The First Eden

A naturalist and filmmaker, David Attenborough develops a fascinating history of the Mediterranean Sea and its surrounding land masses, drawing on archaeological and natural history findings, some quite recent. The Mediterranean has not only spawned the near-beginnings of Western culture but also suffered man’s exploitation of its irreplaceable natural resources.

The area’s geological evolution is described from a time when small salt lakes dotted a kind of huge, dried-out trench that finally became inundated by the Atlantic’s extraordinary spillage over the Straits of Gibraltar. Sea creatures and land animals, including exotica such as extinct elephant species in Malta and a kind of dwarf antelope in Majorca, accompanied man, himself a predator, who arrived after the macaque monkey and before the Egyptian fruit bat.

According to Attenborough’s thesis, as humans developed stable living conditions, their attitudes about nature shifted. Though animals were once deified in Turkey, Egypt, and Crete, they came to be dominated, cultivated like crops, and even slaughtered to provide a public spectacle. Coastal forests disappeared, and fertile soil silted the early harbors.

Bypassing the greater part of European history, the author dwells on the effects of such events as the training of horses for warfare and war’s eventual depredation of timberland. Attenborough notes the introduction of new plant and animal life by way of the New World and construction of the Suez Canal. Concluding with the recent effects of tourism and recreational hunting, he pleads for increased concern and coordinated efforts to preserve the area from worse pollution and endangerment of its surviving natural species.

The book was prepared in conjunction with a Public Broadcasting System television series. THE FIRST EDEN is lavishly and effectively illustrated, drawing both on historical artifacts and on photographs that include a final set documenting terrestrial and aquatic life threatened by holiday traffic, huntsmen, and construction. In its broadest sense, the book mirrors man’s relation to his environment, to his fellow creatures, and to himself.