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  • Edition: Reprint
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  • Copyright: 2009-08-11
  • Publisher: Modern Library
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In Prehistory, the award-winning archaeologist and renowned scholar Colin Renfrew covers human existence before the advent of written recordswhich 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 halfadvances 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 curatorshiphave 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 pasthow things have changedmuch 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 rangethe Orkney Islands, the Balkans, the Indus Valley, Peru, Ireland, and Chinaand 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. From the Hardcover edition.

Author Biography

Colin Renfrew was professor of archaeology from 1981 to 2004, at Cambridge University where he is now a Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Also a Fellow of the British Academy, he has won numerous international medals and prizes and was made a life peer in 1991. A leading figure in archaeology worldwide, he is known for his work on the radiocarbon revolution, the prehistory of language, archaeogenetics, and the prevention of looting on archaeological sites. He has led many excavations, especially in Greece. He is co-author, with Paul Bahn, of Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice, the definitive student reference.

From the Hardcover edition.



Prehistory is the story of human becoming. Five million years ago there were no humans on the earth, nor among the then-existing apes and monkeys were there any that we could recognize as closely resembling humans in appearance or in behavior. Today we see humankind in all its diversity—from the hunter-gatherers of the polar ice or the arid lands of Africa to city dwellers of every nation in the world. We see the massive technological achievements—architecture, technology, literacy, travel—and the products of human culture—language, literature, music, the visual arts. How did these things come about? What happened to bring about these transformations? How did we come to be where we are now? What is it that we have become? These are the questions that we address in studying prehistory. “Prehistory” refers to that span of human existence before the availability of those written records with which recorded history begins. But literacy has been available in some parts of the world for little more than two centuries. So from a broad perspective the scope of prehistory covers most of human existence. Moreover, since the earliest written records in the world go back to no earlier than about 3500 B.C.E., most of the subject matter of prehistory can be approached only through the preliterate material record of the past as revealed to us through archaeology. For it is archaeology, the study of the human past on the basis of the material remains, that allows us to begin to approach those vast expanses of time, the millennia of early human existence, and to say something meaningful about them. 

“Prehistory,” then, refers to the lives of our first hunter-gatherer ancestors, and then to those early times when humans, through the development of agriculture, were able to turn away from a life of hunting and gathering and were able to live in villages and then in towns. “Prehistory” encompasses the formation of the first more centralized human societies, when men and sometimes women became powerful; the emergence of the first civilizations in Western Asia, in Africa, in China, in Mesoamerica; the rise and fall of the first empires from the Aztecs of Mexico to the Incas of Peru. The term encompasses also those smaller communities in different parts of the world that continued as hunters, or developed as pastoralists tending their flocks. 

“Prehistory” thus designates a vast span of time. But the word has a second sense. It refers also to the discipline through which we study prehistoric times. Prehistory, or prehistoric archaeology, is a field of study involving an extensive battery of techniques used to study the material remains that document the human past. The distinction is important, because the study of prehistory turns out to be a difficult task. Gathering the data is hard enough, involving painstaking archaeological excavations in different and often remote parts of the world. But the task of interpretation is even more difficult. For prehistory is the science of us. It is the discipline by which we study ourselves and investigate the way we have come to be as we are. The prehistorian keeps on having to reevaluate what might seem to be the easiest proposition in the world: Who are we? Or, rather, What are we? What does it mean to be human? What at first might seem obvious becomes, on examination, a more difficult question. 

As we shall see, when we try to explain the various changes that have taken place in the human condition, over the tens and hundreds of millennia of human existence, the explanations do not come easily. They require insights not

Excerpted from Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind by Colin Renfrew
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