Steven Mithen

Steven Mithen teaches at Reading.

Sometimes the surprise is in discovering just how much we don’t know. In 2008 a bone from a child’s little finger was found in Denisova Cave in the Atlai Mountains of Siberia. Few other bones were found and it was therefore unclear whether the finger bone came from a modern human or from a Neanderthal; what’s more, the deposits were mixed up, and it wasn’t clear how, or if, the bones were associated with the stone artefacts also found in the cave. In the days before DNA analysis, Denisova Cave would have been just another archaeological site, with little new to tell us. But in the event part of the finger bone was sent to Svante Pääbo’s laboratory, and our knowledge of human evolution changed for ever.

The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment?

Sharks’ Teeth: How old is the Earth?

Steven Mithen, 30 July 2015

I chose​ the perfect place to read Martin Rudwick’s book: the Isle of Islay, off the coast of Western Scotland. The archaeology of Islay is a long-standing interest of mine, especially the earliest traces of human settlement, which my excavations suggest took place 12,000 years ago or very soon afterwards. That’s nothing compared to the age of the bedrock of the island,...

By the time I’d read no more than a third of The Creation of Inequality I would have willingly knelt before the authors to touch my nose against their knees and announce: ‘I eat your excrement ten times.’ That’s how commoners on the Polynesian island of Tikopia in 1929 would have addressed their chiefs, as originally documented by the anthropologist Raymond Firth....

Are you part Neanderthal? Early Humans

Steven Mithen, 1 December 2011

Lucky Chris Stringer, to have spent the last forty years immersed in new discoveries about the origin of our species. I don’t suppose that when he began his PhD research in 1970, setting off on a tour around the museums of Europe to measure as many skulls as he could get his hands on, he imagined that today he would need to be as conversant with mutations on the Y chromosome as he is...

Students of history will in future need to know the names of a new set of impersonal actors: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin

Give me that juicy bit over there

Jerry Fodor, 6 October 2005

I’m in a pout about this book; I’m conflicted. On the one hand, there are several respects in which it seems to me to be very good. Mithen knows a great deal and he writes well by the...

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Archaeology is Rubbish: The Last 20,000 Years

Richard Fortey, 18 December 2003

An excavation made in 1975, behind the town of Vedbaek in Denmark, revealed the body of a tiny child laid to rest in the embrace of a swan’s wing. Next to the skeleton was the grave of the...

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It’s the thought that counts

Jerry Fodor, 28 November 1996

What’s your favourite metaphor for minds? If you’re an empiricist, or an associationist, or a connectionist, you probably favour webs, networks, switchboards, or the sort of urban...

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