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They Were Here Before Us

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Member Reviews

A great book about our ancestors and their story. Intriguing, well researched and fascinating. The authors are excellent storytellers and I learned a lot
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher for this ARC, all opinions are mine

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3.5/5 stars


Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC of this book.


They were here before us is the story of our ancestors that proceeded the early humans and recorded history. It is fairly easy to read in a way that is neither too long or too esoteric. Overall, it is an interesting read but an unexceptional one. 


There were a few aspects that didn't work for me. For starters, there was no enough of an overarching narrative throughout. Naturally, it covers history through time, but it wasn't clear to me why the author's chose to focus on particular facts over other, especially the more niche ones. Indicative of this is the equal time spent weaving in modern stories of discoveries or mirroring practices. I found these distracting and a chore more than insightful. It felt like filler next to what the main story is supposed to be covering, and it's probably what I disliked most about the book 


It made the chapters feel bifurcated in a way that broke any overarching thread. I was left curious about whether this is intended as a comprehensive review, and if not, what sort of review is it. At the end, we get a quick appeal to be considerate of our environmental impact. This felt like an afterthought--like something that was convinced as relevant to the larger story, and while I think it is, little effort was put into weaving it into the larger narrative. It should be a larger theme across the entire text if that was a point they wanted to make. 


So I'm left with the same feeling of a clear lack of focus and message despite being an interesting read in many ways. Since the book has such a small audience (i.e., reviews), I've avoided giving the book an official rating, largely bc I don't want to pull the average rating down and deter potential readers.

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This is a good nonfiction book. I enjoyed reading it, but it is not something that will appeal to the patrons in our small-town library. I imagine that in a larger market, the title will have more interest.

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I've read a fair amount of books in this vein, and still came away from reading this feeling like a learned quite a bit about recent changes in current research's understanding of evolutionary and anthropological history, as well as the fields' current "big questions." Frankly, it was refreshing to read a pop science title that wasn't from an expert positioning their interpretation as the the be-all and end-all of their research field.

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Looking at the first peoples, and their movements across continents. While it is not looking in particular at sites, it does draw in the artifacts and body parts that have been located. There is a lot that can be learned from looking at bones, and artifacts themselves tell stories.
This was a fantastic read, and one that I really enjoyed. I have some areas on the book marked to look into more in-depth, but it seemed to be pretty well researched, and put together.

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This was a very detailed and interesting book full of facts about the archaeological digs in Israel. It took me a while to read but I am glad that I persevered. It was well researched and not too much technical jargon.

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In depth work with lots of facts however I found it a strange mix with a lot of speculation about what might have been occurring in history. It didn’t gel with me. Thank you to #netgalley and the publisher for a DRC.

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This book is an enjoyable popular science journey through human pre-history. I found each chapter intriguing, engaging and worth making notes for topics I would like to read more about in the future. For anyone looking for an overview on the topic this book is a must read. I found it both general enough to cover a wide span of time, but detailed enough that I learned new things about a topic that I was already familiar with. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC, I will be adding this author to my must-read list.

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Concise (under 200 pages), well-written overview of the first million years of human development - essentially from Homo Erectus to the Chalcolithic - with a particular focus on archaeological sites in the Levant. At this point I've read way too many books about prehistory (not true, will still read more), but I can honestly say this would be the one I'd recommend to anyone looking to dip a toe into the subject. Solid academic overview, made better with great storytelling.

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A fascinating story of Pre-history

With a particular focus on pre-historic sites in Israel, the narrative makes comparisons with European, African and Asian sites, to tell a story which is at times humorous and poignant.

We hear of ancient one-upmanship, indicated by the colossal amounts of hand axes which have been discovered. They exist in quantities far beyond the capacity of limited populations to have used them, and so they raise questions about whether ancient courtship rituals may have involved men comparing the sizes of their… axe collections.

The story of one burial is narrated with the surprising observation that 90 tortoises were carried up a mountain to be feasted upon as part of the funeral rites. With evidence of particular honor in the format of the burial, and an unexpectedly broad selection of animal bones in the grave, it raises the question of whether that was in fact a Shaman’s burial.

One of the things that makes the book particularly interesting is that when it raises questions about matters such as Sharmanism, it then looks at evidence from other ancient and modern cultures in order to try to understand what the archaeology might be telling us.

Overall this is a fascinating read, which draws the reader in through its engaging style and presentation. It is accessible to adult readers of any background, especially those with an interest in history, sociology and the origins of culture.

These are honest comments based on a free DRC (Digital Review Copy), accessed in February 2024.

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I’m a forever learner, always curious and questioning all that is life.
History is one of those topics that keep their interest, as discoveries and new knowledge
still happen up to this day. Prehistory, in this case, is dynamic and open for debate.
Keeping it interesting.
The author narrates through storytelling, without unnecessary jargon keeping it understandable for everyone.
He takes us to these lands, and sets the DeLorean to another age long ago.
What happened to our ancestors? What was and is our place as humans, in this world?
Our ancestors were persistent and audacious, we owe them much. Or do we?

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It's inspiring to read about how humans have always adapted, changed, and continued on in seemingly not great settings.

Unlike many others of this genre, TWHBU isn't overly long or dry. It's concise and digestible

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t I was not going to get through this book - something about the chatty, arch tone put me off - but the further I got into it, the less that bothered me. Halfon and Barkai, Israeli archaeologists, skip lightly through hundreds of thousands of years of human prehistory, focusing each chapter on a particular development (agriculture, metalworking) and using a site in Israel as the jumping off point. I know very little about the archaeology of Israel, so all of that was new information to me, and each site was linked to other sites in Europe that are more familiar and share characteristics.

I gather from the tone and approach that the intended audience of this book is people who are not very familiar with prehistoric archaeology. For the most part, I think it's presented in such a way as to catch the interest of younger readers (digital natives) and give them broad awareness without belaboring technical points. Occasionally I think they get carried away with their analogies and forget to spend time on the site that inspired the chapter - I particularly felt this way with the chapter about the woman buried with ninety tortoises, whom anthropologists feel may have been a shaman figure, and once that's been said, the rest of the chapter wandered around the world talking about shamans and never really came back to the tortoise woman.

It was a little odd to be reading this in the middle of the Israeli war on Gaza, and wondering if the sites they are talking about might have been in land inhabited by displaced Palestinians. I tried to forget about that. And the section about the people who hunted elephants attributed the growth of human brains to the availability of a diet high in fat, without acknowledging that our instinct to consume fat has become a health threat.

The epilogue makes an impassioned case for learning from the adaptations of prehistoric humans to past climate and extinction events, and avoiding further destruction of the earth. I wish they had flagged up the information in the text that supports this, a little more, so the epilogue would not have come slightly out of left field.

I would recommend this book to someone who has never read anything about the state of the study of prehistoric humans (a field which appears to be changing practically weekly).

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In reading the book, I encounter a reference to <i>Nothingness, Time and the Missing Link</i> by Chaim Chayat. Chayat is an outsider archeologist, and has built a theory of human development around fire. Specifically, he suggests that the sort of protocols and organization that went into the maintenance of fire was the leverage of evolution of humans into modernity.

Or I think that is his theory. I got interested in finding out more. I am both interested in the (possibly sketchy) theory of mind and love outsider researchers, like Fred Eugene Ray Jr., as they can do good work. If nothing else, I am on the lookout for the next Schlieman. I visit YouTube, home of outsider theories, but I do not find anything, for either the author or the book. Doing some more searching in different capacities, I cannot find anything.

Okay, maybe I am hitting the wall of English-language material. I go to check the reference in the end notes. There is none. I know that the authors mention that he sold only 10 books, but what is up with this? Who or what is this about that it gets billing next to Richard Wrangham? Wrangham's theory is not orthodoxy, but it is treated seriously, even when then discarded.

I thought "hmmm," and started to think over things that I read. There is, for instance, a reference to 'Galilee Man." I had not heard of this set of remains before, and looked into it. Galilee Man tends to be the older name, with the Galilee skull more commonly used now. I do not see a lot of conversation about it; as the authors rightfully state, no one is particular sure what they are looking at. But there are some oddities about the story, like calling the discoverer of the skull, Francis Turville-Petre the "boyfriend and lover" of W.H. Auden, talking about his sybaritic ways and not any of his other history, but referencing a story about the skull's discovery "that anyone with a passing interest in prehistory" has heard, that I, with a passing interest in prehistory, has not heard, and that I cannot source or even find discussion of elsewhere.

But none of this is wrong in so many words. Turville-Petre was a libertine, and there might be a story about his dog and the skull in his works. And maybe I do not know the story. It sounds like the sort of story that is in line with other stories of paleontological discoveries.

The premise of the book is an accessible overview of human history, humble in its recognition of the complexity and constant change to the topic, focused on Israel. This is not an arbitrary choice, nor a political one even as it <i>feels</i> political in the sense that we are in a world where calling Israel Israel is a political act. And the book is lower case n-nationalistic. The discussion about the Ubeidya site, which the later discovered Dmanisi site in Georgia displaced in priority, has a sort of boosterism about it. Which feels weird, but I get it. I saw the PBS <i>NOVA</i> where Neil deGrasse Tyson visited Clyde Tombaugh's hometown and it was hilarious. And speaking of jokes, the title of this book has got to be made of load-bearing irony, regardless of political take.

And I feel that I get the vibe of the what the authors are going for, which feels to me particularly John McPhee, though the authors bring up Jared Diamond or Bill Bryson more, which also works. But what sticks in my mind about it is their use of the term <i>Homo geogicus</i>. That is <u>a</u> name for the bones discovered at Dmanisi, but as far as I can tell it is not currently favored by the principal researchers on it. True the 'correct' nomenclature is a debated point, but it is notable that the authors pick out an older one that feels like it fits more as part of the sort of rivalry school of ancient archaeology. It is not wrong, but even at the 10,000 foot view that the authors are taking, I feel like there is some qualification, elaboration, or at least better citation, whereas it feels more like they took what was available and went with it.

That comes to the fore with Barbara Erenreich?

Hold on, that Barbara Erenreich? Nothing...well, things wrong with her, but while a journalist worth the name, also not someone who worked the homonin beat. The quote of hers they use is striking: "they knew that they were meat, and they seemed to know that they knew that they were meat - meat that could think."

First off, unacknowledged Terry Bisson shout-out. But what is this article? There is not a citation provided for it. But searching around solves this, an article, originally in <i>The Baffler</I> titled "The Humanoid Stain."

And let's lead with the aside that the title of that article suggests that Erenreich is not up to date on the science, referencing an distinctly Victorian use of the term humanoid, and, I think, not a Roth fan, or at least I do not get the way the pun works.

But the article itself is Erenreich's attempt at taking a break from Trump and Climate Change worries to delve into "paleoarcheological scholarship," primarily cave art. She is accurately quoted, though the context is different. The authors use it to discuss how they think <i>Homo erectus</i> would have viewed itself in the context of all the other animals around them, "a figure in the landscape" to do the sort of quote decontextulization for Jacob Bronowski as is done to Erenreich.

For better context, Erenreich's quote continues "[a]nd that, if you think about it long enough, is almost funny," (which as far as I'm concerned proves that this is an unattributed Bisson nod). Her point is the way in which the human representations in cave art, of Cro-Magnon rather that <i>Homo erectus</i> vintage, is not one where humans include themselves with the other animals. It is that they painted animals "with almost supernatural attention to facial and muscular detail," and painted humans with comedy that sublimates any sense of ego in its humor (as opposed to Trump, selfies, and the Bronze age).

Look, it is a killer line, but first off, again, I say, Barbara Erenrich? What's next, Thomas Sowell on whether Mallory reached the top of Everest? But second, it is weird piled on weird. It is weird to reference her fever dream of an article, much more about modernity than about history; it is weird to then decontextualize the quote, (without specific citation, though I feel like that may miss the point); it is weird to then not reference the article when the book turns to the topic of ancient cave art, it is weird. It is not wrong, it is werid.

But this then is where I functionally give up on the book. I am not an anthropologist. My only claim to expertise there is that I have liked videos from Stefan Milo <b>and</b> Gutsickgibbon. I am sure that I have gotten something in my interpretations above incorrect. And I specifically want to stress that everything I have looked at the authors wrote falls loosely accurate. This is significant. There are many racist takes in human evolution out there very close to the surface, and I don't mean like irritable college student racist. This is not that, and it is not wrong, mostly. But even untutored I kept noticing things that were off enough it leads to me feeling like I have to consistently fact check the work.

I like books that get me to read other books, but at some point, I feel like someone ought to have, you know, hired someone to do it, with like a degree in the topic and stuff, someone not an ARC reader like me. Or, as I suspect is more likely, the author's desire to make for a breezy, fun read meant that an impressionistic take worked best. I do think that maybe the book works as an absolutely from nil introduction to the topic. But I as a reader hit a point where I was no longer reading comfortably critically and started reading warily. That is not fun for me.

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Fascinating.

What I love about the continuous publication of historical books is that they're always evolving, always questioning and changing what we think we know.
The evidence left behind from ancient ancestors is incredible, it's beyond my imagination to think of how many years of history these fossils and objects have witnessed.
This book is very well researched and easy to read.

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We humans seem to be almost hardwired to crave connection with history, to try to find our place in the unbroken line of history, to find that ancestral connection to the greater world and hope that marks we leave on it stay, that the memory of us goes on. Maybe that’s why we are so fascinated by archaeology showing us again and again that we are links in the great long chain that goes back into prehistory, and even though we will all perish one day there is still evidence of those who were there before us.

But the past is gone, and what we have from hundreds of thousands of years of Hominids are just scattered artifacts and a few remnants from which we can try to do our best to guess and imagine the lives of those who came before us. How close we are in our guesses will never be known as we tend to extrapolate based on what we know, and what we know is us, now. So what we choose to extrapolate is more of a window into our own selves.
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“It might have been a mistake on our part to climb down from trees several million years ago. Perhaps we would have been better off staying in Africa or keeping our heads down and knapping hand axes, which worked well enough for long enough. It’s definitely a shame we didn’t make a bit more of an effort to keep the Neanderthals around, and maybe another species or two of humans. Obviously, we would have thought twice if someone had warned us what would happen after we started domesticating plants and animals, and it’s doubtful we’d have heeded the call 10,000 years ago to build a tower in Jericho or to start turning rocks into metals a few thousand years after that. But this is the path we have chosen, and it has taken us to some wild and fascinating places. There is no point trying to settle old scores with the past or whining about the future. There were people here before us, and we should do the best we can to make sure that there will also be people here after us.”
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The authors look at the findings at a few of known prehistoric sites and try to envision how the bits and pieces that we know added up to lives, seen through extrapolations from hand axes, fires, burial sites, the changes that happened to humans after the megafauna extinction. It’s very speculative which is both good - as it makes the book accesible and easy to read, and bad - because it’s a bit strange to realize how much of what we think we know is based on a few assumptions and our own experiences and expectations, and some of them seem a bit of a stretch.

Overall it was entertaining and enjoyable, even if the flights of fancy were occasionally getting too poetic for credulity. Still fun though and worth a read. 3.5 stars.
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Thanks to NetGalley and Watkins Publishing for providing me with a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Im really torn with on what to say for this one.... i liked the style of writing to a point, the chatty type prose, fun and not overwhelmingly scientific. But then at some points it felt too casual.
An interesting, informative book.

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This book is an epic exploration of the earliest humans, focusing on the key African-European land corridor. It reconstruct our ancestors’ lives—their beliefs, adversities, and evolution. The narrative traces their footsteps and uncovers how prehistoric peoples hunted, invented, and built—and what their resilience teaches us today.

This fascinating book is entertaining and easy to read. I didn’t want it to end.

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.

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I had hoped to at least like They Were Here Before Us but I hadn’t expected to enjoy it as much as I did. It was a really good and solid book about our oldest ancestors. I flew through the book in no time and couldn’t stop being amazed at the tidbits and facts I learned with each chapter.

What I loved about this book was that it wasn’t a dry book throwing around scientific words. As is stated in the introduction, the authors have chosen to interrrupt the reader’s reading experience as little as possible and to purge the book scientific jargon as much as they could. They certainly accomplished that, in my opion. I really appreciated this because it made for a really nicely flowing narration.

The book covers humanity from 1.5 million years ago to c. 5,700 years ago. The main focus are ten sites in Israel but it also visits various sites located in different countries like Georgia, Ehtiopia, United States, France, Equador, Turkey and more. So needless to say, it was quite the journey and exploration into the footsteps of early humankind.

They Were Here Before Us: Stories from the First Million Years by Ran Barkai and Eyal Halfon was a fascinated and insightful glimpse into the intriguing and thought-provoking world of prehistory and early humans. If you loved Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind then you will doubtlessly also enjoy this one!

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Seems my e-reader isn’t allowing pdf files, it just turns out a bunch of jumpbled up letters and numbers

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