Jungle review: How tropical forests helped shape human evolution

FOR many of the people reading this, tropical forests are remote places. A few may have visited the Amazon on holiday, or ventured into the Bornean rainforests to see orangutans, but for most, tropical forests seem far removed from everyday life.

In Jungle, his first book for a general audience, archaeologist Patrick Roberts sets out to tear down the barriers and show us how our lives are intertwined with tropical forests, “to convince you that the history of tropical forests is your history too”.

To do so, Roberts has written a history of the world according to the tropics and their jungles. He begins with the first land plants and the origins of trees, sketching how they affected the dinosaurs, early mammals and first primates.

The middle third of the book is devoted to the role of tropical forests in human evolution. A key message is that tropical forests aren’t inhospitable: people have lived in them for hundreds of thousands of years. Roberts attacks the long-standing idea that our ancestors left the trees to live on grasslands. Early hominins clearly spent less time up trees than apes such as chimpanzees, but the evidence suggests that our ancestors lived in many places, from the most open savannah to dense forests. More recently, people living in tropical forests have built city-like settlements, as in the Amazon.

Roberts moves on to document how the European empires of the past few centuries wrought havoc on the people and ecosystems of the tropics: for instance, by setting up the global trades in sugar and rubber, and exploitative labour systems such as slavery on which they relied. He brings the story up to date by outlining the multiplying threats the forests face from climate change, agriculture and wildfires, ending with pleas for their preservation. If we don’t save the tropical forests, warns Roberts, “climate change, declining food sources, economic catastrophe, political instability, mass migration and an explosion of pandemic diseases will very soon be knocking at your own door”.

In short, Jungle is enormously ambitious for a first popular book: it spans hundreds of millions of years and ranges across many disciplines. Does Roberts pull it off? Sort of.

On an intellectual and factual level, he unquestionably succeeds. Jungle is deeply researched, and moves with great skill from ecology and evolution to history and politics. Roberts handles them deftly, rarely putting a foot wrong.

Where the book does fall down is its writing style. This is so dry and complicated it might as well be an academic text. Sentences routinely run over five lines and paragraphs sprawl over whole pages. Vast arrays of facts and figures are hurled at the reader, largely unleavened by humour, anecdote or anything else.

This is compounded by a generally grim tone. Even the early chapters on evolution and dinosaurs, in which you might expect joy, thrills or awe before the serious stuff kicks in, are tough going. And the final five chapters, where Roberts outlines how modern capitalism abused tropical forests and its peoples, are an almost unbearable trudge through what feels like an endless series of atrocities.

Jungle is enormously ambitious for a first popular book: it spans millions of years and many disciplines”

I am not suggesting Roberts should have dialled back his message: why should he, when he is so plainly correct? Moreover, some readers may not mind the style, while students looking for a panoramic and detailed survey of tropical forests will get a lot out of Jungle. But its difficult style and dourness will limit the appeal, which is a shame because its message should be heard.

For me, Jungle‘s biggest problem is that while it does a superb job of conveying the factual and rational reasons why we should all care about tropical forests, it doesn’t make you feel it in your bones.

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