Atlas of a Lost World: An intriguing account of how people got to America

Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs

In Atlas of a Lost World (2018), author Craig Childs takes the reader on a series of outdoor adventures as he traces the various confirmed and possible paths that North and South America’s first inhabitants took to enter the New World. Parallel to his own journey, he delves into the current research, theories, and archaeological finds. The end result is a bit of a mixed bag, though Childs never is less than an engaging guide.

The book opens with Childs overlooking probably the best known route, and the one most people of a certain age and older were taught as “the” route into North America: the Bering land Strait. Each chapter follows Childs as he explores a different possible entry point, including but not limited to hiking across the Harding Ice Field in Alaska, kayaking along the Pacific coastline, playfully performing a “mammoth hunt” with friend in White Sands New Mexico, freezing in mid-winter on the Wisconsin shore of Lake Superior, and paddling in hog-infested, gator-swarming, sinkhole-riddled Florida, before ending his travels at the Burning Man festival in Nevada (I can confirm he makes this a reasonable choice).

The travel sections are interesting enough, but generally lack the vivid nature and transcendence of travel writing focused on the travel and the traveler, though several strong passages rise above the others in most, if not all, the chapters. And while I like in theory the idea of this parallel structure, at times it does make the book read a bit choppy, sometimes making it hard to get a cohesive sense of the paleo science.

Outside of that one issue, the paleo-historical information in Atlas of a Lost World is informative, clearly explained, and always placed in historical context so the reader is centered in time. Childs is good about at least mentioning the uncertainty of dating artifacts but is pretty much a fan of any theory that offers up the oldest dates, and sometimes one gets the feeling he’s stacking the deck a bit. I would have liked a more full explanation/detailing of the controversies over specific sites.

That same sense arises in other areas as well. When he discusses the so-called “risk taking” gene, for instance, a linkage that has been called into question directly, not to mention indirectly due to so many genes being implicated with impulsiveness (and that’s ignoring the whole genes vs. environment question). Or when he focuses so much on the regularity of megafauna hunts or predation upon humans, both of which are not quite such consensus positions as may be implied here (at least based on other reading I’ve done; I’m no expert myself, certainly).

Where Childs really shines, though, is when he tries to get into the heads of the paleolithic peoples. Here, where there is of course no real “science,” no “true” way of knowing their perspectives, the attempt is enough and Childs’ language and style and sense of enthusiasm seems heightened in these moments. And it’s for these times, in particular, that I’d recommend Atlas of a Lost World, albeit with the few caveats noted above.

Published in 2018. The first people in the New World were few, their encampments fleeting. On a side of the planet no human had ever seen, different groups arrived from different directions, and not all at the same time. The land they reached was fully inhabited by megafauna—mastodons, giant bears, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, enormous bison, and sloths that stood one story tall. These Ice Age explorers, hunters, and families were wildly outnumbered and many would themselves have been prey to the much larger animals. In Atlas of a Lost World, Craig Childs blends science and personal narrative to upend our notions of where these people came from and who they were. How they got here, persevered, and ultimately thrived is a story that resonates from the Pleistocene to our modern era, and reveals how much has changed since the time of mammoth hunters, and how little. Through it, readers will see the Ice Age, and their own age, in a whole new light.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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