Our continuing fascination with our own ancestry is probably one of the few attributes left that is considered unique to humans. Although, considering all the effort that has gone into trying to recover information about early humans over the last 200 years, it is remarkable how little we know and how much argument there is over the interpretation of what is known. But the situation is dramatically improving, as English anthropological writer Richard Rudgley shows. As an award-winning professional anthropologist (British Museum Prometheus Award 1991), now based in Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, Rudgley is well placed to give an up-to-date overview of the Stone Age for the general reader.
The so-called "Stone Age" (technically called the Palaeolithic, lasting from 2.4 to 10,000 million years ago) inevitably conjures up Flintstone-like images of peoples, what social anthropologists call "idiot communities". Rudgley seeks to alter this misconception, which originated with 19th-century notions of progress and Darwinistic superiority. He argues that the achievements of prehistoric times, ranging from the technicalities of mining and stone tool-making, through surgery and the origins of writing to art, have been downplayed in popular accounts. Recent advances in dating have shown that previous ideas about the chronology of many aspects of Palaeolithic culture were quite erroneous, especially with regard to the art of the period. Art from the earliest phase of the Upper Palaeolithic shows, as Rudgley says, "an equal mastery ... to that of the later phases". Packed with up-to-date information, a useful bibliography and an index, Lost Civilisations shows that a whole range of "prehistoric cultural achievements are more profound, complex and multifarious than has been hitherto suspected". -- Douglas Palmer