In Prehistory, the award-winning archaeologist and renowned scholar Colin Renfrew covers human existence before the advent of written records-which is to say, the overwhelming majority of our time here on earth. But Renfrew also opens up to discussion, and even debate, the term "prehistory" itself, giving an incisive, concise, and lively survey of the past, and how scholars and scientists labor to bring it to light.
Renfrew begins by looking at prehistory as a discipline, particularly how developments of the past century and a half-advances in archaeology and geology; Darwin's ideas of evolution; discoveries of artifacts and fossil evidence of our human ancestors; and even more enlightened museum and collection curatorship-have fueled continuous growth in our knowledge of prehistory. He details 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. Answers for why things have changed, however, continue to elude us, so Renfrew discusses some of the issues and challenges past and present that confront the study of prehistory and its investigators.
In the book's second part, Renfrew shifts the narrative focus, offering a summary of human prehistory from early hominids to the rise of literate civilization that is refreshingly free from conventional wisdom and grand "unified" theories. The author's own case studies encompass a vast geographical and chronological range-the Orkney Islands, the Balkans, the Indus Valley, Peru, Ireland, and China-and help to explain the formation and development of agriculture and centralized societies. He concludes with a fascinating chapter on early writing systems, "From Prehistory to History."
In this invaluable, brief account of human development prior to the last four millennia, Colin Renfrew delivers a meticulously researched and passionately argued chronicle about our life on earth, and our ongoing quest to understand it.
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.
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July 14, 2008
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