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The Wood Age: How One Material Shaped the Whole of Human History

by Roland Ennos

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As this fascinating book shows, Roland Ennos’s knowledge of all things arboreal is vast and intricate. He is a professor of biology at the University of Hull and the author of several books, among them the Natural History Museum's official guide to trees. But The Wood Age is something different - nothing less than a complete reinterpretation of human history and prehistory, and it is written with enormous verve and pinpoint clarity.

My favourite chapters are the early ones, because there even Ennos's huge knowledge is not boundless, so he allows space for speculation. A big question is why humans are not covered in body hair. All our hominid ancestors are hairy, why not us? No one knows. Darwin thought it was sexual selection: women preferred hairless men. Ennos thinks climate change was a factor. Yet apes who retained body hair were equally subject to climate change. The earliest evidence of human clothes does not go back more than 300,000 years, whereas we came down from the trees between 1.5 million and 1.6 million years ago. We lived in huts that were inverted versions of the nests we had lived in in trees. What allowed us to come down to earth was a by-product of wood - fire.

Terrifying to all other animals, it kept off predators such as sabre-toothed cats, and allowed us to cook food, which removed the need for us to have big guts, so we grew big brains instead (or so some anthropologists believe). Present-day hunter-gatherers spend less than an hour a day chewing, whereas chimps chew from five to six hours daily. Undisturbed sleep is also necessary for growing a big brain, and researchers have found that baboons, relatively unintelligent primates from Africa, wake up 18 times a night even in the safety of zoos. Presumably inherited memory of those sabre-toothed cats still makes them jumpy.

Even before we came down from the trees, though, we had started to develop bigger brains because we were skilful enough to reach and eat fruit, instead of being content with just leaves, and fruit-eaters develop bigger brains than leaf-eaters. The fruit trees co-operated, by giving their fruit an attractive colour and an enticing smell when it was ripe, so that the brighter tree-dwellers would find it, eat it and excrete the pips to make more trees.

Ennos believes that early apes, manoeuvring through the treetops, developed a concept of self, because they realised their bodies changed the world around them by bending the branches they stood on. Early in his career he wrote this up as a scientific paper, but it was rejected. Now, though, American primatologists, observing orangutans making their careful way among the branches, have come to the same conclusion. Living in trees shaped our bodies as well as our minds, Ennos notes. We developed hands for clinging, and we have fluid within our soft finger pads (press a finger against your thumb and you can feel it) so that they flatten and helpfully increase friction when we grasp something like a tree branch. The skin ridges we call fingerprints improve our grip on wet surfaces by channelling away the fluid. Koalas have them too, and monkeys have them on their prehensile tails.

Ennos's particular grumble is that Victorian archaeologists trained people to think the Stone Age was where human life began. Stone, he points out, is actually not much good for anything. If you made a spear of stone it would snap as soon as you threw it. Our relatives, the apes, produced a wide range of tools out of wood - sticks for digging, and poking sticks for hooking up termites or wild honey. The first fully terrestrial hominid, Homo erectus, was also the first carpenter. He used stone tools - hand axes - to make wooden tools, and it was, Ennos reckons, the world’s first intellectual advance.

A kind of snobbery attaches to stone monuments, Ennos suspects. Yet even the most magnificent would have needed wooden roofs to keep out the weather. The indications are that Stonehenge was once a largely wooden structure. Surrounding the ring of sarsen stones are several rings of postholes, to hold wooden supports for a roof. English cathedrals are famed for their showy gothic fan-vaulting, but a guided tour will reveal that giant, tree-trunk-size wooden trusses (originally a Roman idea) support the roof above the vaults, while at York Minster the vaulting is wood painted to look like stone. The builders of Salisbury Cathedral spire used a heavy internal wooden scaffold, and left it in place when they had finished to increase the spire's stability.

Ennos has a genius for picking stick-in-the-mind bits from wood's complicated history. We tend, for example, to associate veneers and marquetry with the 18th century, but he points out that they were known to the ancient Egyptians and used in Tutankhamun's tomb. Admirers of John Constable may have wondered why the hay wain in his painting is standing in the River Stour. The answer is that the joints in wooden wheels tended to loosen, and farmers often left their carts standing in shallow water to keep the joints wet and swollen. Wood products have transformed our intellectual life too. Musical instruments - strings and woodwind - were originally wooden, and the first pianos had wooden frames. Without paper and books, both of them wood products, the life of the mind would be inconceivable.

No review can match the richness of Ennos’s book. There are chapters or sections on coal and charcoal, pottery kilns, modern wooden buildings, techniques of melting and smelting metals, the history of shipbuilding, wind and watermills, deforestation and much else. He is marvellous at describing physical processes. His accounts of plywood manufacture, or of huge Dutch rafts on the Rhine, with rudders 45ft long operated by seven men, will stay with me for a long time. He ends with a plea for us to mend our broken relationship with trees and forests. I felt like cheering.

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