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Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (Modern Library Chronicles) Paperback – August 11, 2009

3.6 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
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From Booklist

Prominent archaeologist Renfrew reviews the field’s history and poses questions about its future in this précis. Summarizing archaeology’s beginnings, he notes how speculations gave way to factual foundations through the application of systematic and scientific methods of excavation and interpretation. Nothing has been more important than dating with radioactive elements, which, joined by genetic analysis, permits the establishment of a general chronology of human origins. The most profound question to arise from that achievement, Renfrew stresses, is how to explain “the sapient paradox,” the lag of 100,000 years between the emergence of anatomically modern human beings and the earliest material traces of symbolic thought. The question in turn opens avenues of contemporary research with jargon-like names such as material engagement theory and cognitive archaeology, the meanings of which Renfrew delivers with estimable clarity. Beefing up such terms with discoveries in exciting archaeological regions such as Central America, Renfrew projects a vibrancy to the contemporary study of the human past prior to literacy that should attract to the subject readers with an intrinsic or potentially professional interest. --Gilbert Taylor
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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Chronicles
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library; Reprint edition (August 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812976614
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812976618
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #435,017 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on October 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Combining a long career in the field with a fine narrative style, Renfrew provides a succinct summary of human origins. In a brief overview, the author manages to trace the beginnings of humanity in Africa and how we learned to follow its track across the planet. Well formulated for the reader new to the various research tools that have helped this process, it's also an excellent reference for those conversant with the basics to enlarge their view.

Relying on a global perspective, his account stretches from African beginnings through Asia and Europe and to Mesoamerica. His expansive view allows him to address the question of "how we came to be" with deep insight. "Prehistory", he reminds us, is a term difficult to define. We're accustomed, he says, to view anything prior to written records - even clay ones - as prehistory. That leads to an over-focussed view of areas like Mesopotamia and Egypt. Renfrew opens the book by demonstrating how that approach should be modified. There are other forms of records and other conclusions to be drawn by understanding them. Renfrew stresses that there are few global patterns to rely on and each region must be considered through the available evidence. Among the many ways of doing this, he pays special attention to radiometric dating, a technique he helped foster in the UK. Another significant method, following shortly after the introduction to isotopic analysis is that of reading DNA. Together, these two analytical techniques overturned many previously held misconceptions.

The explanation on what constitutes prehistory and the rise of analytical technology requires less than a third of the book. The remainder is dedicated to a discussion of what makes humanity special in the animal kingdom.
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Format: Hardcover
Thin at 189 pages, it turns out to be heavily padded too. Publishers' Weekly says it is "best suited to archaeology professionals". Do they or any interested amateur need 4 chapters on the "history of prehistory"? (Early archeologists had limited tools!), including an elementary explanation of Carbon Dating?

Casual unsupported presumptions abound, "the utility of fire" as a "defense against predators" for example. People who have studied the behavior of man-eating lions in Africa and tigers in India find that, not only are they not deterred by fire, they seek it out as a likely source of prey. Hunters who want to destroy the threat build a conspicuous fire and lie in wait nearby.

"Presumptive evidence of boat building by Homo Erectus 500,000 years ago" is, well, not actually physical evidence, but, more like, `they appear to be present where we are pretty sure it was an island so they must have built boats."

Most of the book's arguments are based on conclusions like, `this is the way perception and symbolic language must evolve'. Almost nothing is based on direct conclusions from new evidence.

If you, like me, were seduced by the second title, "The Evolution of the Human Mind" and expected, for example, an analysis of recent developments from the study of DNA and brain anatomy, using our new knowledge about speech centers in the brain to draw inferences about the evolution of speech in early Hominids, you will be very disappointed.
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Format: Paperback
Subtitled "The Making of the Human Mind", this book turned out to be a great disappointment. I have greatly enjoyed Mr. Renfrew's other books, but this one is flat. This appears to be part of a big series of books being put together by Modern Library, and apparently they went to Mr. Renfrew with a lucrative offer: write an overview of archaeology. He wrote their book but it's uninspired; Mr. Renfrew seems altogether bored with the effort. Reading it is almost as much drudgery as it must have been for him to write it. The first four chapters comprise a history of archaeology as a scholarly discipline; they seem tacked onto the book, as if one of the editors wanted more pages or insisted that this material be included. The remaining chapters trace one of Mr. Renfrew's abiding interests, cognitive archaeology. But the material strikes me as a recitation of material rather than an inspired thesis, seeking completeness rather than logical cohesion. He is of course the complete master of the material, and for that I give him credit, and there are a few flickers of excitement, especially when he talks about Teotihuacan. But otherwise this reads like a book written out of a sense of duty, not out of intellectual excitement. I heartily recommend any of Mr. Renfrew's other books, but I do not recommend this one.
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I liked the book and found most reviews here to be overly negative. However, it is true that it would be good if the author had pursued the "Sapient Paradox" more fully. Renfrew does point out that the huge and accelerating advances by modern man, starting about 5-10 thousand years ago, made the ancient million year long history of primitive primates seem constant and stagnant. However, he does emphasize the unique nature of modern man who suddenly appeared 80-100 thousand years ago. Those unique individuals had the power of speech, an advanced pre-frontal cortex, and an extensive 25 year maturation and development of cognitive skills. And he shows how even during the first 50,000 years of modern man's existence as hunter gatherers there were minimal advances until about 10,000 years ago, when the agricultural and pastoral Ages led to the growth of settled communities in those few regions where the people took to such farming cultures.

The author explains in detail how modern man suddenly appeared in Africa about 100,000 years ago and was a markedly unique individual, vastly superior in cognitive abilities to the so-called pre-human primates. The missing link to those possible precursors has not yet been found. Some reviewers may be turned off by this emphasis because it is basically a critique of the strict evolutionary theories and leaves room for speculation whether some unknown agent contributed to this transformation that established for the first time a people almost identical to present-day humans. Renfrew does state that those people, moving out of Africa 70-80 thousand years ago, were anatomically almost identical to today's people.
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