Skip to main content

The Human Shore

Seacoasts in History

Since before recorded history, people have congregated near water. But as growing populations around the globe continue to flow toward the coasts on an unprecedented scale and climate change raises water levels, our relationship to the sea has begun to take on new and potentially catastrophic dimensions. The latest generation of coastal dwellers lives largely in ignorance of the history of those who came before them, the natural environment, and the need to live sustainably on the world’s shores. Humanity has forgotten how to live with the oceans.

In The Human Shore, a magisterial account of 100,000 years of seaside civilization, John R. Gillis recovers the coastal experience from its origins among the people who dwelled along the African shore to the bustle and glitz of today’s megacities and beach resorts. He takes readers from discussion of the possible coastal location of the Garden of Eden to the ancient communities that have existed along beaches, bays, and bayous since the beginning of human society to the crucial role played by coasts during the age of discovery and empire. An account of the mass movement of whole populations to the coasts in the last half-century brings the story of coastal life into the present.
Along the way, Gillis addresses humankind’s changing relationship to the sea from an environmental perspective, laying out the history of the making and remaking of coastal landscapes—the creation of ports, the draining of wetlands, the introduction and extinction of marine animals, and the invention of the beach—while giving us a global understanding of our relationship to the water. Learned and deeply personal, The Human Shore is more than a history: it is the story of a space that has been central to the attitudes, plans, and existence of those who live and dream at land’s end.

256 pages | 50 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

History: American History, Discoveries and Exploration, European History


“In The Human Shore, John Gillis offers a sweeping analysis of coastal communities from the Old Testament to the Japanese tsunami. This inclusive and wide-ranging book will be read by those interested in the ocean edge either professionally or by avocation and it will have a deep impact on those of us who teach about coasts. It is a pleasure to see the culture and science of our shores dovetailed into a history of such authority and grace. This will be required reading.”

John R. Stilgoe | Harvard University

"In The Human Shore, John R. Gillis leads the reader on an interesting trip through time showing us how early humans led stable lives as hunter-gatherers at the edge of the sea, through the eras of coastwise exploration and industrialization, to today’s high priced, ocean-view and beach-front real estate. A readable consideration of the changing perceptions and utilization of the shore, The Human Shore will appeal to a variety of readers."

C. H. Hobbs | author of The Beach Book: Science of the Shore

"Thoughtful, informed, and eloquent; in The Human Shore John Gillis has captured the human yearning for that fragile interface between land and sea. In the process, he reveals a dynamic environment quite at odds with humanity’s lust to possess nature. As Gillis so beautifully writes, we must learn “to live with rather than simply on our shores.”

Robert M. Hazen | author of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years

“As populations crowd toward the ocean’s edge and the sea encroaches menacingly toward the land, John R. Gillis looks at the history of the world from a fresh perspective and enables readers to see it in a new light. That he has managed to do so in a single conceptual work is nothing short of astounding.”

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto | author of Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

"This provocative and wide-ranging book is a timely reminder that the relationship with the sea stands at the center of the history of humanity."

David Abulafia | author of The Great Sea: A History of the Mediterranean

"In a detailed, expansive and wide-ranging history, John Gillis carefully examines the complex, uneasy, and continually evolving relationship between humans and the sea, asking us to reconsider some of our cherished assumptions. As ever increasing numbers of people return to crowd the fragile edge of the ocean, understanding this history is a must."

Deborah Cramer | author of Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World

“Reaching back into the days when early hominids became human, The Human Shore also looks forward to what will happen if we don’t change how we relate to seacoasts. The book represents a fitting capstone to the career of a remarkable historian whose arc of interests has anticipated two key, entwined strands in his discipline—the rise of environmental history and global history—and whose work has long exemplified how, in our changing present, the ways we imagine the past can and must change as well. . . . As befits a historian who has ‘grown only more and more aware of how much history is an imaginative activity,’ what most distinguishes his work is the depth he brings to combining the arc of human imagination with its effects—to synthesizing our thinking about seacoasts with the material history of how those ideas will shape the prospects of the planet.”

Chronicle of Higher Education

"Recommend[ed]. . . . Gillis does an excellent job of portraying people’s evolving relationship with the shore and their eventual love affair with beaches, which was the last part of the shore to be settled."


“Gillis’s goal in his thoughtful and insightful essay is to provide some unity to the varied, diverse, and changing relationship between humans and the world’s oceans. He sets no small task for himself; ultimately, however, he succeeds, producing a concise volume that promises to become an important reference for most maritime scholarship to come.”

Environmental History

“Beginning with the appearance of modern Homo sapiens approximately 164,000 years ago, Gillis moves beyond the written records of conventional history to draw on insights from underwater archaeology, physical anthropology, and other fields. Boldly revising familiar narratives of human origins and development, he traces the cultural and material pasts of ‘our edge species.’ . . . Gillis ranges widely—crossing temporal and spatial boundaries, connecting “prehistory” to modern history, and touching down on coastal locales around the world. He does so with remarkable concision: this sophisticated, multimillennial narrative clocks in at just under 200 pages.”


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 An Alternative to Eden
2 Coasts of the Ancient Mariner
3 Sea Frontiers of the Early Modern Atlantic
4 Settling the Shores
5 Second Discovery of the Sea
6 Coastal Dreams and Nightmares

Conclusion  Learning to Live with Coasts


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press