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Monday, February 12, 2018

Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007) by Colin Renfrew


Book Review
Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007)
by Colin Renfrew

  There was a point in time, maybe eight or nine years ago, when I seriously considered doing a version of this blog that focused on history instead of literature, something like an attempt to cover all the history in a set number of books, but I abandoned the idea, because it's just too much- particularly before I figured out the library request system and starting picking up books for free- buying state of the art history books from academic presses is likely to cost you thousands of dollars a year, subscribing to academic journals is just as much, or it requires a trip to a specialty library.  Writing about history books isn't very fun.   Ultimately, much of a what a wider audience considers "interesting" in terms of history subjects are 1) wars 2) presidents.  If you are interested in world history, good luck!

  But I like to dip in and out, particularly when it comes to ancient civilizations and current thinking about the development of modern consciousness in that context.  Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind is particularly rare in that it is a general interest title that addresses that very subject, published by the Modern Library and under 200 pages long- a readable synthesis of work into the area up till about 2005-2006. 

  Of course, since then the major development in this area has been the development of LIDAR- ground searching laser technology- which has revealed gigantic cityscapes in the densest jungle, and vastly expanding our level of knowledge which have lagged in understanding.  Renfrew spends much of Prehistory recounting the history of the study of Prehistory, making the very obvious point that the study of prehistory has been dramtically shaped by colonialism and an over-emphasis on theory developed based on findings made in Western Europe, with Franc playing a particularly important role.

  For Renfrew, it's the intersection of radioactive dating technology and the emerging science of genetic pre history which draws his greatest attention in the chapters that cover current developments in this area.  He makes the emphatic point that one subject that genetics has settled is that, genetically speaking, all humanity is genetically very, very, similar, in that we all descend from a small group that left Africa sixty thousand years ago.  Thus, differences between human populations can not be explained genetically, especially in terms of "superior" or "inferior" genetics for particular groups.  The difference we observe- skin color- for example, represents a very recent, minor, difference.

  Renfrew, writing with his general audience in mind, makes it clear that a real "comparative prehistory" is still being formulated.  The study of prehistory from an archaeological perspective carries the clear influence of "area studies" with a particular intrusion from ideas surrounding nationalism or the aforementioned colonialism.  The expansion of interest in hithero under explored areas like Amazonia, South East Asia and Central America is to be applauded.

 The development of LIDAR technology has proved most important in those areas that are precisely those most neglected- Amazonia, South East Aisa and Central America- all areas with "jungle" type land cover making exploration from the ground impossible.   The major problem that Renfrew leaves unresolves is the contrast between peoples that have All Powerful leaders who create massive monumental architecture and those that create those same structures without putting forward a dynastic leader.  The Egyptian Pyramids vs. Stonehenge, for example. 

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