Most helpful positive review
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
an interpretive summing up of an interesting career
on 30 May 2011
This is a quirky text on human prehistory, covering more or less up to the advent of writing, urbanization, and the establishment of money and property, i.e the end of hunter-gathering culture. As such, it goes from the emergence of the Cro Magnon homo sapiens approximately 100,000 years ago until about 3000 BCE, though prehistory ended at different times in various places. He offers a personal interpretation that evokes and refers to developments in archaeology without explaining or exploring them in detail at an introductory level, and thus the text often is rather advanced and decidedly not for the uninitiated. I would recommend reading a more basic text first.
The first part of the book is on the evolution of the notion of prehistory itself. Though some readers are highly critical of this section, I found it an enlightening historical overview of how professional researchers have viewed and studied early man over the last 150 years. At first, their interpretations were by assumption forced to fit with the Old Testament. However, with the advent of the notions of geologic time, evolution of species by natural selection, and the systematic exploration of sites in Europe and the Near East, it became evident that the biblical narrative was no longer tenable. Nonetheless, from the late 19C, the notions of archaeologists remained bound by several limiting factors: a colonialist attitude that all civilization must have "radiated" from Europe, Egypt, and Mesopotamia; and an inability to precisely date artifacts, which warped interpretation in favor of certain prejudicial presumptions (racist and otherwise). This was remedied after WW II by the carbon dating revolution that followed the discoveries of atomic physics, which added far greater precision to chronologies at the time that colonial notions were dying with the empires that supported them. From the 1950s, population genetics further refined archaeology, adding new criteria and clarifying many assumptions about human similarities. Finally, the author argues, there is a new discipline of cognitive archeology, in which the development of the mind through its use of symbols, is achieving new prominence and offers promising paths of investigation; this examines various categories such as money, property, hierarchy, the divine, etc. This last is the most difficult to grasp and the principal point that the author is trying to get across, though his career coincides with all of these innovations as they revolutionized modern archaeology. The great virtue of this is to put archaeological science in context, fitting the various approaches and assumptions together in a way that converges on certain answers.
The second part goes over more standard notions of prehistoric man, though the author attempts to set very basic parameters of what he believes is knowable and worth exploring. His views are sometimes quite strident, which adds flavor to the reading. On the one hand, he argues that the man that emerged 60,000 years ago is more or less genetically identical with us today as measured by mitochondrial dna analysis and, increasingly, human genome mapping. Assuming our ancestors were are intelligent and capable as us, he asserts, there is a great mystery - the "sapient paradox" - as to why it took so long for prehistory to end and is the question he wishes to answer in the second half of the book. It is not, he argues, due to genetic changes during that time. While this is debatable for many, I found it a very useful clarification of a skeptic's view of what passes today for genetic determinism: the author is solidly in the camp that asserts that the end of prehistory is a social and cultural phenomenon. Agree or disagree, I found it very valuable to reason through this perspective.
On the other hand, the author argues that the construction of a community - with the neolithic innovations of farming, sedentary urban dwelling year round, the accumulation of surplus wealth, and the building of communal monuments - brought forth enormous changes, eliminating the very different customs and traditions of hunter-gather societies. As these communities coalesced into power structures, elites, and disparities of wealth, they required new forms of justification, i.e. in a relation to the divine as legitimizing the new socio-political arrangements, etc. It was also at this time that, with longer-term stability and communal ritual, language and/or ethnic groups were able to develop for the first time. They also led to the new categories of cognitive thinking that he stresses were the basis for change. This is the fundamental stuff that I hoped to find in this book and extremely satisfying, not as a primer but as a detailed interpretation of archeological evidence that many others view quite differently. He then incorporates economic world views, the sacred, and other issues into this interpretation. This all led to the invention of writing, money, measurement, and a host of other innovations that signaled the end of the prehistorical period.
I was very impressed with this book and greatly enjoyed the author's take. The reasoning is rigorous and challenging, to the point that he disparages such authors as Richard Dawkins - he dislikes the notion of a "meme", or propagated thought, as similar to physical evolution. It is very fun and vividly written, if sometimes rough going. Warmly recommended.