Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Concise View of Prehistory

Colin Renfrew (one of my heroes), has a new book: From the Where it all started Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 03/01/2008 Tom Fort reviews Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind by Colin Renfrew It's rather touching when an immensely learned figure attempts to educate a dimwit, like picturing Mr Gladstone in a stiff collar reading an improving tale to a child seated on his august lap. Here, the dimwit is me, the immensely learned figure is the archaeologist Colin Renfrew - Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn - and the subject for the lesson is prehistory, the story of our species up to the first written records. Renfrew sets himself a daunting dual challenge: to give the general reader an account of how the concept of prehistory emerged and established itself as a branch of scientific archaeology; and to explore the question of how - in his words - 'did we come to be where we are now?' And all this in just over 200 modest-sized pages. In the first part, Renfrew ranges at speed over the history of the early excavations and the theories of human development that resulted. The crucial modern breakthrough came with the technique of radiometric dating, enabling clear local chronologies to be established. These demolished some cherished assumptions, showing, for instance, that Stonehenge and other European megaliths were far older than the Egyptian pyramids. At the start of the second part, Renfrew confronts what he calls 'the sapient paradox' - the belief that the emergence of our species, H. sapiens, triggered an accelerating development towards the birth of the first civilisations. He shows how DNA analysis has established our common origin in Africa, and argues convincingly that subsequent developments were determined not genetically, since the shared genotype had already been fixed, but through a process of learning, or 'the transmission of culture'. Here I wrestled with the discipline of 'cognitive archaeology', the study of how people used to think, deduced from the material remains. For a very long period those remains amount to very little: the odd axe-head or bead or cave painting. It was not until the transition from the hunter-gatherer, wandering phase to the first permanent or semi-permanent settlements - known by archaeologists as 'sedentism' - that the evidence began to build up in any quantity. Renfrew describes how this change made possible new kinds of what he terms 'material engagement' in the form of houses, ovens, grinding stones, ornaments and so on. Living in a settlement promoted group activity; thus the construction of a burial site such as Stonehenge would have required an enormous pooling of labour, with the eventual effect of creating a bigger community. The idea of property evolved, and with it the stirrings of inequality - the haves and have-nots. Certain substances - gold, jade, lapis lazuli - came to be seen as having an intrinsic value, and individuals able to accumulate such wealth acquired enhanced status and became rulers. As societies grappled with the cosmos, rulers took charge of the business of seeking harmony with the cosmic forces and devised expressions of their power and distinction in the form of their burial sites. None of this, Renfrew emphasises, amounts to a global pattern. Different societies took different paths, responding independently to their circumstances. Some left little or no record; those that did received the attention, dictating a selective analysis. Renfrew acknowledges this, but he is surely right to assert that the effort to form even a partial picture is still worthwhile. By the end of the book - which deals with the advent of writing and hence the potential for storing knowledge - I was certainly feeling the strain. But I got there, which in my view represents a considerable triumph for Colin Renfrew. The breadth of his expertise spans the planet. His inferences and assumptions are majestic, as are his rare admissions of bafflement. Thanks to him, I have gained a glimmering of understanding of how long we've been going and how far we have come. What even Prof Renfrew cannot tell us is how far we still have to go.

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