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Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind

Overview

In Prehistory, the award-winning archaeologist and renowned scholar Colin Renfrew covers human existence before the advent of written records–the overwhelming majority of our time here on earth–and gives an incisive, concise, and lively survey of the past, and of how scholars and scientists labor to bring it to light.

Renfrew begins by looking at prehistory as a discipline, detailing how breakthroughs such as radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis have helped us to define ...

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Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind

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Overview

In Prehistory, the award-winning archaeologist and renowned scholar Colin Renfrew covers human existence before the advent of written records–the overwhelming majority of our time here on earth–and gives an incisive, concise, and lively survey of the past, and of how scholars and scientists labor to bring it to light.

Renfrew begins by looking at prehistory as a discipline, detailing how breakthroughs such as radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis have helped us to define humankind’s past–how things have changed–much more clearly than was possible just a half century ago. As for why things have changed, Renfrew pinpoints some of the issues and challenges, past and present, that confront the study of prehistory and its investigators. Renfrew then offers a summary of human prehistory from early hominids to the rise of literate civilization that is refreshingly free of conventional wisdom and grand “unified” theories.

In this invaluable account, Colin Renfrew delivers a meticulously researched and passionately argued chronicle about our life on earth–and our ongoing quest to understand it.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In this complex, closely argued text . . . field giant Renfrew sets forth quite a task, to sum up the progress of prehistoric archaeology thus far and then explore current challenges.” —Publishers Weekly

“A remarkably useful text in that it will generate lively, thoughtful and passionate discussion and inspire new ways of examining existing evidence.” —New Scientist magazine

“An elegant and absorbing distillation of the wisdom accrued during a life in prehistory.”—Reference and Research Book News

Publishers Weekly
In this complex, closely argued text, best suited to archaeology professionals, field giant Renfrew sets forth quite a task, to sum up the progress of prehistoric archaeology thus far and then explore current challenges. In Part I, Renfrew surveys the history of the concept-prehistory refers to the long period of "human existence before... written records"-and how it developed into a rich field of study, developing excavation and chronological techniques and coming to major, sometimes startling conclusions (like the parallel evolution of distant cultures throughout the world). Part II considers the prehistory of the human mind-that is, how concepts such as relative value and social rank came into being. In a compelling but debatable argument, he finds that sedentarism-permanent residence in one place-was a pre-requisite for the emergence of material culture. Ultimately, however, "good local narratives" can be compiled for societies such as ancient China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mesoamerica, but a unifying model that encompasses their individual trajectories has yet to be developed; Renfrew regards its development as a major task for 21st century prehistorians. The value of Renfrew's book is that it lays out these arguments, with the intent to spur thought, debate, analysis and, especially, theoretical modeling of social evolution.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812976618
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/11/2009
  • Series: Modern Library Chronicles Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 588,086
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Colin Renfrew was professor of archaeology from 1981 to 2004 at Cambridge University, where he is now a Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Also a Fellow of the British Academy, he has won numerous international medals and prizes and was made a life peer in 1991. A leading figure in archaeology worldwide, he has led many excavations, especially in Greece. He is co-author, with Paul Bahn, of Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice, the definitive student reference.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Prehistory is the story of human becoming. Five million years ago there were no humans on the earth, nor among the then-existing apes and monkeys were there any that we could recognize as closely resembling humans in appearance or in behavior. Today we see humankind in all its diversity—from the hunter-gatherers of the polar ice or the arid lands of Africa to city dwellers of every nation in the world. We see the massive technological achievements—architecture, technology, literacy, travel—and the products of human culture—language, literature, music, the visual arts. How did these things come about? What happened to bring about these transformations? How did we come to be where we are now? What is it that we have become? These are the questions that we address in studying prehistory. “Prehistory” refers to that span of human existence before the availability of those written records with which recorded history begins. But literacy has been available in some parts of the world for little more than two centuries. So from a broad perspective the scope of prehistory covers most of human existence. Moreover, since the earliest written records in the world go back to no earlier than about 3500 B.C.E., most of the subject matter of prehistory can be approached only through the preliterate material record of the past as revealed to us through archaeology. For it is archaeology, the study of the human past on the basis of the material remains, that allows us to begin to approach those vast expanses of time, the millennia of early human existence, and to say something meaningful about them. 

“Prehistory,” then, refers to the lives of our first hunter-gatherer ancestors, and then to those early times when humans, through the development of agriculture, were able to turn away from a life of hunting and gathering and were able to live in villages and then in towns. “Prehistory” encompasses the formation of the first more centralized human societies, when men and sometimes women became powerful; the emergence of the first civilizations in Western Asia, in Africa, in China, in Mesoamerica; the rise and fall of the first empires from the Aztecs of Mexico to the Incas of Peru. The term encompasses also those smaller communities in different parts of the world that continued as hunters, or developed as pastoralists tending their flocks. 

“Prehistory” thus designates a vast span of time. But the word has a second sense. It refers also to the discipline through which we study prehistoric times. Prehistory, or prehistoric archaeology, is a field of study involving an extensive battery of techniques used to study the material remains that document the human past. The distinction is important, because the study of prehistory turns out to be a difficult task. Gathering the data is hard enough, involving painstaking archaeological excavations in different and often remote parts of the world. But the task of interpretation is even more difficult. For prehistory is the science of us. It is the discipline by which we study ourselves and investigate the way we have come to be as we are. The prehistorian keeps on having to reevaluate what might seem to be the easiest proposition in the world: Who are we? Or, rather, What are we? What does it mean to be human? What at first might seem obvious becomes, on examination, a more difficult question. 

As we shall see, when we try to explain the various changes that have taken place in the human condition, over the tens and hundreds of millennia of human existence, the explanations do not come easily. They require insights not only into the deep human past but into the nature of human existence now. The voyage of discovery that takes us back into the remote periods of human development soon brings us back to the realities of human existence today. For that reason the study of prehistory is a challenging undertaking. And our perception of prehistoric times, of the millennia of human development, is always changing. It is as if we are looking at the past through a mirror. It is a mirror that we ourselves have made, and one on which we are continuing to work. The image of the past that we see is one that we ourselves have constructed. It is one that is continually changing. 

The metaphor of the mirror is a valid one, I think. For it is only over the past two centuries that the notion of prehistory has existed at all. It was over those two centuries that the rise of archaeology revealed that there did indeed exist a remote human past. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, prehistory had been undreamt of. The word itself did not exist. 

At that time the human past presented an intellectual challenge, and one that was difficult to tackle. The eighteenth-century sage Samuel Johnson remarked: “All that is really known of the ancient state of Britain is contained in a few pages. We can know no more than what old writers have told us.” At that time there existed no vision of a discipline that could yield systematic knowledge of the human past. It was natural, then, for Dr. Johnson to indicate that written sources for Britain before the Romans were very thin indeed. As we shall see in the next chapter, the discipline of studying prehistory became possible only when a number of related ideas came together. That process continues today as new methods of study, such as archaeogenetics, become available. Indeed it was not until the availability of sciencebased dating techniques some fifty years ago that a secure chronology could be established for the development of human culture. 

Today we can indeed sketch out the broad outlines of the development of humankind. These outlines form the basis for much of this book. But although we can construct a narrative, we are still unclear as to why things changed when they did, and what governed the pace of change. We are only now beginning to learn about the changes in modes of thought that may have underlain some of the major advances and transformations in the human condition. The challenge of developing a cognitive archaeology—the study, using the material record, of the development of human modes of thought—is an alluring one. It is an aspiration that underlies much of this book: to understand the formation of mind. 

There are naturally many books that offer an overview of prehistory, and one may ask what is the need for another one. Gordon Childe’s Man Makes Himself is one of the best, but it was published two generations ago (in 1936) and was written before the radiocarbon method offered the key to the dating of the past. Grahame Clark’s magisterial World Prehistory: An Outline used that key in 1961 to give the first coherent overview, but it was a detailed region-by-region survey. Chris Scarre in The Human Past (2005) has edited the best recent survey, although in order to do justice to each region it is now a work by multiple authors. Here my aim will not be simply to narrate the success of archaeology in reconstructing our shared human past, although the first half of the book offers such an outline. My aim is rather to pose some questions, many of them still unanswered, about that past. For while it is fair to say that we know now a good deal about that past—the broad outlines of prehistory have become very much clearer in the past half century—we still do not understand it very well. We don’t really grasp why things changed when they did, sometimes quite independently in different parts of the world, or so it would seem, and why very often things didn’t change much at all. I am interested in the origins of mind, in that uniquely human capacity to analyze the world and to express our worldview in symbolic form—not only in words, but in nonverbal communication: in gesture, in painting and sculpture, in music and dance, and in ritual. The different societies of the world had their different worldviews, their different cosmologies, their different moralities, their different systems of government, their different languages, perhaps even their different systems of logic. So the study of prehistory is not only the investigation of what is common to all humankind in our shared origins and our common existence upon earth—the human condition. It is also the study of human diversity, of the way human individuals and communities have come to be so different, the product of different histories, of different trajectories of development. The exploration of the world over the past two centuries has given to us, far more than was available to our predecessors, the opportunity to contemplate that diversity, and perhaps to learn something from it. It is in that sense that the study of prehistory can tell us something of who, or rather what, we are. And despite the successes of a century and a half of archaeological excavation and research, I am not persuaded that the answer is yet a very clear one. 

In what follows, Part I sets out to review the development of the idea of prehistory and the growth of a scientific discipline centered upon the prehistoric past up to the last decade or so. It reviews concisely the way this new field of study has developed. Part II begins with the recognition that the study of prehistory has now reached a crucial juncture, with the narrative of past events and processes already offering a sound outline, but with real problems in understanding why and how the developments of prehistory occurred as they did. For a clear understanding to be achieved, a new kind of cognitive archaeology is needed. What this may look like is outlined in Chapter 6, “Toward a Prehistory of Mind.” The implications are discussed in the chapters that follow.  

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Pt. I The Discovery of Prehistory 1

1 The Idea of Prehistory 3

2 Mapping the Human Past: Prehistory before 1940 14

3 Dating: The Radiocarbon Revolution 41

4 The Possibility of World Prehistory 53

Pt. II The Prehistory of Mind 77

5 The Sapient Paradox 79

6 Towards a Prehistory of Mind 101

7 Constructing the Community 135

8 Worldly Goods 160

9 Appropriating the Cosmos 181

10 From Prehistory to History 203

Prospect: The Future of Prehistory 219

Figures: Chronology of human development 224

Further Reading 227

Notes and Quotes 229

Bibliography 232

Index 237

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