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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Prehistory: The Making Of The Human Mind
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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]
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 15 July 2010
I approached this book with some knowledge of the author as a textbook writer, so it was not surprising to encounter a rather stilted writing style and use of high-level language. These deterrents are however redeemed in many places by Renfrew's evident love and passion for his field. Lyrical passages like his description of a visit to Teotihuacan (p. 191) belie much of the other stilted academic research writing.

It seems to me that this book was stitched together from academic papers originally addressed to expert audiences. How else can one explain the inclusion of a sentence like this:
"The symbol is not simply a projection of an antecedent concept, but in its substantive reality is actually constitutive of the concept." (p. 170)
My own PhD is no help in deciphering such convoluted thinking. When explaining complex concepts, one would do well to remember the wonderful American aphorism: KISS.

I also have to take issue with the sub-title of my version: The making of the human mind.
Renfrew's argument throughout the book is that different groups of humans took different trajectories toward cultural development, very much as a function of their various environmental contexts. Would it not be more accurate therefore to talk about an "evolution" or "development" or "growth" of mind? "Making" suggests some master-plan, and Renfrew clearly takes the view that "things just happened."

On the positive side, I learned a lot from reading this book as a neophyte interested in cognitive archeology. It does answer some of my questions about why and how homo sapiens evolved, despite the lack of clear-cut answers in many cases. I found the discussion of the sapient paradox and the many analyses of "material engagement" especially revealing.

I do hope any second edition will be given to a good editor who can better adapt the writing style to the intended audience which seems to be the general public, not the Ivory Tower.
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on 28 July 2010
This book is generally well written and readable. However, for me it doesn't really deliver on the title. It is a good summary of current thought on the subject but doesn't go into much depth on any aspect. Having said that, it is useful to have read some of the books he refers to, so it's not really a beginners' book.
Other books worth considering:
- "After the Ice" Steven Mithen
- "On deep history and the brain" Daniel Lord Smail
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on 5 September 2015
This is a most rewarding book. I regard myself a keen reader of books on both history and the ‘ascent of Man’. Yet I found in this book that my grasp of how we had become what we are had not been anywhere near enough. Colin Renfrew’s vast vision, his command of all the many disciplines that have shed – and are still shedding – light on our prehistoric past, his own research as one of our greatest anthropologists, and his lucid English have all come together here to complete the picture for me.
Colin – for I have at last gained the honour of his friendship – is also well read in philosophy. At our monthly lunches in London, everyone around the table seems to fall under his spell at once. That should not surprise anyone. He is a past Master of a Cambridge University college. His knowledge of what the philosophers have written on the nature of society informs this book greatly, and his own, life-long and sympathetic examination of his fellow human beings make his scientific commentary more exceptional still.
Long before I met him, I regarded him as the ideal guide on what remains of our distant ancestors, and what remains of our distant ancestors is astounding. In this book, we learn how engagement with the material world changed early Man, how settling in villages, achieving secure sources of food, increasingly conference on the streets with others and inventing writing systems, etc., enabled our forefathers suddenly to take off around 10,000 years ago. The latest contribution to mapping our movements after we broke out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and become different peoples comes from the amazing progress made by biochemists specialising in DNA studies.
One discovery was especially pleasing to me. While there are strands of development that apply to most early civilisations, it is reassuring to read that they were unpredictable. That is the nature of intelligence. While most early civilisations became unequal quickly and spent vast resources and energy on tyrannical priest-kings, a few did not seem to need temples or divines. Altogether, this book is priceless. It is a treasure trove. If I could, I would abolish the monarchy in Britain and appoint Colin our king for life!
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on 29 June 2015
This book has two parts. In Part 1, the author gives a brief outline of how the science of archaeology has developed over the past 200 years. In Part 2, the author provides a rather sketchy outline of cognitive archaeology, and his thoughts on the subject. His main thesis is that human engagements with the material world were the main driving force behind the neolithic revolution and indeed behind formation of the human mind as we know it today. The material engagements gave rise to institutional facts, which can at least partly explain the diversity of those institutional facts established along different developmental trajectories. The author supports his ideas with a rich (but rather sketchy) collection of facts from different cultures (Mesoamerica, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Northern Europe).

The book is very short, compared to other books on this subject. For that reason, it can be used as an introduction to the subject. It stimulates an interested reader to read further and to dig deeper. However, due to its brevity, it leaves a slight feeling of dissatisfaction. This is a teaser rather than an in-depth treatment. For this reason only I give it 4 stars, and not 5. In all other respects, it is an excellent book, written by an eminent archaeologist of our time who knows how to explain his work to a layman.
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on 4 December 2012
He's the leading light...before Mithen or Stringer there's Renfrew. If you want to get a good grasp of how we became us and progressed from living only in a present state of mind to the complex thinking and planning individuals we are, this is the perfect book. I bought it before I got my Kindle, so I am reading it slowly. There's such a lot to digest, but it's like a light has gone on in this retired person's head and suddenly "we" as humans have taken on a new meaning, beyond religious beliefs...we have made ourselves who we are!
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on 9 January 2017
This could have been a riveting read, but unfortunately the academic style tends to alienate the non professional. However, even the non professional can see how Mr Renfrew's blank statement that the Homo Sapien Sapien's genome hasn't changed in 60,000 years and is the exact same globally is patently false. Its well known that Europeans have substantial Neanderthal DNA. After this I breezed through and lost interest.
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VINE VOICEon 7 May 2011
Some interesting ideas about the timing and nature of the growth of human consciousness in the light of DNA researches and analysis of historical cultural development. But I think this suffered from not having any diagrams and pictures to break up the sometimes overly abstract and theoretical text. Unfinished.
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on 22 July 2013
Archaeology is a science that is taking full advantage of modern technology and so is continually advancing. Colin Renfrew is in a postion to pull all the different strands together which he does very clearly in this book.
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