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Good Reads  Habitats & Ecosystems  Tropical Forests

Jungle How Tropical Forests Shaped the World - and Us

By: Patrick Roberts(Author)
413 pages, 8 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Penguin Books
Acknowledging nuance and complexity, Jungle is a fine revisionist narrative that shows humanity's long and entwined history with tropical forests.
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  • Jungle ISBN: 9780241990780 Paperback Jul 2022 In stock
  • Jungle ISBN: 9780241472743 Hardback Jul 2021 In stock
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

For many of us, jungles are the domain of films like Tarzan or Cast Away and feel far removed from our everyday lives. But across the entire world they influence temperature, create rainfall, clean the air, stabilise soils, and provide food and materials for essential products, such that the future of humankind is intertwined with their disappearing wildlife and impending destruction. As Dr Patrick Roberts shows in this startlingly revisionist history of the world, this symbiotic relationship with tropical forests is anything but a recent development.

Jungle tells the remarkable story of the world's tropical forests, from the arrival of the first plants on Earth millions of years ago to the role of tropical forests in the evolution of the world's atmosphere, the dinosaurs, the first mammals and even our own species and its ancestors. Highlighting provocative new evidence garnered from cutting-edge research techniques – from plant genetics to laser scanning from aircraft – Dr Roberts shows, for example, that contrary to popular perceptions of jungles as inhospitable, our view of humans as 'savannah specialists' is wildly wrong, with people, produce and even cities thriving in tropical forests throughout history.

Human shaping of these environments also has deep historical roots. 'Anthropocene'-like impacts began not with the Industrial Revolution, but as early as 6,000 years ago in the tropics. Later, European colonialism set off unprecedented exploitation of their resources, natural and human, with fields mercilessly ploughed for uniform stands of new crops, forests felled for timber and mining, and millions of humans brutally uprooted from their homes. As Dr Roberts shows, these extractive processes set us on course for the environmental tipping point we're fast approaching, with mass-scale burning of the fossilized remains of forests now undoing millions of years of their planetary guardianship.

In showing how we are all inexorably linked to this issue, past and present, and by explaining what needs to be done to save our tropical forests, this tour de force challenges the way we think about the world, and ourselves. Urgent, clear-sighted and original, Jungle is a book for our times, but also for the ages.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Aa fine revisionist history book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 Apr 2022 Written for Hardback

    We often think of tropical forests as pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands. In Jungle, archaeologist Patrick Roberts shows otherwise. A wealth of research reveals a long and entwined history that saw cities and agriculture flourish in this habitat, while later brutal colonial exploitation underlies many of today's inequalities and environmental problems. Though revisionist and confrontational in tone, Jungle is a breath of fresh air by not falling for simple narratives. Instead, it retains a welcome dose of nuance and willingness to acknowledge complexity.

    In 2019, Roberts published Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity with Oxford University Press. A rather expensive book that is dense and scholarly, I was nevertheless very impressed with it. Naturally, the first question is whether Jungle rehashes that book for a general audience. It does, but only to an extent. Next to being far more outspoken, Roberts has also decided to make this the complete and utter history of tropical forests by taking you all the way back to the beginning. Jungle thus ends up being a book of three parts.

    First is a deep-time history that starts in the Cambrian with the arrival of the first land plants some 500 million years ago. Plants quickly became a planet-shaping force. Increased rock weathering drew down atmospheric CO2, leading to an ice age marking the Ordovician-Silurian boundary, while Carboniferous forests in death ultimately became the coal reserves fuelling our Industrial Revolution. This part of the book also retreads dinosaur and mammal evolution by focusing on what is normally the vegetal backdrop to this story. There are many surprises in store when you take a plant perspective. For example, palaeontology has accustomed us to the idea of five mass extinctions, but, as one paper puts it plainly, the plant fossil record reflects just two great extinction events. And mammal evolution saw two radiations well before the dinosaurs went extinct, the first linked to Jurassic gymnosperm-dominated forests, the second to the encroachment of angiosperms in tropical forests during the Cretaceous.

    Similar counterintuitive delights await you when Roberts turns to the story of human evolution, which was the starting point of his previous book. The idea that we evolved by venturing onto the savannah makes sense on the face of it, Roberts admits, but look harder and the role of forests becomes apparent. Bipedality may very well have evolved in the trees. Savannahs are not just endless rolling grasslands but encompass a range of plant types, including trees and forest patches. Roberts also favours a pan-African model for the origins of Homo sapiens. We did not originate in one single place – instead, "our ancestors lived in distinct, but interconnected, populations across Africa" (p. 102). And when it comes to our dispersal around the world, forests had their role to play, next to savannahs and coastal routes: "our species was not a one-trick pony and was, quite literally, everywhere by the close of the Pleistocene" (p. 114)".

    The second part of the book covers our prehistory. Here, Roberts surveys evidence of the long history of plant cultivation in tropical forests and how it "give[s] us a remarkable lens into some of the most ecologically savvy farmers there ever were" (p. 131). These farmers left the forests largely standing, even if species composition was modified. Similarly, island archaeology has revealed that, with some sensibility, humans have long coexisted with native fauna on small and supposedly fragile islands. Finally, thanks to modern remote sensing technology there is the spectacular revelation that the tropics were home to large cities and thriving civilizations. Rather than our blinkered view of what cities look like, archaeologists refer to them as agrarian-based, low-density urbanism, and Roberts suggests that they could be "an attractive model for present-day urban planners looking for 'green cities'" (p. 170).

    The third part of Jungle is the most outspoken and confrontational. Here, Roberts covers the era of colonial exploitation from the fifteenth century onwards, including the horrors of the demographic collapse following the Columbian exchange and the ensuing trans-Atlantic slave trade. He convincingly argues how these lay the groundwork for today's economic and social inequalities. We enriched ourselves at the expense of tropical regions and today still take for granted many tropical products such as coffee, palm oil, and rubber. Simultaneously, we left behind impoverished regions that are now struggling in the face of climate change, deforestation, and soil erosion. These countries have become entangled in a global capitalist system in which their natural resources serve an insatiable export market rather than people at home. Roberts explicitly calls out that we all have our responsibility as consumers. When it comes to conservation, he particularly urges us to support and consult Indigenous people and be humble enough to acknowledge that Western science does not hold all the answers.

    These are but some of the highlights of this information-dense book. What I particularly enjoyed is that Roberts retains nuance throughout and never shies away from complex realities. For example, despite the history of agriculture and cities in forests, disturbance and collapses did happen, though they were not always as dramatic and complete as we might envision them. Demographic collapse following the Columbian exchange was as much a consequence of microbes as of violence and forced relocations, as others have also argued. Simultaneously, Europeans tapped into existing networks of slave trade and interregional warfare, and some African tribes used it to further their own geopolitical ends. Though none of this should be interpreted as letting Europeans off the hook, it does show that history is frequently complicated and messy. One criticism is that Jungle is occasionally let down by somewhat convoluted writing. Especially in early chapters, there are a few sentences that run on for seven or eight lines with subclauses and bracketed sub-subclauses. Fortunately, the writing improves in later chapters. To complete that feedback sandwich I will praise the many illustrations, including some nice infographics designed just for this book.

    Jungle is an immensely interesting book that offers a fine revisionist history of conventional narratives in archaeology and anthropology. A worthy follow-up to his 2019 book that expands on the material presented there, it offers much food for thought. If you have any interest in tropical forests I highly recommend you read this book.
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Dr Patrick Roberts is Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany. He has worked in jungles across the world and has received numerous prestigious awards, including a European Research Council Starter Grant (€1.5 Million). He has written or co-authored 36 peer-reviewed journal articles and his work has featured on the BBC, Channel 4 and in The Times, among others. Author of the academic book Tropical Forest in Prehistory, History and Modernity, this is his first for a trade audience.

By: Patrick Roberts(Author)
413 pages, 8 plates with colour photos and colour illustrations; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Penguin Books
Acknowledging nuance and complexity, Jungle is a fine revisionist narrative that shows humanity's long and entwined history with tropical forests.
Media reviews

"Jungle is a bold, ambitious and truly wonderful history of the world that shows the vital importance of tropical forests to life on Earth"
– Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees

"A fascinating story and a crucial revision of the momentous importance of tropical forests to human history. Spanning from our very evolution as a species, to the early stages of globalisation and how we fill our kitchen cupboards today, we all owe far more to jungles than we realise"
– Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins

"Welcome to the 'Jungle' – a breath-taking book showing that tropical forests were key to our evolution, provide fossil fuels for our modern carbon-hungry society and ultimately must be protected and restored if we are to have a future. This insightful and captivating book will ensure you never take our jungles for granted ever again"
– Mark Maslin, author of How to Save Our Planet

"There are many books on the history of trilobites and dinosaurs and other animals, but so few on the history of plants. Here the dynamic young scientist Patrick Roberts tackles the history of the tropics, from the coal swamps of 300 million years ago, through the co-evolutionary dance of dinosaurs and mammals and flowers, to how our own human history has been shaped by vegetation. As environments are changing rapidly around us today, this is a timely, readable and highly relevant history that celebrates the wonder and importance of jungles"
– Steve Brusatte, author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"Jungle sweeps the reader into the primordial heart of the earth, as if the crucible of life welcomed you to its sanctuary. Its revelations and stories will stir, rearrange and populate your mind for years to come. As a book, it is a joy, pure intellectual chocolate"
– Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown

"An enthralling jungle-journey from the origins of life on this planet to the present day, Jungle provides a brilliant new perspective on our interaction with tropical forests, placing them at the centre of human experience – and it delivers a timely warning about our abuse of the environment"
– David Abulafia, author of The Great Sea

"Finally, a book on rainforests that does justice to their majesty and importance. Patrick Roberts skilfully and lucidly shows why tropical forests matter. He builds the case that people and tropical forests are intimately linked, whether you live in the rainforest or seemingly a world away. Those intricate links are more important than ever today, with ending deforestation playing a key role in solving the twin climate and biodiversity crises we face this century"
– Simon Lewis, co-author of The Human Planet

"Enormously ambitious, deeply researched, moves with great skill from ecology and evolution to history and politics"
– Michael Marshall, New Scientist

"Many European and American books and films imply that tropical forests are incapable of sustainably supporting large human societies. Jungle provides a superbly argued refutation of this long-held view [...] a thrilling reappraisal of our origins and our dependence on tropical forests"
– Charlie Pye-Smith, Literary Review

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