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Building a new mind
on 13 October 2008
Combining a long career in the field with a fine narrative style, Renfrew provides a succinct summary of human origins. In a brief overview, the author manages to trace the beginnings of humanity in Africa and how we learned to follow its track across the planet. Well formulated for the reader new to the various research tools that have helped this process, it's also an excellent reference for those conversant with the basics to enlarge their view.
Relying on a global perspective, his account stretches from African beginnings through Asia and Europe and to Mesoamerica. His expansive view allows him to address the question of "how we came to be" with deep insight. "Prehistory", he reminds us, is a term difficult to define. We're accustomed, he says, to view anything prior to written records - even clay ones - as prehistory. That leads to an over-focussed view of areas like Mesopotamia and Egypt. Renfrew opens the book by demonstrating how that approach should be modified. There are other forms of records and other conclusions to be drawn by understanding them. Renfrew stresses that there are few global patterns to rely on and each region must be considered through the available evidence. Among the many ways of doing this, he pays special attention to radiometric dating, a technique he helped foster in the UK. Another significant method, following shortly after the introduction to isotopic analysis is that of reading DNA. Together, these two analytical techniques overturned many previously held misconceptions.
The explanation on what constitutes prehistory and the rise of analytical technology requires less than a third of the book. The remainder is dedicated to a discussion of what makes humanity special in the animal kingdom. One thing our species excelled at is change - adapting to it or creating it. Even before H. sapiens, early hominids were scattering across the face of the planet at a faster rate than any other. He notes the unexpected find of occupation by H. habilis in Dmanisi [Georgia] 1.7 million years ago. From such beginnings, Renfrew sees human development as a two-phase system: the "Speciation", or biological phase, followed by the "Tectonic", or constructive period leading to arts and social and economic hierarchies. The combination of the two phases is summarised under what he calls "The Sapient Paradox": how did so many drastic cultural changes come about without a similar change in the genotype? Studying how these changes emerged and drove innovative social structures is termed "cognitive archaeology" - the archaeology of the mind.
The changes were there, they just weren't immediately visible. Mostly, they were in the brain which was adapting to the needs of a species more intensely cultural than before. None of the other primate species produced the social changes Homo sapiens did. "Sedentism", the foundation of human communities became increasingly common even before agriculture and pastoralism restricted human mobility, Renfrew argues. From that shift, humans created hierarchical social systems, mediums of exchange and longer and more extensive trading networks. Not all of these changes seem logical or meaningful in an evolutionary context. What possible adaptive trait did the accumulation of a material like gold represent? Particularly at a time when communities were just being formed? The shift to sedentism had strong, long-lasting influences, most visible in today's life. Renfrew has exposed those roots well, and the result is well worth your time to view and reflect on. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]