Patterns in Prehistory by Robert J Wenke is a wonderful book. I started reading it to find descriptions of earlier cultures as part of the research for a novel I’m writing, and I was not disappointed. It’s a masterpiece in explaining and exploring the development of human beings as they adapt to the environment, and what particular stages of development mean in terms of cultural practice, agriculture, population growth, and much more.
Wenke starts the book by asking the question “what is culture?”, among other things, and the answers are challenging. Wenke’s approach to the whole book is revealed in that first chapter. He is not there to promulgate his own definite theory of human development, but to do a survey across numerous experts in archaeology, palaeo-anthropology, palaeontology and much more besides. The breadth and detail and the sheer level of research is deeply impressive.
There are surprises along the way. One of the answers to that question about culture is to define it as a means of using energy more efficiently. That is: that when you learn how to do something (make pots, grow crops, build spaceships, etc), the next generation isn’t then forced to discover it again. They are taught how to do what the previous generation learned through culture. “On the shoulders of giants…” etc. That’s only one definition, but it shows you how you’re going to have to think around things and entertain fresh perspectives.
The first part of the book is dedicated to the fossil record of the earliest hominids, right back to australopithecus and earlier, then reconstructs the life of early humans through the findings of experts. This is not a speculative psychological book – it tells you what evidence has been found and what that points to. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely gripping to see human traits begin to reveal themselves early on, and to follow the development of a recognisable human life even among early hominid primates by studying the fossil record.
The survey is of the whole world, with Wenke looking at whatever archaeological evidence is available and comparing how different humans developed in Africa, China, Indonesia, Europe, the Americas and so on. This is the format for each section of the book.
So it is that we follow human development through Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens Neanderthelensis to Homo Sapiens Sapiens. It’s not a straight line, though, as Wenke makes clear. There are overlaps in the species coexisting at times, with some interbreeding, or huge gaps in the fossil record. Yet there are startling moments when a completely different species shows itself to be recognisably like us. It’s brilliant.
Thus we go on through the development of hunter-gatherer cultures, fisherfolk and others of the Pliocene and Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, until suddenly, maybe 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, there’s a step-change in culture as the great civilizations arise. Sumeria, Babylonia, Egypt, China – all apparently reliant on the new invention of agriculture which appears to have happened spontaneously across the world, leading to a rise in population and technology – and the building (in most cases) of massive monumental architecture. Or so one might think… but what is interesting is that the monumental architecture and rise in population occurs just before the agricultural innovations begin to show in the archaeological record… That, in itself, is a puzzle!
What’s also strange to contemplate is how humans took literally millions of years to get to that point, but from there to the modern day was only a few thousand years. It’s giddying to consider how the gallop of cultural development accelerated so fast in that brief time, that we are now able to destroy the world with the technology of our cultural “advances”. It’s quite a thought: that nuclear weapons are in the hands of people not so different in outlook and potentials from those who knapped stones in the Middle East and created the cultures of the New Stone Age.
This extraordinary book invites you to contemplate the roots of our humanity, to ask how the world we live in now grew from the minds of humans and pre-humans at the very dawn of consciousness – and sheds light on the very nature of being. Highly recommended.