Childs is in wonder of pre-history in all its obscurity, as presentiment to life as we know it today. That's why in this book he broaches what remains a somewhat contentious topic— 20,000 years ago how did people come here? And why? What we as a species have done on this planet and what we're going to do next are vital points of entry to understand ourselves and our place here, according to Childs. “These are the big questions in human history,” he said as he spoke to me over the phone from his home in lower Colorado.
“I want us to understand the history of the ground underneath us,” he continued. A door into imagining prehistory presents itself in the landscape that largely hasn't changed in the last 20,000 years. “The rivers are in the same places, the mountains are in the same places,” Childs described, “all you have to do is put these missing pieces in your imagination.” Which is precisely how the book works. Through personal narrative, both contemporary and projected into the past, an ancient planet is given texture. “We look into the distant past and it becomes two-dimensional, and as we look farther back, it becomes one-dimensional until it becomes invisible. But 20,000 years ago, it would be as real as this. Spear hunters were sitting around laughing; … these were people just like us, struggling in the same ways.” The power of storytelling can make that real to modern readers—and Childs' writing is vivid and often visceral. He describes in cringing detail, for example, what it might have felt like to be prey. “Replace mammoths and sabertooths with calls to the insurance company and walking down the street at night,” he suggested. “We have different dangers and fears, but it was as mundane and exciting to be alive then as it is now.”
Beliefs that remove us from the wider planet are what make us a dangerous species, or as Childs so pointedly said, “we've become our own sabertooth cats.” As he studied and explored the vastness of human history—and by proxy human behavior—he described feeling both proud and stricken. “There were times in writing this that I was rooting for human pioneering ability, the adventurous quality of our spirit, but then I extrapolate to the future and think—oh my god, look what our pioneering energy does, it devours everything.”
That self-absorbed, destructive trend is an acute part of our species' history. The path ahead of us isn't so different than the one that was laid out generations ago. “The level of technology has changed, but we are still very social animals with language and weapons,” Childs said. Consider the ice age and the rise of Clovis culture. There were massive environmental changes, megafauna was going extinct, “and humans were witnessing this change, and it appears that their response was to make bigger weapons,” he pointed out. “Yes, we are repeating history.”
It's not all grim, though. If we can interrogate our history, we can “evolve in dynamic ways,” as Childs put it. And what's more, there are other innate human traits—to hold onto things, to protect, to survive, to learn. “Writing the book made me look at my own world—we live in this rich dynamic world of migrations. … Humans are in motion now like always, like everything. It is going to keep going this way,” he said. “That is why we are such a rich species. We'll keep flushing into each other and sending out new seeds and going different directions.”
Works such as Atlas of a Lost World welcome us back to ourselves, to our silly, hopeful species, embedded in a world where everything is willing itself to survive and evolve. As Childs described it, “I really want this book to broaden our horizons, by returning us to the horizons that we once had.”
Childs, who is the author of many books, will visit Bookworks to read from and discuss Atlas of a Lost World on Thursday, May 10 at 6pm.