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Archaeology is Rubbish

Richard Fortey: The Last 20,000 Years

18 December 2003
After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC 
by Steven Mithen.
Weidenfeld, 622 pp., £25, June 2003, 0 297 64318 5
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... over several months tended to ripen together in profusion – or ‘wait for the harvester’, as Steven Mithen says. Crop and cropper were locked in the cycle of the seasons that every farmer still learns from his father and grandfather. The fisherman perfected his harpoons, learned to trade sea shells in exchange for the best obsidian. The network of ...
28 November 1996
The Prehistory of the Mind 
by Steven Mithen.
Thames and Hudson, 288 pp., £16.95, October 1996, 0 500 05081 3
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... has its proprietary metaphors, which are frequently architectural. The mind is like a building (Steven Mithen thinks it’s like a cathedral). Entrance and egress are variously constrained, and so are the paths through the interior. There are public places and private places, and places where the children aren’t allowed to go; and there are places in ...

Are you part Neanderthal?

Steven Mithen: Early Humans

1 December 2011
Origin of Our Species 
by Chris Stringer.
Allen Lane, 333 pp., £20, June 2011, 978 1 84614 140 9
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... 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 with the shape of the pubic ramus (part of the pelvis ...

When We Were Nicer

Steven Mithen: History Seen as Neurochemistry

24 January 2008
On Deep History and the Brain 
by Daniel Lord Smail.
California, 271 pp., £12.95, December 2007, 978 0 520 25289 9
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... psychology that has become popular in recent years: that of Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Steven Pinker and their acolytes, who argue that we still have biologically fixed Stone Age minds constituted by mental models evolved to solve problems of Pleistocene environments, principally those of the African savanna of three million years ago. Smail ...

Foursomes and so on

Steven Mithen: Prehistory of Inequality

11 April 2013
The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire 
by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus.
Harvard, 631 pp., £29.95, May 2012, 978 0 674 06469 0
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... 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 ...

Sharks’ Teeth

Steven Mithen: How old is the Earth?

29 July 2015
Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters 
by Martin Rudwick.
Chicago, 360 pp., £21, October 2014, 978 0 226 20393 5
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... 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, much of which is Precambrian, dating to 1 ...

Why did we start farming?

Steven Mithen: Hunter-Gatherers Were Right

30 November 2017
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States 
by James C. Scott.
Yale, 336 pp., £20, September 2017, 978 0 300 18291 0
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... When​ our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together ...

Neanderthals, Denisovans and Modern Humans

Steven Mithen: Denisovans meet Neanderthals

13 September 2018
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past 
by David Reich.
Oxford, 368 pp., £20, March 2018, 978 0 19 882125 0
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... A scientific​ revolution is underway in the way we investigate and understand the past. The extraction and analysis of ancient DNA from human skeletal remains, the field in which David Reich is a leading researcher, is a technical advance that eclipses the advent of radiocarbon dating in the 1950s, and is already transforming our knowledge, not only of human biological evolution, but also of human history and culture ...

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