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Review of Prehistory: Making of the Human Mind by Colin Renfrew

In Prehistory: The Making of The human Mind, Renfrew presents and

discusses some of the most important narratives concerning human
evolution. He also presents us with his own version of the mechanisms
through which homo sapiens evolved, focusing specifically in the period
ranging from 60,000 years ago to more recent times, 3,000 years ago. Colin
Renfrew is an acknowledged British archaeologist and palaeontologist (link to,_Baron_Renfrew_of_Kaimsthorn).
He has written a number of books on Archaeology and its methods.
As its title makes clear, it is a book about prehistory, a term that is
defined as the 'span of human existence before the availability of those
written records with which recorded history begins' (p.7). However, 'the word
has a second sense. It refers to the discipline through which we study
prehistoric times' (p.7-8). Taking into account these two senses of the term,
the book is structured in two parts. The first sums up the history of
prehistorically archaeology from the [completar] to the discovery of
radiodating carbon. The second part addresses the evolution of human
behavior, specially after the migration of modern humans out of Africa (link
The goal of the book is to pose some questions about the past
concerning the uniquely human capacity to analyze the world and to
express our worldview in symbolic form (p.10).
The first part concerns the development of Archaeology and how it
became a science, and this is the weaker part of the book. The most
interesting thesis are presented in the second part, where the author
exposes his thoughts on human evolution. Renfrews main concern through
the book is to explain what happened after the hominins left the speciation
phase, this is after they became homo sapiens. The author tells us that then,
early homo sapiens entered a tectonic phase, a period when all human
beings had the same genetic endowment and the same capacities. What
needs to be explained is the enormous behavioral development since that
time about 60,000 years ago- when humans could only make some stone
tools to hunt to a much more advanced period of sedentism, agriculture,
even religion [what was called the agricultural revolution, approximately
10,000 thousands years ago.
Renfrew states that if the archaeologists only explanatory resource is
Darwininans natural selection, he/she is faced with the Sapient Paradox:
in the arrival of the new species, Homo sapiens, with its higher level of
cognitive capacity, its new kinds of behavior, its sophisticated use of

language, ints enhanced self-conciousness, was so significant, why did

it it take so long for these really impressive innovations which
accompany agricultural revolution, to come about? [] This is a time
lag of thirty thousand years! [p.89]

To explain this lag, Renfrew characterizes Homo sapiens from this

period as a symbolic species, and one of the main features of human culture
is that is based upon the use of symbols. But he distinguishes between two
kinds of symbols
Mention institutional facts and why they are interesting Explain material
engagement also
To explain the different trajectories of human Renfrew tells us: it was the
shared ideas, concepts, and conventions that developed in those groups
and that became specific to each trajectory of development- that guided
and conditioned further innovations. These shared conventions, the
institutional facts [], shaped the way these groups and individuals
who composed them interacted with one another with the world.
The concept of institutional facts is taken from the philosopher John Searle
and distinguished from brute facts:
Initially symbols were used for things that are evidently there in nature,
like birds or the sun things that the philosopher John Searle would call
brute facts. But symbols can also be used to indicate realities that are
not, in quite this way, facts of nature but rather are what can be termed
social facts.
Another dimension of human evolution that needs to be acknowledged
is material engagement, the way in which Homo sapiens interacted with
their world, the needs they had and how they resolved them. This point was
crucial for humans to learn about their environment, and it helps to explain
innovation in a given culture.
To study this, we need the help of cognitive archaeology, the discipline which
has the past ways of thought as inferred from the surviving material
remains (p. 112) as its subject-matter. [Dos subcampos]
Material engagement.

For starters, I didnt understand why Renfrew thought the reader would
need an introduction to archeaology and the historical development of
prehistory in order to understand the discussions that scientists have around
the very complex issue of our evolution. I do acknowledge that, in order to
weigh scientific evidence, the reader should know what radiocarbon
technique is, or have some background on the way molecular geneticists do
research, etc. But this would be enough to understand the topics discussed
on the second part -which is the most important part of the book. All the
epistemological/metatheoretical discussions are totally uncalled for, in my
view. It is not a big deal, but I think it deviates attention from the main point
of Renfrews work, i.e. a substantive thesis concerning homo sapienss
Another point that weakens the backbone of the book is its broadly
speculative nature. There are only 16 papers cited -with original empirical
findings and most facts mentioned dont have references. This is not to say
that Renfrew didnt do a great job at putting together a lot of diverse
evidence in a clear manner for everyone to understand. Rather, my point is
that it is difficult to assess the claims that he advances: if you dont have the
reference, you just have to take his word for it. This weakens the argument.
The author commits himself to a clear cut between natural selection
and cultural evolution. This is: where homo sapiens appeared, natural
selection stopped having an important role in their evolution and we have to
attend to cultural evolution if we want to explain human development from
that time. Also, before homo sapiens the mechanisms of cultural evolution
did not play such a prominent role. This highlights a discontinuity explained
by the new cognitive machinery homo sapiens came with.
One interesting fact about the book is that, although Renfrew states
that what distinguishes

So, we started in chapter 5 with the sapient paradox where

Uniformity of the symbolic dimension

There is no discussion of alternative thesis of his own, something that

you would expect from a book concerning human evolution. For example, the
material engagement thesis is not contrasted with some others that are -and
were at the moment of the book being published- very popular. One of them
being the Social Intelligence Thesis -as Kim Sterenly labels it in The Evolved
Apprentice. Proponents of this thesis (Peter Godfrey-Smith, to name one)
claim that the main factor that explains why we evolved, is our capacity to
socially interact with each other. Because of this a feedback loop was created
between our social interaction demands/capacities and our cognitive
demands/capacities. All evidence Renfrew presents to us is consistent with
this theses. He even cites Robert Dunbar who is one proponent of the thesis.
A related controversial point is the explanatory pre-eminence of homo
sapiens cognitive capacities over the other dimensions that could explain
evolution. Although the social and practical dimensions are relevant features
of the homo sapiens experience and contribute to explain their evolution,
Renfrew seems to base most of this complexities in cognitive developments.
For example, he states that the necessary matrix for the development of
technological innovations during the increasing engagement with the
material world, is depend upon social relationships that in many cases are
based upon cognitive advances. And in the next paragraph most forms of
engagement between humans and the material world involve also a
cognitive basis. Forms of engagement are dependent upon shared
understanding among humans within a community and again in many
cases [dependent] upon the use of symbols (pp.129-130). Also, there are no
examples where practical or social developments lead to cognitive ones.
One of the drawbacks of this theoretical commitment is their poor
explanatory capacity: we havent explained much if, to every question about
how homo sapiens developed an ability, the answer is because they had the
cognitive capacity to do it. The genuine explanatory question becomes then:
how did they acquire such capacity? This doesnt seem to be taken into
account by Renfrew.

[The uniformity of the symbolic dimension]

For the reasons mentioned above, Im going to give two stars to this one.
Overall, I found Renfrews presentation of the topic very informative for
someone interested in the evolution of the human mind, but his arguments
were too weak to prove his central theses.