Roberts begins with an introduction to relevant scientific techniques, especially those for dating. This covers dendrochronology (tree rings) and sedimentation layer studies, radiocarbon and other radiometric dating systems, palaeoecological methods such as palynology (pollen analysis), and geological ones such as isotope analysis and lake level tracking. A dozen side-boxes scattered throughout the book cover additional technical topics: ice cores, limnology (the study of lakes), erosion rates, and mollusc, diatom, and insect analysis, among others.
A chapter on the late Pleistocene takes us down to 11500 years before the present, where Roberts places the beginning of the Holocene. This covers Milankovitch and other long-term climatic cycles, processes of forest succession, and debates over the extent to which changes in northwest Europe reflected global events. It also touches on early human ecology, notably human involvement in megafauna extinctions.
A central event during the first half of the Holocene was the retreat of the ice sheets. Roberts looks at some of the consequences of this: changing sea levels and climatic patterns, the northward forest advance in Eurasia and North America, the creation of new lakes, and ecological changes in Europe and the Sahara. A separate chapter covers early agriculture: its origins in various areas of the world, two more detailed site studies from the Middle East, and its effects on the ecology of Europe.
Moving on to the later Holocene, Roberts looks at the effects of volcanos on climate, changes in rivers and coastlines, and the origin of blanket mires. But the dominant feature of this period has been increasing human influence on and control over nature: the development of large scale states, pastoral nomadism, human expansion into the Pacific and the far north, Mediterranean ecosystems, and the making of the British landscape. A chapter on the last five hundred covers the controversial topics of anthropogenic climatic change, land-use and soil erosion, and pollution. And the final chapter considers environmental conservation in the light of Holocene history.