Mary Soderstrom’s Road Through Time: The Story of Humanity on the Move may well be the most intriguing archaeological analysis since man set wheels on pathways. Partly memoir, it’s really a condensed history of civilization as seen through its roads.
Soderstrom tells the story of humanity tramping through time, exploring, discovering, and moving on. The great trek started with early humans leaving Africa possibly as early as 80,000 years ago and continues to this day.
One of the most fascinating chapters is also the most mysterious. Soderstrom outlines possible routes humans may have taken to reach North America. Some facts are known. She notes, for instance, that “every Native American throughout the western hemisphere shows common kinship with people who now live or who did live in parts of Northern Siberia.” But much is conjecture, so she titles the chapter “Mystery Roads.” One mystery she does explain is why, for most of its production period, the Model T Ford was available only in black, and it wasn’t because Henry Ford particularly liked that colour.
What makes this study stand out is Soderstrom’s fresh approach and refreshing writing, as if she’s speaking directly to her readers. Her descriptions of past events are so vivid and realistic it’s like travelling back through a time machine.
The introduction of horses revolutionized travel, just as the steam engine and automobile did in later centuries. Soderstrom warns that “changes have sped up in the last two centuries like a runaway car with the accelerator depressed and the brakes out of order.”
The spread of humans around the globe has had a profound effect on the landscape. When roads are carved through forests, the area is much more susceptible to erosion and drought. Soderstrom deplores the devastation highways can cause. At one point Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect and urban planner, advocated tearing down all the buildings in the centre of Paris to replace them with high-rises, parks, and connecting highways. Fortunately, the French decided to retain at least part of their centuries-old architecture.
The problem with some urban planning, Soderstrom notes, is that pedestrians are often left out of the equation, putting at high risk those who dare crossing thoroughfares at peak periods. She contrasts Brasilia, the car-centred capital of Brazil, with the more public transport and pedestrian-friendly city of Curitiba. Rather than tearing down Curitiba’s centre to build highways, leaders decided to revitalize it with an integrated, rapid transit system.
Influenced by Jack Kerouac’s book, On the Road, Soderstrom’s first and last chapters neatly wrap around the body of her work. The first chapter reveals what stirred her interest in roads and travel; the last raises her fears for the future.
With an index, bibliography, notes, and thirty-two black and white photos and illustrations, Road Through Time: The Story of Humanity on the Move is a road well worth travelling.
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