Among historians, one of the most widely accepted criteria for a society's being "civilized" is whether it has a writing system, one that permits complex record keeping and allows for an account of the past. By that measure, writes British museologist Richard Rudgley, many societies of the most ancient Stone Age are to be reckoned as civilizations, for new archaeological evidence suggests that the Neolithic writing systems of cultures like Mesopotamia and the Nile valley have their roots in even older systems, some dating back to the time of the Neanderthals. (Just what those writing systems say remains a matter of debate, and Rudgley acknowledges that "if a script cannot be deciphered, then it will always be possible to dismiss it.") Prehistoric sign systems aside, Rudgley urges that the chronology of human cultural evolution be pushed back well into the Paleolithic; "the most fundamental cultural innovations," he suggests, "actually occurred far earlier in the overall sequence [of human development] than is generally realized." He maintains, for instance, that fired pottery, another characteristic of civilized societies, existed among Siberian nomads some 13,000 years ago, and that a knowledge of metallurgy existed in Egypt 35,000 years ago. Any call for a revision in widely accepted chronologies is, of course, sure to be controversial among prehistorians, and Rudgley's book, well reasoned as it is, will provoke debate. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Ever wonder what it was like to be a caveman? Whether you are a dentist, sculptor or accountant, you may have more in common with our Stone Age ancestors than you think. Rudgley, a scholar of Stone Age art, religion and technology at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, takes issue with the standard descriptions of the origins of civilization, arguing that prehistoric peoples were far more accomplished than they are generally thought to have been. Although the title evokes science fiction, Rudgley's analysis elucidates the differences among numerous academic theories on topics as diverse as Venus figurines, Neolithic chewing gum and 300,000-year-old bone markings. Rudgley reinterprets these findings in order to paint a picture of Stone Age culture that rightly deserves to be called "civilization," even though conventional scholarship says that writing and, with it, civilization arose "suddenly" in the Near East around 3000 B.C. and that other written languages were derived from this first script. But Rudgley provides evidence of earlier sign systems, what Marija Gimbutas calls the "alphabet of the metaphysical," that developed independently at sites such as Transylvania, where tablets have been dated to about 4000 B.C. Historical linguists have reconstructed compelling precedents to these written systems, which, when combined with work by archeologists and other scientists, suggest the need to revise our present definition of civilization. Photos not seen by PW. Illustrations. (Feb.) FYI: Rudgley won a British Museum Award for his last book, Essential Substances.
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