Sharp Blue: Lost civilisations of the Stone Age


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Around 570 million years ago, hard-bodied complex animals suddenly appeared in the fossil record. Nobody really knows what happened during this “Cambrian explosion”, but something caused a relatively rapid increase in the complexity and diversity of living things. For most purposes, the history of multicellular animal life as we recognise it today began in that evolutionary radiation. Indeed, the creatures found in the Burgess shale and other fossil beds from immediately after the Cambrian explosion are complex and exotic by any standards: the contrast between the billions of years of simplicity before the Cambrian and the rich complexity during and after that period is striking and mysterious. (Although the diversity of the Cambrian was partly foreshadowed by the Ediacaran fauna that immediately preceded it.)

In the popular view, there is a similarly dramatic shift in the transition from human prehistory to human history. After the beginning of history, there was urbanisation, trade, writing, social specialisation, armies, art, architecture, science and culture, but before there were just farming villages, and before that only hunter-gatherers. Everything of value was the product of historical times, and prehistory was a time of crude barbarism. This simplistic view of the division between civilised history and barbaric prehistory is clearly wrong. Consider, for example, the case of Egypt. Written history in Egypt begins with the Palette of Narmer, which shows Narmer (who may be the same man as Menes) uniting Upper and Lower Egypt and founding the first dynasty. The society that produced the Palette was clearly already very sophisticated, with a rich symbolic tradition and religious life and a substantial material culture. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the time of the unification of Egypt saw the genesis of all these aspects of historical life, and so they must have been part of prehistoric Egyptian civilisation. The story is similar elsewhere in the world - the beginning of written history marks a significant boundary in our insight into the ancient world, not a revolution in the ancient world itself.

Cover of Lost Civilisations of the Stone AgeIn his book Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age, Richard Rudgley demolishes in detail the popular view of the sudden beginning of “civilisation”. First he shows that many of the advances associated with historical times were actually products of the Neolithic and then he traces the roots of those Neolithic advances back into the Palaeolithic. In one particularly interesting section, he shows how the Sumerian writing system that came into use in Uruk in about 3100BC was derived from a system of accounting using clay “tokens” in geometric shapes. This token system was in use across the Middle East since the early Neolithic period, ten thousand years ago. What appears as a sudden invention of symbolic representation was actually a change in medium from clay tokens to marks on clay tablets. During a transitional period, the tablets were actually clay “envelopes” whose outsides recorded the tokens stored within. Moving further back in time, Rudgley discusses simple symbolic systems that were used in the Upper Palaeolithic (as much as 30,000 years ago). There are equally interesting sections on the Stone Age origins of mathematics, astronomy, surgery, pyrotechnology (including thermal transformations of flint, and the origins of the use of fire itself), mining (including underground mining of chert 30,000-35,000 years ago in the Nile valley and of ochre as far back as 300,000 years), music and art. Finally, we reach the era of “dawn stones” or eoliths, which may be stone tools but which might also be naturally produced. In the course of this descent into prehistory, he also demonstrates that the supposed “human revolution” in which art and culture originated rather rapidly around 40,000 years ago is as much an artefact of modern biases as the Stone Age to historical transition.

It’s a fascinating and convincing book, but I would have prefered a more synthetic view of human development in place of the deluge of descriptions of archaeological sites. Still, highly recommended: it will probably change your view of prehistory.

i would put in cave drawings

it needs to have inventions from the stone age coz im soooo stuck

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