Thursday, 26 October 2000

Richard Rudgley: Lost civilisations of the Stone Age (1998)

Edition: Century, 1998
Review number: 663

The standard picture of prehistory is of a series of revolutionary developments, separated by great stretches of time, culminating in the "Neolothic Revolution" and the appearance of agriculture, towns, writing, and civilisation. The purpose of this book is to argue that the process of development was far more gradual and evolutionary, with each of the new developments (other examples being art and medicine) being foreshadowed, in many cases for a very long time.

Rudgley's argument seems to prove an obvious point, yet the idea that the human race moved towards civilisation in a series of leaps is not just the fundamental theory on which most popular books on prehistory are based, it remains the basis of much of the academic study of ancient peoples. It is an inherently unlikely theory, particularly the "Neolithic Revolution" when so many new inventions are supposed to appear simultaneously, and Rudgley points out that this is one of the reasons that people have come up with such pseudo-historical theories as the idea that civilised ideas came from aliens or from mythological advanced cultures which have left no trace, such as Atlantis or Lemuria.

Lost civilisations of the Stone Age contains a great deal of material gathered to counteract assertions which amount to "before such an such a date, humans did not have a certain ability", where the abilities range from writing to the ability to think symbolically. Much of this is fascinating, but it does not answer two questions which particularly interest me: how did the standard theory arise, and why do people still believe in it? The answers to theses questions lie both in the nature of prehistoric archaeology and in human nature.

In formulating the theory, which is mainly a product of the first half of the twentieth century, the main reasons it came about seem to be to do with the fragmentary nature of the evidence and the difficulties in dating it, which leads to assumptions that material containing art, say, must be later than the accepted first date for the production of art. There are also racists assumptions involved about the capabilities of those Stone Age cultures which have survived until modern times, which are projected back into the past. Archaeologists have also tended, particularly in the Middle East, to be more interested in the relatively simple later remains after the written record begins, such as pharaonic tombs and Sumerian towns, and to have been half-hearted about going farther back; I suspect that rivalry between the French and German excavators principally responsible for discoveries in Egypt and Iraq respectively to produce impressive finds also had something to do with this. The desire to put a definite date on events probably also played a part, by encouraging over-simplification.

The idea has obviously continued partly because of inertia, but there are other reasons. Prehistoric remains are difficult to interpret, and those who attacked the theory often made overblown and seemingly ridiculous claims, such as Marija Gimbutas' idea of the earth goddess. This obviously tended to make all of what they said vulnerable and easy to dismiss. Even in this book, which is relatively careful, there is some debatable evidence, particularly in the chapter on music making.

The good thing about the standard theory is that it makes life easy, as long as you don't express it too explicitly. Writers can talk about the Neolithic Revolution, and readers will not only understand what they mean, but they will latch onto something dramatic which has facile parallels with the relatively familiar industrial revolution. It can even be given a date. It is only when someone starts to wonder why all these changes happened at once that cracks begin to appear.

I suspect that few academics really believe the standard model, at least in the rather naive form in which it is portrayed here. It is far more prevalent in popular histories, particularly in the most wide ranging books where prehistory is just a prelude to the main material. Lost civilisations of the Stone Age is clearly intended to counter this attitude, and is definitely worth reading by anyone with an interest in the origins of civilisation.

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