COLIN RENFREW. Prehistory: the Making of the Human Mind. xiv+254 pages, 2 figures. 2007. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 978-0-297-85120-2 hardback £14.99.
Review by J.D. Lewis-Williams
Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Those who set out to write the story of how the human mind came to be as it is, not just in one region but globally, must possess encyclopaedic knowledge. Moreover, if they want the resulting book to be accessible to a wide readership, they must have the ability to make complex issues easily understandable. Such a person is Colin Renfrew, who after a lifetime in archaeology (though clearly with still many years to go) has the past at his fingertips. His new book, Prehistory: the Making of the Human Mind, demonstrates his abilities and also his usual original thinking.
He begins with a brief history of prehistory. There was, of course, a time when there was no concept of prehistory, and many believed that the world as we know it was created in six days about 6000 years ago. The way in which prehistory came into being and what the study soon revealed showed that aeons were required and that the appearance of Homo sapiens could be explained in materialistic, scientific terms. This orientating preamble to the main substance of Prehistory is a telling rejoinder to those who still argue that the complexity of the human mind points to some sort of supernatural intervention in human evolution.
Renfrew commences his principal argument by identifying what he calls the 'sapient paradox'. This is the sizeable gap between 'genotype and take-off'. Human beings became fully modern in an anatomical sense about two hundred and fifty thousand years ago in Africa (he feels that the multi-regional hypothesis has little or no support), but, according to him, not a lot happened until the Neolithic Revolution and the development of settlements a mere ten thousand years ago.
To understand this 'paradox', this apparent intellectual lethargy, Renfrew distinguishes between two kinds of evolution. The development that led up to the appearance of modern people was genetic. DNA mutations were the driving force. After the appearance of Homo sapiens, it was 'cultural innovation and cultural transmission' that became the dominant mechanism. This is what Renfrew dubs the 'tectonic' phase of human development - evolution was now being built by people, not by random mutations. He points out that the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'tectonics' as 'the constructive arts in general'.
To study the tectonic phase of human development Renfrew argues that we need 'a new kind of cognitive archaeology', one that takes the role of symbols and the actions of individuals into account. Rightly, this kind of cognitive archaeology will reject the simplistic, unilinear cultural sequences that some earlier writers postulated. He also has little time for modular evolutionary psychology and the notion of memes, two approaches that writers have put forward to explain tectonic evolution. The suggestion that memes (ideas) breed like DNA, 'useful' ones being adopted and less useful ones being discarded, derives from an analogy with genes. As Renfrew points out, the analogy, though intriguing, is not ineluctably persuasive. Here he begins to discuss the massive importance of fully modern language and symbolic thought.
Symbols of course take many forms, but archaeologists will naturally think principally of the striking cave and portable art of Upper Palaeolithic western Europe as emblematic of fully modern culture. Renfrew wonders why 'there should have been this remarkable and localised creative explosion in Upper Palaeolithic France and Spain, and why such remarkable scenes of animals did not occur elsewhere until very much later'. We still have a long way to go before we shall fully solve this enigma, but some preliminary thoughts can be offered.
Art was not an independent human activity that people invented and then used for a variety of purposes, as Renfrew and many other writers seem to accept. This notion of art derives from Western contexts: Western art (image-making) can be didactic, decorative, aesthetic, social commentary, socially discriminating, used in advertising, and so forth. Rather, it seems that art was originally an integral part of another human activity, one to which Renfrew perhaps gives insufficient prominence: religion. If we are to acknowledge the role of individuals in the tectonic phase of human development, we must attend to the neurological functioning of the human brain and what individuals make of its often aberrant manifestations. Religion with a supernatural foundation was probably not a human invention to explain the configuration of the natural world or to provide comfort in a frightening environment. Those functionalist ideas are today less than persuasive. Religion is more likely to have originated in human endeavours to understand the strange and shifting mental effects of the electro-chemical functioning of the human brain. Simultaneously, this making-sense was inevitably embedded in social relationships and led to social inequalities and to rituals. It seems that this sort of development must necessarily have started when the species was becoming fully modern. It follows that Upper Palaeolithic people were perhaps further along the path to fully modern behaviour than Renfrew allows.
If Renfrew has somewhat underestimated the Upper Palaeolithic, he has also given less than their due to writers such as André Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Laming-Emperaire. Whether we agree with what they wrote or not, they and others were practising 'cognitive archaeology' back in the 1960s. Though his emphasis on cognitive archaeology is necessary, we are left wondering if it is as new as he suggests.
Although Renfrew rightly advocates attending to symbols and beliefs when we consider human decision-making, he sometimes holds back from exploring that road. For instance, when he considers the dangerous voyages that people undertook during the tectonic phase, as they must have done to reach remote Pacific islands, he suggests a number of possible rational purposes: 'the provision of food from the sea, or travel to obtain raw materials or meet other humans.' We should also consider the possibility that people sailed into the blue for socio-religious reasons, to reach some spiritual realm beyond the horizon. If they did not return (as they did from most, though not all, fishing expeditions), that was a good sign, one that would encourage others to do the same: they had reached the longed-for realm.
Renfrew has made a valuable contribution to the study of prehistoric mental development. His book persuasively points to important issues that archaeology should explore, and it will be much discussed. Approvingly, he quotes Bruce Trigger: 'What is needed is a better understanding, derived from psychology and neuroscience, of how the human brain shapes understanding and influences behaviour..