Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age

By Farhat-Holzman, Laina | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age


Farhat-Holzman, Laina, Comparative Civilizations Review


Richard Rudgley, Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age. Arrow Books Ltd, 1999.

Having just finished reading this book, I found in the morning newspaper an article about an amazing find in the Ethiopian desert - several hippo bones with indications that the bones had been smashed by a human tool - by homo erectus, our first ancient ancestors. Of course, the anthropological community is up in arms with fierce debate over the interpretation of the discoverers.

Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age was written a decade ago by this British cultural anthropologist with a distinguished trail of scholarship. He won the British Museum Prometheus Award for his book The Alchemy of Culture: Intoxicants in Society (British Museum Press, 1993). He also wrote Wildest Dreams: An Anthology of Drug Related Literature (Little Brown, 1999) and Secrets of the Stone Age (Century, 2000, which has become a TV series (History Channel, I believe). But this book, Lost Civilisations, must be creating even more furor among his more conservative colleagues, but for us as outsiders to the discipline, it is enlightening to learn how contentious ideas can be among specialists.

Rudgley makes the point that "despite the fact that prehistory makes up more than 95 percent of our time on this planet, history, the remaining 5 percent makes up at least 95 percent of most accounts of the human story." He believes that the prehistory of humankind is no mere prelude to history; rather it is history itself.

Anthropologists themselves have had a bad record in this regard, according to Rudgley. The famous early anthropologists (1863 London) had some unsavory skeletons in their closets - and may not have behaved any better than notoriously disrespectful colonialists. Richard Burton, for example, used anthropology to sensationally discuss sexual issues not possible in proper British society (and his proper British wife burned his papers when he died). Others were involved in criminal grave robbing, selling body parts, and one even fashioned a gavel in the form of an African head. How different is this from the making of lampshades from human skin (under the Nazis), he asks?

Rudgley attacks the whole notion of history blooming 5,000 years ago out of a cloud of dust, without antecedents. He also takes on the notion that modern man has evolved and invented astonishing institutions from that point forward. And he questions the notion that all of these innovations made life better for us all. "That the average Stone Age individual may have enjoyed greater freedom than the serf (or even the average citizen of a modern democratic state) is simply ignored in this version of the human story, in which we ascend to ever greater heights and only look back in order to congratulate ourselves on how far we have come."

He examines the most basic sign of any society's success - the health of its members. Anthropologists have found that our hunter/gatherer ancestors had far better health than their agricultural successors. Agriculture was not an improvement for the mass of peasants throughout history - although it certainly helped to make populations explode and those elites at the top flourished with better health. This is one area in which progress was a mixed blessing.

Many historians still regard ancient Egypt as some sort of miracle, arising out of primeval darkness. The more ideological among them believe that there had to be some "outside" influence (the space alien theories) because these people couldn't possibly have invented it. But newer anthropologists (such as Rudgley) see that Egypt's great culture emerged out of impressive indigenous prehistoric cultures - including elaborate tombs, religious motifs, and religious themes.

Writing has always been considered the hallmark of civilization - beginning with the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Mesopotamian writing (which seem to be independent of each other). …

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