[Marxism] Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory (book review)

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Wed Aug 15 14:54:52 MDT 2007

A review of a new book, touching on the origins of symbols, language,
tools, farming, and "origins". seems of general interest and i think you
need a subscription, so here it is in full.

will i ever get arrested for this kind of forwarding?????


Nature 448, 752-753 (16 August 2007) | Published online 15 August 2007

Robert N. Proctor

BOOK REVIEWED-Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest
Prehistory by Clive Gamble; Cambridge University Press: 2007. 362 pp.
$80, £45 (hbk); $27.99, £15 (pbk)

Material metaphors

Research into human origins can be thought of as a kind of identity
quest. We want to know how 'they' became 'us', which raises all kinds of
questions about what it means to be human. To stand upright? To paint
the walls of caves or to fashion beads from bone? Or to plant the land
and build cities with slave labour? Or perhaps to engage in none of the
above, but simply to have that capacity?

Questions such as these do not have obvious answers, nor are they really
even empirical. Evolution stretches out the process of anthropogenesis.
Once we jettison teleology and discontinuity, it doesn't mean much to
say when hominins became 'truly human', any more than to say when
aardvarks became truly aardvark. Nor can it even mean much to talk about
the 'earliest' humans, or prehistory, as everything will depend on what
we want to identify as the important transitions.

Upright posture, for example, appeared by about 4 million years ago, but
tool making must be much older, albeit invisible as a result of
accidents of preservation. The oldest known wooden tools, the famous
spears from Schöningen in Germany, date from only 400,000 years ago.
Symbolic burial and bead making are younger still, perhaps by an order
of magnitude.

Clive Gamble's new book, Origins and Revolutions, challenges our current
obsession with language and farming as the two principal 'big breaks' in
deep antiquity, dating from around 40,000 and 10,000 years ago,
respectively. His intention is to avoid all talk of origins, exploring
instead what he calls the "material basis of human identity", by which
he means how artefacts as extensions of the human body acquire a
symbolic force of their own.

He divides the material world into "instruments" and "containers". Here
instruments include all edges, blades and points, as well as pestles,
ploughs, drills, axes, brushes, writing implements and wheels.
Containers include anything that houses or envelops, whether in the form
of bowls, barns, bags, caves, clothes, moulds, masks or tombs. Gamble's
point is that both are extensions of the human body: instruments extend
our limbs; containers extend our trunk. Instruments generally inscribe;
containers are more often inscribed upon.

Classifying material culture in this way allows Gamble to question the
novelty of both the Neolithic and the Upper Palaeolithic transitions. He
argues instead for a more gradual shift over millions of years of
hominin evolution, from a life centred around instruments to a life more
prominently incorporating containers. Farming, then, is not such a
radical innovation. There is no 'sapient paradox' — Colin Renfrew's
puzzle over why it took so long to discover agriculture and the virtues
of a sedentary life. Symbolism was not suddenly invented when modern
humans decided to quit Africa and start painting in southern France.
(Paradox seekers might well wonder why the 'modern mind' seems to appear
100,000 years after the 'modern body'.) Instruments and containers
always reference the human body, and in this sense carry symbolic force.
This means that symbolism does not necessarily have a singular point of
origin, whether 40,000 years ago with the 'human revolution' or at any
other magical moment.

Palaeoanthropology has become an exciting field in recent years, partly
because some really big questions remain wonderfully unanswered. No one
really knows whether Neanderthals could speak or think like us, for
example, or what it might have been like to live among our Homo erectus
next-of-kin or the newly discovered Homo floresiensis. In the 1960s and
1970s, language, art and symbolism were projected onto ever-older
hominin fossils. Now the trend is to (re-) dehumanize early palaeolithic
hominins — hence the darkening of the whites of their eyes in recent
museum displays.

Gamble's refocus on instruments and containers is a refreshing break
from archaeological convention. But how far back can we go before such
proxies for the hominin body cease to have symbolic force? Birds' nests
are containers, so when do the hominin counterparts start to signify
something more to their makers? When do the instruments of early
hominins start to serve as material metaphors? How would we ever know
whether, say, the invention of symbolism wasn't rather sudden, even from
a geological point of view? How would we ever know whether a light went
on in some hominin head (or gene), causing language to spring into being?

Gamble shows that the rate of invention grows slowly over the long haul
of human evolution, and reminds us that absence of evidence is not
evidence of absence. But how long should we search the Middle
Palaeolithic for painted caves or sculpted figurines before concluding
that none was ever done, and not for lack of interest, but for lack of
capacity? For many years, geologists were reluctant to recognize
catastrophes, postulating 'missing strata' to account for apparent
jumps. The rehabilitation of catastrophes over the past few decades owes
much to a renewed appreciation that absence of evidence can be evidence
of an absence. I think it is fair to ask whether the situation might not
be similar for palaeoanthropology.

Origins and Revolutions is an effervescent read that skillfully
challenges many of the sacred cows of archaeology. It is rich and deep
in the philosophical acumen and attention to social theory for which
Gamble is known. He also writes with an admirable sense of humour and
irony; he knows how to join humanistic flair with empirical rigour at
the dig.

I think he is right that our bodies are a kind of social technology, and
that artefacts should be regarded as embodied metaphors. The question
then arises of how to understand changes in interactions between
artefacts, with the invention of compound tools. Following Gamble,
compound artefacts might well be thought of as material metaphors for
language. They help make metaphors, and in this sense language, possible.

Compound artefacts open up a near-infinite recombination of uses, just
as language allows a near-infinite recombination of words. If there's
any truth to the idea that language and composite tools arose together,
surely we can ask how big or how sudden must such a change have been to
constitute a revolution. As Gamble himself asks, when challenging
stone-flaking taxonomies: "At what moment does eating produce the core
of an apple"?

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