widely accepted by archaeologists, it is not voodoo science either, and raises intriguing possibilities.

Clovis was more than a technology, and it seems to have been an intrinsic part a culture of some kind. It spread from the mid-Atlantic region across the entire continent in two hundred years, which is almost unbelievably fast for this time period. Childs discusses some possible interpretations, such as it being part of a cult of the hunt and bound up in tribal displays of adulthood and rites of passage. At this same time the large North American mammals disappeared, possibly from overhunting, and the Younger Dryas brought a harsh ice age climate back, making life much harder. Perhaps Clovis culture helped protect the people from the hostile climate, or perhaps it was an act of defiance against it.

Childs is at his best when he vividly describes some of the ancient landscapes. He convinced me that I would not have wanted to live in Florida back then no matter how cheap waterfront property was. There were so many large predators, from gators to bears to big cats and Dire Wolves, that humans were probably an item on the menu rather than the apex of the food chain.

The humans survived, and ultimately prospered in the New World, spreading coast to coast from above the Arctic Circle to the tip of Chile. As the weather warmed the Clovis culture broke up into distinct local societies. By the time the Europeans arrived there were thousands of tribes with their own histories and mythologies, speaking hundreds of different languages.

The book has some odd and even off-putting moments, but it is full of interesting information and believable conjectures. For the nonspecialist, it is a good introduction to the arrival and spread of the first humans in the New World.
Profile Image for Jon.
212 reviews4 followers
February 9, 2020
2.5 stars

This book is a mix of a modern travelogue from the author's point of view and a rough overview of early human sites in the Western hemisphere. The author takes their experiences from traveling to those sites and tries to extrapolate what the early humans might have been doing and thinking.

While I can see where this approach might to appeal to other readers, this is not what I was looking for and I ended up skimming some paragraphs towards the end.
Profile Image for Gilbert Stack.
Author 61 books52 followers
February 8, 2022
This book reminds me of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. At its core, Childs is sharing a very personal experience of nature in North America. On this level alone, it is a beautiful experience taking the reader from the isolation of the glaciers in the far north to a different kind of isolation in the hot and humid swamps of Florida. But Childs gives us much more than this for he also offers a continuous imagining of how our distant ancestors must have first experienced this continent. He leads the reader into the psyche of those first crossing the land bridge and helps us to understand why they might have come and why they pushed on through such inhospitable terrain. Along the way, he helps us to envision the megafauna they encountered, the climate challenges they had to overcome, and the very personal losses they suffered along the way. They were human, after all, with dreams and hopes and fears, family, friends and rivals.

Interspersed seamlessly throughout the narrative is the modern archeology that helps us to understand these ancient peoples. He doesn’t shy away from the controversies, but he also doesn’t get bogged down in them. In many ways, the controversies help him paint his picture of a lost world, making it feel even more real.

If you have any interest in the ice age and what it took to survive it, or on the peoples who pushed past the glaciers to make a livelihood for themselves and their families, or on the creatures they encountered, the tools they used, or the patterns of their lives, this is a great book. But if you happen to be an author who is considering writing about this period, I would go so far as to say this is a must read.

If you liked this review, you can find more at www.gilbertstack.com/reviews.
Profile Image for Sharman Russell.
Author 26 books245 followers
June 30, 2020
What an extraordinary world, before the Pleistocene extinctions of some 10,000 years ago, the landscape of North America rippling with so many animals: giant sloths, cave bears, short-faced bears, saber-tooth cats, scimitar cats, American cheetahs, American lions, giant beavers, giant bison, horses, camels, llamas, mountain deer, stag-moose, four-horned antelope, glyptodonts, mastodons, mammoths, condors, and teratorns. What abundance! Everyone was so big. There was so much food, so many sounds and smells, herds of grazing animals, predators everywhere, scavengers everywhere, rustles, shrieks, grunts, gnaws, bird song, mating songs, eating songs, death songs. Really, it’s the abundance that rattles, evoking an unexpected greed and lusting. If I were given a Sunday afternoon to go back in time, this would be the time. (Maybe, admittedly, I’d go as a drone and not a human being. You could get eaten in a snap.) I have written about this period myself, in fiction and nonfiction, and as an informed reader, I think Craig Childs did a great job of summarizing the most current research about the migration of humans into North and South America, as well as making this journey personal and immediate through his own personal and immediate adventures. This is his wont and his gift.
676 reviews2 followers
June 8, 2018
GoodReads should have a category "begun, not finished". But as it doesn't I put this under "read". I read about 53 pages. They were interesting enough, but glancing through the book I thought the rest was likely to be more of the same, just taking place in other sites. The author is imaginative enough (and intrepid!) in describing what the early from-Asia/Siberia travelers were likely to have seen in terms of geology and animal and plant life as they entered into North America (and he goes only as far south as northern Mexico (it would also be interesting to have an idea of what such travelers' descendants would have seen and likely experienced as they persevered down to the southern tip of South America, but that would be a whole another book). Basically the author and companion/s travel to an archaeological site, or near one, using site excavation to re-imagine what that area of North America (or Mexico) looked like and how the travelers lived based on any artifacts or prehistoric bone modifications found. In addition, the author retells about his journeying to the site: in Alaska via canoe and hiking (without any means of communication in case of accidents--he is intrepid) including others (from Japan, the Philippines, etc.) who by themselves or with one or two companions (so far into the book also all intrepid young men in their 20s apparently) are traversing the back country (for whatever reasons). These meetings (as well as meetings with grizzlies, which sometimes are compared with imagined meetings with short-faced bears, etc.) are very interesting and something i want only to experience as an account or re-imagining). Childs writes well, gives good descriptions--excellent travel writing. So don't let my 2 stars put you off: I just am not in the mood to pursue this book further. I may come back to it sometime.
2 reviews
February 20, 2019
A book that's equal parts mediocre adventure writing, navel-gazing memoir, and Anth 101.
Yeah that's a bit of a roast, but the Anth 101 sections are actually very digestible, journalistic, and - at times - enjoyable. Just be prepared for some skimming in between.
Profile Image for Robin.
497 reviews1 follower
April 1, 2019
It was okay, just a bit too much repetition and too much about his own adventures exploring north america. I just had a different expectation of the book and while it wasn't written badly it couldn't keep my attention and I never wanted to get back to it to read/finish it.
Profile Image for Claudia Putnam.
Author 5 books125 followers
July 13, 2019
Okay: so the promised review.

This is a rocking tour of what is now the North American continent at the time of first contact with humans. Maybe. At the end of the last Ice Age anyway. Which is generally accepted to be when humans got here. Except some squiggly pieces of evidence that suggest older dates that are hard to explain.

Which makes the start of the book, where Childs is in a Colorado cave helping excavate camel bones, and he and his fellow excavators are fantasizing about finding an arrow or something similar nearby...they, and Childs say it will never happen... also hard to explain. Childs can't stay away from the tantalizing evidence that suggests that it MIGHT have happened. Then he slaps himself across the face and says no, never. I suppose it's because he doesn't want to look like a loon, like the author of Bronze Age America or something (which is looking fairly conservative at this point), but at some point someone has to take all this data, a lot of which is is summarized already in Mann's 1491, and at least put it one place—what indicates earlier dates, where might these people have come from, and how much evidence is there? There's even a faint suggestion, in Colorado (right up the road from me, as it happens) of human storage of mammoth remains dating back 40K years ago. Faint, we all hasten to add. But honestly, the other explanation is total coincidence. I won't go into the story/evidence, but coincidence seems a bit weak as a justification. Sometimes you get a little tired of the simplest explanation being automatically regarded as the best. Don't we need to look for the best explanation?

Perhaps the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence needs to be re-examined when it comes to archeology and anthropology anyway (or in several other fields, such as abstract math or physics). Who defines an extraordinary claim when we know so little in the first place? When we ourselves were not those first humans? When we dismiss the origin myths and folk traditions of those who were? (I was just reading that the Australian natives have stories going back more than 10,000 years that accurately depict sea rises and falls, though interspersed with mythic elements. What else can we find out that might be older? Why do we assume we cannot?)

Some possibilities are leaving archeologists clearly shaken. Cultural remains in the American West that look like those in Europe following just shortly after. What if some Europeans originated in the Americas? Or were influenced, somehow, by inhabitants of the Americas? Some don't want to make these findings too public because a) they're still iffy and they don't want to be labeled as nuts, and b) they don't want to give ammo to white supremacists. But? B doesn't seem to hold up well. No one in Europe, or anywhere, at that time, was white, though perhaps blue eyes were showing up here and there.

It's also possible that similar climates and other pressures just produce similar organizations. Would someone excavating a Great Pueblo vs a smaller walled town in the Sinai (or Afghanistan), say 1000 years from now, notice huge differences? Rugs, blankets, jewelry, building materials and organization would all be fairly similar. Designs might vary as they already do from tribe to tribe on both continents. Just saying. The similarities don't mean one influenced the other--it's just what you get living in a desert.

I do remember a professor of Hinduism I had in grad school. I was working on a project involving Indus Valley (Harappan) and symbolism as compared with Celtic mythology and art. The art shows up in both places, but how do you explain a pre-Aryan and Aryan society having so much intermingling? The Aryans who became the Celts may have been the ur-Aryans in Europe. They went west from the Aryan homeland in the western steppes ages ago. Later, Aryans came to India, probably after the fall or at the beginning of the fall of the Indus Valley civilizations (my timeline may be off, as it's been decades since I was steeped in this stuff). That is, the split between the different groups of Aryans occurred before the Celts went to Western Europe and the Arya went to India (and Persia). So, how did the Celts, who never had contact with the Harappans, nevertheless have the same symbols and art?

Said my professor: I think people moved around back in the earliest times more than anyone even begins to realize. He said, Look at the Roma. How much they've moved around. You think it was much harder back then? Even without horses...

I would add: look at the roadways leading into ceremonial centers, like Chaco Canyon. Who went there, why. Why were the roads so wide? Look at Mecca, for that matter.

People get around. They always have.

Childs ascribes this getting around to the innate curiosity of adventurers. People like himself. Perhaps they were the leaders, but I also think there is almost always a reason why people leave a place that's become home. Maybe game grew scarce. Maybe there was famine. Maybe plague. Maybe an enemy tribe became too much to deal with. I don't believe you cross an ice bridge or climb aboard an outrigger for sights unseen just on the wild theory that there's hospitable land on the far side. You have to KNOW things suck where you are. White America wasn't founded by entrepreneurs and adventurers, but by the second sons and general losers in Europe. So, if I were doing research on this topic and its timelines, I'd start looking for suckiness in the places we think the Americas' early human settlers were coming from.

There's also an enigmatic statement that once here, humans populated the continent at an unprecedented rate. Really? Again, why? What would cause such a population growth in a land of virtually no scarcity? Read, for example, Stuart's Pueblo Peoples on the Pajarito Plateau, in which he argues that hunter gatherer societies are really the ideal in terms of planetary impact, population regulation, etc. It's only when climate change forces agricultural organizations that population booms and people suffer so much more in terms of malnutrition and class rigidity. You need more kids to work fields, for instance, whereas for hunting and fighting just a few will do. So, WHAT drove the huge boom across the whole continent from small groups of settlements on the West Coast in just a few generations? I need more.

Rather than spending time camping outside in the Great Lakes area at minus thirty and saying a) it's cold and b) people can survive, I'd have preferred to have read about a stay with an arctic indigenous group, and seen how THEY survive. Say, on a hunting trip. After all they've been doing it for tens of thousands of years. (You can read more about this in Gretel Ehrlich's This Cold Heaven, which is about Greenland.)

One of the best parts of the book for me came when Childs and friends were hiking out of the desert by dead reckoning toward Burning Man. There is a sense, well conveyed, that this sort of intertribal gathering has been going on for millennia upon millennia. Complete with the psychedelics and light shows. Throughout the book, Childs does a good job of integrating the felt experience of archaeology with geology and climate science. So, when you walk out through Black Rock Desert onto the lava flats where Burning Man or something like it may have been held since time immemorial, you have no trouble feeling convinced. Other places like this for me include a broad canyon full of outstanding pictographs N of I-70 in Utah (not a secret... you can find them if you want to, but I'm making some attempt here to keep favorite campsites available to me). Also Vedauwoo in Wyoming, where there are sunset-facing ledges looking out into the gap between the Rockies that I-80 now travels (and that the Oregon Trail traversed, and one must assume, was originally a general direction of x-continental travel for post-ice age humans). Defensive lookouts or welcoming beacons? Many bluffs and ledges for initiation ceremonies as well as extensive, lush landscape surrounding for family and tribal gatherings. Spread out to the far edges of the continent. Come home.

For me, the book could have used more straight-on history/science, and less of Craig Childs and his adventures, which lean a little Krakauer-y.

OTOH, it's Childs's inexorable enthusiasm and ability to bring a topic to life that recreates a landscape and possibly some of its people for us. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Fay.
370 reviews13 followers
March 3, 2022
“We may think of our far ranging ancestors as stoic and unquestioning, their senses raised majestically to the wind, but I can imagine one of their band, stopping about now and asking ‘where the hell are we going?’”

Wow. I really didn’t think I would love this book as much as I did. Books like this can be boring for some, but this was exactly what I was looking for. If you want to read a story about a man who goes on an adventure through time to the ice age, travelling along the same paths that our ancestors did, talking about the long disputed claims of where we came from, and how we got to North America (before Columbus, obviously), as well as how awful of an idea it would be to resurrect long extinct species, and what the next species on earth might find out about us when we are long gone, read this book.
Craig Childs also has a blog with some very interesting takes, such as what were the roles of women during the ice age? He writes that it is very possible that men and women had similar roles. I’ll definitely be checking that out as well. (Not mentioned in the book, I found it after I did some of my own interweb digging).

Also his mention of D4 markers in the brain was fascinating, that those markers in certain brains of our ancestors was what called them to adventure, to explore unknown places.
Something that was also very cool to me personally, after doing some research into this D4 marker, I learned that it is very high in people with ADHD like myself. Which has made me start thinking of my weird monkey brain in a whole new way. It’s just as my ancestors wanted it to be ☺️
Profile Image for TheAccidental  Reader.
142 reviews23 followers
October 17, 2021

I greatly enjoyed this romp through the Pleistocene era and learned so much I had not known before. Or did I just forget that in third grade I learned about Wooly Mammoths and Mastodons and Saber Tooth Tigers? I really had not remembered that these were a big part of the New World in the ice age and for about a million (?) years prior. I have heard, of course, of Clovis Man, but had not appreciated that these people were found in many parts of the US, and that they had in common a certain type of tool which could be used to bring down a mammoth. We know more about them than I would have thought possible.

The book seems very well researched and at times, we are told we are listening to hypotheses about what may have motivated the people. For example, when rabbits and squirrels are abundant, and are a superior source of calories for the work expended, why go on a Mammoth hunt? Why are there fourteen sites across the New World which are clearly sites of Mammoth Kills?

The style of learning about prehistory and then going on expeditions to certain locations to learn more about how those areas are laid out and what can be learned about them now, was fascinating.

And yes, I listened, rather than reading, as this was one of the nature books available as an included part of my Audible subscription. I am still not a fan of authors reading our their own works. This author spoke too quickly and, as is often the case with an author-cum-narrator, the enunciation is not spot on. I slowed down the book to 80 percent speed, because there is quite a bit to digest in every paragraph. That worked okay, but sounded a little funny because it had to be so slow.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,830 reviews95 followers
June 15, 2021
There is a some science here, but it isn't a science book. I enjoyed learning that early man may have been in the New World earlier than was once thought and may have come here in different ways and with some two way communication of culture with the Old World. I liked the theory that the megafauna hunted to extinction by early man were probably never a primary food source and may have been hunted more for the cultural and symbolic value of overcoming the greatest of beasts. But really this book is not so much about the science. It is a giant thought experiment. The author visits some of the wildest remaining places on the continent so as to get a feet on the ground Stone Age person's perspective of what it must have been like living as an early human in North America. This intimate perspective makes the lives of these people easier for the reader to imagine, but also gives the author a different way of thinking about them. The world from their point of view looks different, and though a person from the modern world can never succeed in completely inhabiting the mind of our forebears, it can be a way to develop new hypotheses about what life was like that can then be tested with more scientific rigor.
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
990 reviews330 followers
May 30, 2022
I was torn between 3 and 4 stars, and ultimately went with 3 as a reaction to a claim early in the editorial blurb:

In Atlas of a Lost World, Craig Childs upends our notions of where these people came from and who they were. How they got here, persevered, and ultimately thrived is a story that resonates from the Pleistocene to our modern era.

No, Childs does no such thing. "Clovis-first" has LONG been dead, unless you're Rip Van Winkle. Stories about places like Monte Verde in Chile, affirming the findings, were being written 15 years before this book.

Otherwise, the book itself? It's a 4-star as a personal journal and things that go along with it. It's a 3-star, if that, as insightful about migrations from either Asia or Europe to the Americas. (And, the more I think about it, it might not hit that 3rd star fully. As a result, I did NOT put it on my "anthropology and archaeology" shelf, only my "travel" one.) It's also a bunch of magazine and journal articles stitched into a book, and even more than in some such cased, editing to "smooth the stitching together" is limited at best.
Profile Image for Stefanie.
632 reviews15 followers
March 29, 2022
This book is the perfect balance (antidote?) for heavy science-leaning books about ancient humanity's spread into the American land mass. (And I read a great one recently, in Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas.)

Childs actually travels to Alaska where the land bridge existed, hikes a glacier to consider what an ice crossing would take, travels with his family (including small kids) down the Pacific coast to simulate what journeying by water would be like. Better you than me, Childs! Initially I thought reading so much about one guy's adventure travel would irritate me, but actually I think this aspect was well blended into the historical narrative. I'm grateful to have a book from someone who attempted these experiences, and wrote about them with a thoughtful, poetic air.

This isn't to say the book is entirely lacking in the science aspect. Childs is clearly familiar with all the prevailing theories about the peopling of the Americas (circa 2018 when this was published). He organizes the book starting with the deepest time, 25,000 years ago, and moves through to about 11,000 years ago. Chapter by chapter explores a different theme, including the shift from a continent of megafauna to how different tool types point to different cultures (and this is the first time stone tools have not been absolutely jaw-numbing boring to me), to the last of the mammoths. There is a chapter in there where he kayaks down a Florida panhandle river, which made me chuckle. Apparently Florida has always been a place of deadly creatures.

Importantly, Childs includes a few instances of indigenous voices discussing various creation myths, which was nice to see. He does, however, adopt some of those myths for use as metaphor and imagery, which will land differently with people, depending on how you feel about a non-indigenous person making those sort of moves. It seems done with respect, but YMMV.

I was surprised and delighted by the last connection he made to end the book, talking about peoples coming together for ritual celebration. I wasn't sure how he'd pull off ending a book like this, but I enjoyed the image he chose, looking into the future as far as we'd been looking back. 10,000 years from now: can you even imagine it?

A great book for when you want to actually imagine life between 25-10k years ago, not just be presented with evidence about it.
Profile Image for Andrea.
880 reviews70 followers
December 22, 2018
A vivid travelogue of the North American continent referencing the most recent archaeological discoveries to weave the story of the first humans to reach the continent during the Pleistocene. Childs re examines our misconceptions about the first Native Americans and traces their interactions with megafauna including giant bears, bison, lions, camels and, of course, mastadons and mammoths. In addition, Childs provides vivid narration of his own hiking and camping as he visits the locations of significant discoveries , trying to imagine how humans would have perceived their environment. This was absolutely engrossing and kept my interest high from beginning to end.
Profile Image for George.
Author 16 books49 followers
August 4, 2019
My third book by Childs and I am yet to be disappointed. He writes without self-indulgence and without over-the-top moralism. He educates and informs by intelligently presenting what he has learned but it never feels that it is about him. I trust his voice implicitly.
Profile Image for Dianne.
1,558 reviews116 followers
December 9, 2020
While this was interesting academically, I will stick to Jean Auel if I want to learn about Ice Age man. As much as her books slide into caveman erotica, at least she can tell an interesting story while teaching us!
Profile Image for Judy.
979 reviews
May 21, 2019
A merging of personal travels and science, Childs reveals his experiences and his conclusions from Alaska to Florida and from the Oregon desert to Monte Verde, Chile. The first people came 40,000 to 15,000 years ago from every direction and traveled swiftly into North and South America. They established dozens of cultures and languages, evidenced by artifacts and archaeological finds. During the Paleozoic and early Holocene, the people dealt with giant megafauna--mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, short-faced bears, saber-toothed tigers. Though nothing about prehistory is ever completely conclusive, I found his descriptions of what it might have been like to live during and at the close of the ice age interesting.
Profile Image for Olivia .
245 reviews25 followers
August 3, 2019
Väldigt intressant och informativ. Också en bra inblick Hur människor påverkar naturen och ekosystemen genom att existera och utnyttja resurser i snabbare takt än de går att ersätta.
Profile Image for Tom.
213 reviews3 followers
July 24, 2018
I enjoy books that mix history with personal accounts. "I felt as if I'd been going from landmark to landmark, asking, Are you my mother?" Childs writes about the Pleistocene era, the last ice age, relating his own search for understanding of the first settlers who crossed the Bering Strait into the Americas. Any book that can teach me the difference between mastodons and mammoths is okay with me.
Profile Image for Buddy.
150 reviews3 followers
September 3, 2021
The topic of the book is one in which I have a longstanding interest. I also have some knowledge of the topic. I think that Childs understands the science very well and certainly has had some great adventures trying to find out our more about Late Pleistocene human occupation of the Americas. I found the book difficult to get through, however. Each chapter moves rapidly between his experiences and the scientific understanding of a region, time period, culture, etc. The problem for me was they he flipped abruptly back and forth between each topic and his experiences, and I kept finding myself confused about what he was talking about. I could not keep track of what the personal adventure was or what time period he was discussing. I found the the few artistic illustrations difficult to interpret and not very useful: cute and arty, but not enlightening. I also found that Childs threw in a lot of jargon that would probably throw a lay reader. Having said all of that, parts of the book were very interesting and I found that his speculations on why people were doing what they were doing entirely appropriate for a book of this nature.
Profile Image for Katie Willi.
5 reviews
February 19, 2023
I began reading this book without any prior knowledge of Ice Age-era America outside of what was taught to me in grade school about the Bering land bridge (over 15 years ago). Boy, have the theories evolved since then! Since this is the only book I’ve read on the subject, it’s hard for me to decide if it’s really good or great. I suspect making the distant past “come alive” is challenging, particularly when all the theories about life so long ago rest mostly on radiocarbon dating bone fragments and rocks, which in my opinion, are pretty dry topics. Yet, this book somehow captivated me. The speculated history of when and how people arrived, how they lived, and what the landscapes looked like is nothing short of fantastical. Though the science behind paleo-archaeology may be dull, the inferences we can make from their work is anything but! If I could, I’d rate this book 3.5 stars.
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