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The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age

About The Book

An authoritative, eye-opening look at Stone Age civilizations that explodes traditional portrayals of prehistory
The rise of historical civilization 5,000 years ago is often depicted as if those societies were somehow created out of nothing. However, recent discoveries of astonishing accomplishments from the Neolithic Age -- in art, technology, writing, math, science, religion, medicine and exploration -- demand a fundamental rethinking of humanity before the dawn of written history.
In this fascinating book, Richard Rudgley describes how
* The intrepid explorers of the Stone Age discovered all of the world's major land masses long before the so-called Age of Discovery
* Stone Age man performed medical operations, including amputations and delicate cranial surgeries
* Paleolithic cave artists of Western Europe used techniques that were forgotten until the Renaissance
* Prehistoric life expectancy was better than it is for contemporary third-world populations
Rudgley reminds us just how savage so-called civilized people can be, and demonstrates how the cultures that have been reviled as savage were truly civilized. The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age shows the great debt that contemporary society owes to its prehistoric predecessors. It is a rich introduction to a lost world that will redefine the meaning of civilization itself.



A near-universal theme in the mythologies of the world is that the present state of the world, and more specifically the social world, is in decline -- a fall from the Garden of Eden or from a Golden Age. Modern civilisation has turned these traditional mythological assumptions on their head and written a new script, one based on the idea of social progress and evolution. In this new mythology the notion of civilisation (as it is generally understood) replaces Eden and this novel paradise exists not at the beginning of time but, if not right now, then just around the corner. Civilisation is, in the plot of this new mythology, envisaged as a great success story -- from prehistoric rags to civilised riches -- and it is presented as the final flowering of human achievement born out of a long and interminable struggle against the powers of darkness and ignorance that are represented by the Stone Age.

The way in which the human story has been written to date is so abridged and poorly edited that it has provided us with an account of ourselves which leaves out most of the contents of the early chapters. Despite the fact that prehistory makes up more than 95 per cent of our time on this planet, history, the remaining 5 per cent, makes up at least 95 per cent of most accounts of the human story. The prehistory of humankind is no mere prelude to history; history is rather a colourful and eventful afterword to the Stone Age. In this book I will show how rich and eventful were the contents of these early chapters of the life of our species; how great is the debt of historical societies to their prehistoric counterparts in all spheres of cultural life; and how civilised in many respects were those human cultures that have been reviled as savage. Before doing so I shall show how savage the so-called civilised peoples can be, and how the barbarism of our own culture is projected outward into the geographically remote (modern tribal cultures) as well as into the temporally remote prehistoric cultures.

One might expect that anthropologists, as the representatives of civilised scientific practices in the investigation of tribal societies, would have had a greater respect for their subjects than other colonial groups who had direct experience of the 'natives'. But here we find a sinister skeleton in the cupboard. In 1863 the Anthropological Society of London was set up and included among its members Sir James Hunt, the famous explorer Richard Burton and Robert Knox the anatomist. Burton described it as 'a refuge for Destitute Truth', a reference to the fact that it was the only outlet for his ethnological writings on sexual matters and related subjects that were strictly taboo among the mainstream Victorian intelligentsia. Hunt used the society as a vehicle to express his racist assumptions of the biological basis of white supremacy, juggling anthropometric measurements to lend scientific weight to his prejudices. Within the ranks of the society was an unofficial and informal circle known as the Cannibal Club, with Hunt in the chair calling his comrades to order with a gavel fashioned in the form of a negro's head. Knox was later to resign from his teaching position at Edinburgh University when he was implicated in the notorious criminal activities of Burke and Hare. These partners in crime graduated from grave-robbing to murder in their attempts to keep up with the medical demand for human corpses for dissection. Knox had unwittingly received some of Burke and Hare's unfortunate victims on to his own dissecting table. Despite the scandal surrounding Knox's name, other individuals with anthropological interests did not even bother to obtain their human subjects through middle men but did the dirty work themselves; some even took a certain relish in indulging in this grisly pastime.

The anthropologist James Urry has collected a whole host of grim tales of early anthropologists who behaved no better then the necromancers of the Middle Ages in their respect for the dead. He cites the case of the Russian explorer and ethnographer Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, who was pursuing science of a most dubious kind in the coastal regions of New Guinea in 1871. He was assisted in his research by a Swedish sailor named Will Olsson and also had a young male Polynesian servant, simply called 'Boy' in his writings. When the boy died from malaria, Miklouho-Maclay was anxious to dispose of the body, fearing that the locals might think he had been personally responsible. Before dumping the corpse in the sea, he was determined to preserve what he could for science. This sordid act is described in its perpetrator's own account, quoted by Urry:

In thinking of the best way to perform the operation, I discovered, to my chagrin, that I did not have a vessel large enough to contain a whole brain. Expecting the natives to appear every hour, most likely with grave intentions, I gave up, not without regret, the idea of preserving the Polynesian's brain but not the chance to obtain a preparation of the larynx with all the muscles, the tongue, etc., as I had promised my former teacher, Professor H. now living in Strasbourg, the larynx of a dark man with all the muscles. Preparing anatomical instruments and a jug with spirit, I returned to Boy's room and cut out the larynx with the tongue and all the muscles. A bit of skin from the forehead and head with hair went into my collection. Olsson, shaking with his fear of the dead man, was holding a candle and Boy's head. As I was cutting the plexus brachialis, Boy's hand made a small movement and Olsson, mortally afraid that I was cutting a man still alive, dropped the candle, and we were left in darkness.

Such was the callous nature of the operator that whilst sailing out in his boat to dump the corpse of 'Boy', he was so distracted by the marine life that he went into a sort of scientific reverie deep enough for him to temporarily forget that the corpse was on board. Having surreptitiously and successfully thrown 'Boy' overboard, and satisfied that the sharks would do the rest, he returned to shore to relax over a cup of tea.

A comparable example of total disregard for the remains of native people, this time from South America, has been brought to light by the Oxford anthropologist Peter Rivière. It concerns the activities of a German traveller in British Guiana in the 1840s named Richard Schomburgk. Despite being aware that the local Indians considered their dead to be sacrosanct, he was determined to raid their final resting places in the name of science. With a partner in crime he dug up a skeleton of a Warao Indian, later presented to the Anatomy Museum in Berlin. On another occasion they obtained two recently buried Macusi Indian skeletons, both of which had been buried for no more than a year. During this particular instance of body-snatching the two were nearly caught red-handed and quickly had to hide both the skeletons and their digging tools under a bush until they could be safely retrieved later. Unlike his Russian counterpart in New Guinea, Schomburgk, as Rivière points out, seems to have had mixed feelings about what he had done and wrote that he 'was glad when the wicked work was finally and successfully accomplished'. In this act we can see a clear parallel with Burke and Hare, with the distinction that these mortal remains were snatched not to be dissected in a morgue but rather to be displayed in a museum.

Urry describes what is probably the most savage and appalling example of the immoral actions routinely pursued by civilised medical and scientific institutions on the mortal remains of natives. William Lanney and Truganini, described as the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines, had asked to be buried in peace when their time came. In 1869 Lanney died, and despite his wishes his corpse became the property of scientists. Urry gives an account of what took place next:

In the morgue the body was viciously mutilated: the head, hands and feet removed and only the torso and limbs were left to bury. However, on the same night as the interment, two groups planned to exhume even these remains. Discovering their rivals had beaten them to the body, the leader of the other group smashed down the door to the morgue where the remains had been removed, only to discover 'a few particles of flesh' remained.

This pack of wild scientific dogs each carried off a piece of the corpse; one took an ear, another the nose, yet another a part of an arm, and the greatest prize of all -- the head -- was never seen again. A particularly sinister postscript to the story consists of the making of a tobacco pouch out of Lanney's skin by Dr Stockwell, who was the Chief House Surgeon of the Colonial Hospital as well as a distinguished member of the Royal Society of Tasmania. It is impossible not to make parallels between this particular act and the hawking of combs made from Apache bones in the Wild West, as well as more recent examples, such as the making of lampshades from the skin of Jews under the Nazi regime. Truganini died in 1876 and was duly buried. But her skeleton was later dug up so that it could be displayed in the museum of the Royal Society of Tasmania. One can imagine Dr Stockwell admiring her skeleton whilst puffing away on his pipe with tobacco drawn from the pouch made from her countryman's skin. Finally in 1976 descendants of the Aboriginal Tasmanians regained control over her remains, which were then cremated and her ashes given up to the sea.

It was by no means the case that instances of body-snatching were restricted to the minor players in the development of anthropology. In fact many of the most important figures of this academic discipline on both sides of the Atlantic (whose work is still both admired in the profession and obligatory reading for students of anthropology) were involved. Even Franz Boas, one of the founding fathers of American anthropology, was implicated in such dubious goings-on. In the 1890s during the early part of his career he actually plundered native American graves and sold their skulls to subsidise his fieldwork. The morality of the actions of anthropologists of the British school was equally questionable. The leading Cambridge anthropologist Alfred Haddon even practised grave-robbing closer to home when he plundered a disused church in the west of Ireland, making off with a sack full of skulls. Such practices did not die out in the nineteenth century and possession by the spirit of science has led more recent scholars to commit acts of sacrilege. According to his own account, the palaeoanthropologist Don Johanson, best known as the man who found the remains of the australopithicene individual known as 'Lucy', together with a colleague named Tom Gray stole a femur from a family burial place in Ethiopia belonging to the Afar people. The reason behind this was that Johanson wanted a modern bone to compare with a fossil bone he had recently found, and for him, this seems to have provided sufficient justification for committing the act.

In this dark and morally dubious undercurrent of anthropology -- having more in common with necromancy than science as normally understood -- we can see in a microcosm the parameters of the whole strategy by which civilisation justifies its own savagery. The anthropologist, as an emissary of civilised man, can undertake such acts of grave-robbing in the name of science when he is dealing with the mortal remains of 'savages'. Were they attempting to do the same in the cemeteries of their own civilised cities they would be shunned as individuals devoid of moral conscience. If our moral superiority to 'primitives' and prehistoric 'cavemen' is to be cast in doubt by the bringing to light of such nefarious goings-on among scientists, what of the notion of social evolution and progress on a more general level? Can that be easily demonstrated? The belief in social and cultural progress is an essential component of the modern myth which would have us believe in a clear-cut distinction between prehistoric inertia and civilised momentum. Without underpinning civilisation with the notion of progress there would simply be no explanation for our claims for superiority over those outside the mainstream of human development (tribal societies) or before it (prehistoric societies). The belief in social progress is so integral a part of modern culture that it is often seen as an almost natural idea and as such has often been accepted unquestionably as a fact. In reality, it is largely an innovation of eighteenth-century Europe; before that it played a relatively minor role in human affairs. For many scientists and laymen alike the idea has an almost religious aura and attachment to it is often as fervent as the faith of religious believers.

The American anthropologist (not, to my knowledge, a grave-robber) Alfred Kroeber, rejected the notion that the sheer mass of knowledge that has accumulated throughout history could be considered as real evidence of progress. Much that passes for proof of social evolution can be dismissed as ethnocentricity. Yet even Kroeber could not let go of his own belief in the idea of progress. Whilst rightly dismissing the quantitative argument (i.e. that the inevitable accumulation of knowledge through history could be seen as evidence of progress in itself), he nevertheless sought to demonstrate a qualitative difference between modern civilised societies and other cultures. In order to advance this argument he argued that tribal cultures (and, by extension, prehistoric cultures) not only have no equivalent to our modern science, mechanics and technology but also have not 'evolved' beyond a reliance on magic and superstition -- practices which we are said to have outgrown. In other words, we have something positive that they do not possess (science and technology) and they have something negative that we no longer possess (magic and superstition).

Leaving his point about science and technology to one side for a moment, let us look a little more closely at the question of magic and allied practices. Contrary to what many adherents of social progress would like to believe, magic, occultism and a whole host of what Kroeber would call superstitious practices are rife throughout the civilised world. As a belief system astrology may have been cast aside by the inexorable surge of modern rationalism and science, but if this is so, a great many people do not seem to have noticed it. Astrology has an enormous following, from the highest echelons of power (e.g. Nancy Reagan and members of the British Royal Family) to the readers of the hugely popular tabloid horoscopes. Avoiding walking underneath ladders, touching wood and the use of personal and team mascots are all practices as superstitious as anything found in tribal societies. As for magic itself, the old view of anthropologists on the subject, exemplified by Sir James Frazer's description of it as a 'bastard science', is now universally rejected. Many more recent anthropologists have seen magic and divination as coherent systems of belief. Sir Edward Evans Pritchard, who was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oxford for many years, stated that the oracular form of decision-making used by the Azande people of Africa was 'as good a way of conducting one's affairs as any other I know'. The idea that magical thought is adhered to only by the most superstitious and poorly educated of people is, like the idea of social progress itself, a recent innovation. We need only look back as far as the seventeenth century to find the leading intellectuals of the day espousing magical and hermetic philosophies. The advance of modern science was achieved only at the considerable cost of the loss of much important magical research. As the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend said: 'it is interesting to see that the demands of the new experimental philosophy that appeared in the seventeenth century eliminated not just hypotheses, or methods, but the very effects whose spuriousness was afterwards said to have been proved by scientific research'.

In that part of Kroeber's argument concerning the absence of anything comparable to the scientific and technological accomplishments of the civilised world, he is able to muster little to support his case that is genuinely of a qualitative nature. As we will see later in this book (Chapters 6 and 7), the emergence of scientific observations and modes of thinking can be traced back to remote times, and the development of simple mechanics and various technological procedures was not absent, even in the Old Stone Age. Somewhat ruefully, it appears, Kroeber was forced to conclude that science and technology were largely:

quantitative -- like growth in population, growth in size of states and nations, growth sometimes in the number and complexity of their political subdivisions. Similar perhaps also is the growth in stocks of wealth -- more gold, diamonds, farmed acres, houses in the world: part at least of the old are physically preserved, and new ones added. But we have already seen that there is serious doubt whether magnification as such, mere quantitative swelling-up, can be legitimately construed as progress. Size is easy to boast about, but does it bring with it wiser living or greater happiness? Only so far as it does can quantitative increase of culture be considered as making for progress.

Kroeber's argument that social progress has been achieved fails on both counts -- due to the existence of scientific thought in the Stone Age and to that of magical thought in our own. Kroeber had a third point to add in support of progress which was essentially a corollary to his argument that the widespread belief in the efficacy of magic and divination is a mark of backward societies. This distinguishing feature of 'primitive' cultures concerned their inordinate interest in physiological and anatomical matters, which included the practices of deliberate head deformation, the filing of the teeth and the deliberate mutilation of the body for symbolic or cosmetic ends. Kroeber saw such practices as without parallel in civilised societies.

Circumcision and ear-piercing -- both widespread practices in civilisations even today -- were exempt from being included in his catalogue of primitive mutilations on the grounds that they were, 'after all, anatomically negligible'. Cosmetics, corsets and the like were similarly exempt, this time on the grounds that they did not cause any permanent defacement of the body or any mutilation. Were Kroeber alive today he would be very hard pressed indeed to divide primitive and civilised body practices so distinctly. How could he explain away even the currently quite common practice of body-piercing? How could silicon breast implants be described as impermanent alterations of the body -- particularly as such operations rely on science and technology to make them possible?

Although much of what is called progress is simply the result of the accumulation of knowledge, this does not mean that there has been no loss along the way. The story of civilisation is one of both loss and gain. In rejecting the notion of a steady and uninterrupted progress in human affairs one is not obliged to advocate that human history is simply a chronicle of decline, a fall from a prehistoric Eden. Human achievements and failures through time occur in a discontinuous, irregular and altogether too complex and chaotic way to be reduced to either a simple form of progress or an equally simplistic doomsday theory of continuous and inevitable decline. Yet the supposedly linear nature of progress is often demonstrated by sleight-of-hand strategies.

For example, modern democracy is seen as a form of progress, one that has undoubtedly improved the rights and freedoms of the average citizen in comparison with, say, the earlier state of affairs that existed under the feudal system in Europe. Since feudalism preceded modern democracy in historical terms, then -- so runs the argument -- such progress is made manifest in the greater freedom of the individual. Often implicit in such arguments is the notion that since the serf had less freedom than the citizen of a modern civilised state, any individual in a society before feudalism would have had even fewer rights. That the average Stone Age individual may have enjoyed greater freedom than the serf (or even the average citizen of a modern democratic state) is simply ignored in this version of the human story, in which we ascend to ever greater heights and only look back in order to congratulate ourselves on how far we have come.

The notion of a straightforward and unequivocal progress also breaks down when we examine perhaps the most basic sign of any society's success -- the state of health of its members. It is widely accepted that the hunter-gatherer people of the Old Stone Age did not, on average, live as long as we do today. But this fact partly depends on who 'we' refers to. Mark N. Cohen, in his book Health and the Rise of Civilisation, notes that contemporary hunter-gatherers (many of whom live in marginal environments, such as the Eskimos in the Arctic and the Kalahari !Kung bushmen in the desert) enjoy higher levels of calorific intake than the citizens of many Third World countries, and that these levels are also above those of the urban poor in 'advanced' societies. Cohen also makes the point that we have built up our images of human history too exclusively from the experiences of privileged classes and populations. By doing so we have assumed too close a fit between technological advances and progress for individual lives. A simplistic model of progress would have to demonstrate that there was a general and marked improvement in health as mankind left the hunting life for that of the farmer, and again when the industrial era began. In order to put the first of these assumptions to the test, Cohen and his colleague George J. Armelagos organised a special conference on palaeopathology (the study of disease in ancient and prehistoric human remains). Gathering together specialists in the palaeopathology of diverse regions of the world, they wanted to find out whether, with the shift from hunting to farming, the populations in the respective areas increased their general level of health or not.

The study of the sample of skeletal remains from South Asia showed that there was a decline in body stature, body size and life expectancy with the adoption of farming. A broadly similar result was obtained by the analysis conducted on skeletons from prehistoric populations in Georgia, USA -- i.e. the health of the hunters was markedly better. In the case study of the Levant region there was a slight increase in the level of health with the initial adoption of farming, but this was followed by a marked decline once intensive agriculture and husbandry were fully established. Of the 13 regional studies, 10 showed that the average life expectancy declined with the adoption of farming. There are a number of factors that would have led to this decline. The domestication of animals that took place on a major scale with the advent of farming had, along with its benefits, the unforeseen result of allowing the transmission of numerous infectious diseases from these domesticates to their human masters. Among the side effects of the new lifestyle was the development of a new host of diseases and disorders, including beri-beri, rickets, leprosy (thought to have been transmitted to man from the Asian water-buffalo) and diphtheria. Diphtheria is one of at least 30 distinct diseases which can be transmitted via milk. As the palaeopathologist Don Brothwell has said, the practice of dairy farming undoubtedly assisted in the spreading of such diseases.

The next 'great leap forward' -- industrialisation -- also brought with it a whole mass of unwanted side effects, the so-called 'diseases of civilisation' precipitated by numerous features of the modern urban lifestyle, from sedentary habits and poor diet to environmental pollution. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer are among the disorders that are rare in earlier times and all too prevalent today. Palaeopathologists have conducted detailed examinations of hundreds of mummies from ancient Egypt, Peru and Alaska, and have found no traces of cancer. It also appears that the pressures of modern life have had a detrimental effect on mental health and may have precipitated numerous behavioural disorders as well. Thus the apparent advances made by modern civilisation often have their disadvantages. There are side effects in the most benign of breakthroughs, for even an advance in medical knowledge can be, and often is, diverted to military use.

In the light of the preceding pages it can be seen that the notion of progress is not as simple and straightforward as it may at first appear. It is still widely believed that the primitive and stagnant nature of Stone Age society was rudely awoken by the sudden appearance of civilisation 5,000 years ago. The entrenched belief that there was a quantum leap forward at this time has obscured the nature of prehistoric cultural activity by portraying it as simply consisting of a series of lowly steps on the ladder to true progress. The idea of biological evolution is distinct from the notion of social progress, although the two are often linked. This is inevitably the case with the study of our prehistoric origins. Accounts of prehistory necessarily have to explain how we evolved from our primate ancestors, and how we eventually became civilised human beings. This book does not seek to bring into question the idea of biological evolution. Its aim is to demonstrate, on the basis of archaeological evidence, that civilisation did not appear suddenly around 5,000 years ago. In order to do this, it is first necessary to give a brief standard account of the Stone Age -- that vast time period from the origin of early man to the origin of the historical civilisations.

The Stone Age is so called because the main material used for making tools throughout this vast period of prehistory was stone. Archaeologists divide the Stone Age into three main periods -- the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and the Neolithic (New Stone Age). The Palaeolithic period is by far the longest of the three, beginning with the earliest-known stone tools in Africa (2.4 million years ago) and ending about 10,000 years ago. As the time period involved is so long, prehistorians have found it useful to subdivide the Palaeolithic age into three periods -- Lower (ending 200,000 years ago), Middle (200,000 to 40,000 years ago) and Upper Palaeolithic (40,000 to 10,000 years ago). The Lower Palaeolithic period was the time when our earliest ancestors (known as hominids) lived. All hominids belong to the family Hominidae and are divided into those of the genus Australopithecus and those of the genus Homo. Fossil remains of Australopithecus from East Africa date to at least three million years ago, and perhaps much earlier.

The first tools, however, are believed not to have been made by Australopithecus but by Homo habilis (who lived from about 2.2 to 1.6 million years ago), the earliest-known member of our own genus. Neither Australopithecus nor Homo habilis fossils have been found outside of Africa. The stone tools associated with Homo habilis have been found in East and South Africa and are called Oldowan, as such artefacts were found at the world-famous site of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Fossil remains of this species are rare, and the presence of this species at archaeological sites is normally indicated by tools alone. The next species to develop in Africa was Homo erectus (1.6 to 0.5 million years ago), who possessed a larger brain than his predecessor. Homo erectus is generally accredited with being the first hominid species to leave the African homeland (about a million years ago) and colonise the more temperate zones of Asia and Europe. A more sophisticated stone tool technology known to archaeologists as the Acheulian (named after the discovery of such artefacts at Saint-Acheul in France) was developed by Homo erectus. The making of Acheulian tools was continued by the archaic populations of Homo sapiens who first emerged about 500,000 years ago.

The Middle Palaeolithic period saw further developments in both hominid evolution and tool-making. Neanderthal man (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) arose about 100,000 years ago in Europe and western Asia as a regional development of archaic Homo sapiens. Contrary to the popular image of Neanderthals as the embodiment of brutish ignorance, they possessed large brains as well as being physically robust. The artefacts of this period are described as Mousterian (after the Le Moustier rock shelter in France) and are typically associated with Neanderthals. There is still considerable controversy concerning the ultimate fate of the Neanderthals, who disappeared off the face of the earth about 33,000 years ago. Some authorities argue that they were unable to compete with the incoming Homo sapiens sapiens and so became extinct, whilst others claim that they merged, at least in part, with our own immediate biological ancestors. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa at least 100,000 years ago and -- like Homo erectus long before them -- spread from their homeland to populate the world.

The Upper Palaeolithic period began 40,000 years ago, and with the decline of the Neanderthals, it saw Homo sapiens sapiens as the sole surviving member of the hominid line. Many experts see the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic as the time when behaviourally modern humans emerged. For although no major biological transformation of our own species took place 40,000 years ago, many see it as a time of a great leap forward in cultural terms, with an explosion of creative energies on all fronts. This cultural 'big bang' is seen as having included the birth of art, magic and religion as well as causing rapid advances in technology and social organisation. As in the earlier phases of the Old Stone Age, the vast majority of the artefacts from the Upper Palaeolithic are stone tools. Archaeologists have been able to distinguish distinct industrial traditions in the various phases of the Upper Palaeolithic. In Europe the main subdivisions include the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian periods. Traditionally most prehistorians have been happy to see the Upper Palaeolithic period in terms of cultural progress, with the later phases showing higher degrees of technological, social and artistic development than the earlier ones. The Upper Palaeolithic ended with the last Ice Age, about 10,500 years ago, and was followed by the Mesolithic period. The Mesolithic is often described as a transitional phase between the old Palaeolithic lifestyle of hunting animals and gathering plants and the period of Neolithic farming. Changes that took place during the Mesolithic age include an emphasis on fishing and the development of new tools, particularly for use in woodworking. In outlying areas such as Britain, the Mesolithic period continued until the fourth millennium BC when the farming life characteristics of the Neolithic finally took root.

The Neolithic period began about 10,000 years ago in the Near East and is characterised by food production. In the Neolithic, the mainstay of the economy was neither hunting nor gathering but farming. In the main, the hunting of wild animals was replaced by the keeping of domestic livestock and the gathering of plants was supplanted by the cultivation of crops. The new Neolithic economy necessarily involved a settled way of life. The often highly mobile societies of earlier times were replaced by communities living in villages and towns. The making of pottery is often seen as one of the key diagnostic traits of the Neolithic, and many of the cultures of this period are named after their distinctive forms of pottery. The advent of farming was once described as the Neolithic Revolution, although archaeologists now realise that this is not accurate. The term 'revolution' suggests a dramatic and sudden event, but the change from hunting to farming took place over thousands of years. Towards the end of the Neolithic period, copper metallurgy emerged in some regions, and this has led some archaeologists to distinguish a Copper Age (or Chalcolithic period) from the preceding Neolithic and subsequent Bronze Age (the latter of which lasted in Europe from 2000 to 700 BC). Although the terms Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic are used to describe the sequence of cultural events in Europe and parts of Asia, these terms are not generally used in discussing the prehistoric archaeology of other parts of the world such as the Americas and Australia. Although the evidence clearly points to the fact that both Australia and America were populated from Asia during the Upper Palaeolithic period, what happened subsequently on those continents cannot be adequately explained within the terminology of Old World archaeology.

From this foregoing account we can trace the conventional view of human progress from its humble origins to the advent of civilisation. According to the standard view, the hominids of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic periods exhibit tool-making abilities far more developed than those of other primates but their expression is almost wholly limited to the utilitarian sphere -- they are perceived as lacking the capacity for symbolic thought, as devoid of artistic ability, and without religious sensibilities. It is only with the cultural 'big bang' 40,000 years or so ago that behaviourally modern humans emerge as fully human and with artistic and religious awareness. The Neolithic period is the next significant stage of development, in which food production, pottery and other technological developments and urban settlements are added to the human repertoire. Yet even the most developed Neolithic communities are seen as lacking the essential ingredient of civilisation, namely writing.

The problem with this standard view of the Stone Age is that it does not adequately explain how the historical civilisations emerged out of this 'primitive' prehistoric heritage. If mankind before the historical era was so primitive, how could civilisation have arisen from such poor cultural roots? Historians of the ancient civilisations have, on the whole, paid little interest to the prehistoric background of the cultures they study, and as a consequence many wild theories claiming to explain the origins of civilisation have arisen. Archaeological theorist John R. Cole has described these highly unorthodox alternative explanations as 'cult archaeology'. The most famous of such theories in modern times is undoubtedly that of Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? (1970), in which the author claims that the sudden emergence of civilisation was due to alien intervention. Other writers who, like von Däniken and his numerous imitators, find it impossible to believe that 'primitive' Stone Age cultures could ever have developed into civilisations have sought the answer in theories concerning sunken continents. The myth of Atlantis is, of course, the most popular of these, but there are many other lands in the occult-pseudo geography of these theories, such as Lemuria and Mu. In both the extraterrestrial and the lost-continent models the basic theory is the same. Lost or hidden civilisations -- be they alien or Atlantean - existed before those of Egypt and Mesopotamia and taught the latter everything they knew. The 'evidence' for such prehistoric civilisations is provided not by the physical remains of aliens nor by the archaeological remains of Atlanteans, as neither, of course, exist. Rather it is argued that the astronomical knowledge and the advanced technology of the ancient world obviously could not have been inherited from Stone Age cultures and therefore can only be explained by recourse to Atlantis or to aliens. Such views are extremely popular and influential, and this is partly due to public dissatisfaction with the standard academic view that does not explain the origins of civilisation in a convincing way.

I will show that the cultural elements that constitute civilisation did exist in the Stone Age and that the civilisations of ancient Egypt and other ancient societies had their prehistoric precedents. The evidence for the existence of civilisation in the Stone Age is given in this book. I take as my starting point the origin of civilisation in ancient Egypt, and from there go progressively further back in time to explore the body of evidence that clearly shows that all the elements of civilisation -- writing, scientific thought and practice, medical knowledge, technology and art -- were present in the Stone Age. Each of these elements is treated individually in turn and this necessarily involves shifting forwards and backwards in time. Nevertheless, the overall trajectory of the text is from the end of prehistory to its beginning.

Copyright © 1999 by Richard Rudgley

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Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (January 25, 2000)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684862705

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John Robb Nature Wonderful reading...illuminating...a zest for discovery that make it a page turner.

Kirkus Reviews The author's review of prehistoric cultural achievements is erudite and fascinating....

Doris Lessing Literary Review Will transform our view of B.C.

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