Prior to the Nineteenth Century, prehistory did not exist. Renfrew starts this surprising story of prehistoric archeology by informing us that only two hundred years ago, there was no notion that the human past involved tens of thousands [perhaps hundreds of thousands] of years of development and change.”
Even now many do not accept this information. The idea of prehistory only developed when it was realized that written historical texts were not the only possible source of information about our past. Renfrew’s review documents the discovery and debates of the findings and interpretations of geology and biological observations.
John Frer, in 1797, discovered stone tools under twelve feet of earth, and wrote that we are on the brink of a new paradigm “beyond that of the present world.” In 1833, while America was preoccupied with socio-economic and political issues, Sir Charles Lyell published: “Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of he Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation.” This awakening was accompanied by observations of plants and animals which culminated with the presentation of one of the greatest epiphanies in human history , published by Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”. In 1871 while the U.S. was recovering from the turmoil of our Civil War, Darwin followed with the publication of “The Descent of Man”.
Another milestone in the study of prehistory, occurred as recently as 1947 when American chemist Willard Libby established radiocarbon dating. Libby realized, by measuring the proportion of carbon-14 (half-life: 5730 years) against that of carbon-12, he could determine the time elapsed since the death of the plant or animal being tested. This allowed dating of things which had lived as much as fifty-thousand years ago.
Renfrew presents a comprehensive, documented review of the important findings, observations and interpretations relevant to our deep history which is hundreds of thousands of years older than we thought when our grandparents were young.
Prehistory, The Making of the Modern Mind, Colin Renfrew, Modern Library Book, New York 2007
1. This is a revision of my previously published review of this book.