©2009 Colin Renfrew; (P)2009 Recorded Books, LLC
Renfrew covers many topics and references the important people in the field of archaeology. I only wish Audible would feature more books of this caliber. I am very frustrated that so few books are available on this topic. The content of this book is dense and I have listened to it several times. I was so delighted to see a serious non-fiction book offered on Audible and I don't agree with the other reviewers that this book was unsuitable for audio. Apparently the other listeners were expecting lite fare such as the Idiot's Guide to Archaeology or some pop fluff a la Graham Hancock. If you seriously interested in an overview of the field, this book is for you.
This is a well researched and well buttressed discussion of what a respected specialist in his field sees as current fact in the field of human past, before the advent of what we commonly refer to as "history" (written records). He spends some considerable effort documenting how we have come to know what we do, that is, the scientific basis for what we believe we know. To compare this work to many others on the same subject, for example Wade's "Dawn of Human History", makes the latter seem like an oversimplified introduction to the subject for an adolescent. The latter is a an entertaining listen, but it stimulates more questions than it provides answers, as it jumps from seemingly scientific premises to fanciful conclusions that are clearly based on modern biases or wishful thinking. Renfrew's work suffers from the expected occasional "dryness" any scholarly work can have for the nonspecialist. But for the enthusiast who wants to know more, without having to do the original research myself, the work of listening is worth it. I am a physician, not an archeologist; but if I can discover a bit about what and who we humans are, and how came to be us, maybe I can help my patients with some of the vast weight of medical problems that plague us today; most of which are 'lifestyle" diseases (with an underlayment of genetic predisposition). The seeds of these medical problems seem to have been sown in our distant past; and maybe some of the answers will come from the study. More power to any specialist in any field who tries to elucidate the science for the rest of us who are hungry for knowledge.
I don't understand why other commenters have criticized this book as "dry," "boring," and "too academic," or found the narration "droning" or soporific. Stonehenge boring? An up-to-date (well, 2009 anyway) analysis of how it was constructed, as well as its likely purpose and meaning to the Neolithic community that built it, presented by an expert in the field?
How about a re-evaluation of the stunning cave paintings at Lascaux, and elsewhere in France, Spain, Italy, and a narrow band eastward through the Balkans to Siberia as a "localized" event that doesn't mark a new stage in human cultural evolution because it wasn't universal enough (like the development of farming that's generally accepted as marking the shift from Paleolithic to Neolithic, and which took place on a near-global basis)? And the theory that archaeologists have attached more significance to these cave paintings than was warranted simply because they were discovered early and were rendered with artistic sophistication?
I thought the book was perfectly pitched for a college-educated layperson, and that if it would be "boring" for anyone, it would be for another archaeologist, or even a grad student or upperclassman majoring in archaeology. I appreciated having my memory refreshed on the details of carbon dating, but I'm sure anyone specializing in the field would've skipped over that part as too basic.
My only suggestions are (1) Renfrew should write an update in a new Foreword or Preface incorporating the current debate relating to whether DNA analysis shows (as asserted by Svante Paabo and his team) that all modern-day humans except for sub-Saharan Africans carry small percentages of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in their genomes, (2) Renfrew should reconsider the global breadth of the book, which I think stretches him and the material too thin, and focus instead on Europe, the Middle East and Mesoamerica (which appear to be his areas of greatest expertise), while leaving South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Far East for others, or a later companion book, and (3) audible should include a pdf booklet containing the tables, charts, maps and/or any other graphic information that audio narration fails to cover. Otherwise, it shouldn't call this an "unabridged" edition.
As for the narration, if was nicely modulated across both pitch and emotion. If you enjoyed listening to someone like Alistair Cooke introducing Masterpiece Theatre, and don't harbor any vague political objections to Brits speaking with Received Pronunciation, then I think you'll enjoy Robert Ian MacKenzie's narration as well. I found it pretty much transparent, which is how I like my narrations (translations, too, and for that matter writing itself). A good narrator lets the text speak for itself, and doesn't gum it up by over-dramaticizing or chewing the scenery, just as the best writers (fiction or nonfiction) communicate ideas as succinctly and simply as possible, without gumming up the works with florid prose, "style" or jargon.
Overall, as a layperson who wanted to research prehistoric Britain for a project I'm working on, I learned a lot of fascinating stuff in an extremely easy and pleasant manner. The book made an excellent traveling companion on long drives, making the time pass quickly -- same with doing everything from running to stuffing the dishwasher. I'll look for other books by Colin Renfrew, and would be pleased to read anything Robert Ian MacKenzie has narrated.
Letting the rest of the world go by
The author gives a very dry text book like presentation of the topic. The book is really mostly about the archeology of the mind. A topic I find exciting. The book is not for everyone except for those with an interest in early man out of Africa and his mental development. If your not bothered by statements like understanding symbols make us human and 'X signifies Y in the context of C', you'll probably find the book interesting too.
I didn't like the narration and would suggest to speed it up to 1.25. Also, I didn't like the dry presentation of the topic.
I did like the topic and feel comfortable giving it a higher overall rating than the weighted average of the sum of its parts. I would only recommend this book for people who really like the topic.
Old & fat, but strong; American, Chinese, & Indian (sort of); Ph.D. in C.S.; strategy, economics & stability theory; trees & machining.
If you've ever listened to Dennis Miller tell a joke and realized that you had no idea what he was referencing, but fount the joke mildly funny anyway, because you sort of imagined your own facts in place of the obscure reference, that is exactly what reading this book feel like. For example he has a very insightful critique of Richard Dawkins' Meme theory, without ever, even superficially, explaining what Richard Dawkins wrote about Memes, or even what a Meme is. I happened to have read Richard Dawkins, so I got that one, but most of the references I didn't get.
Googling the author strongly suggests that he is a top researcher in the field, so the impression that he's talking to other top researchers in his field, about what they should do differently in the future, may be somewhat accurate.
I think his point is something like we have assumed too much determinism in our understanding of the evolution of culture. Because specific events caused specific changes in specific instances, doesn't imply that this specific course of evolution is necessary or even probable. He seems to be advocating the need for better causal models of the interactions between ideas and cultural changes. But I have no idea how to understand the cause and affect relationship between ideas and cultural evolution in a pre-historic context. It seems that you lack direct evidence of the ideas and large statistical samples that might be used to infer the influence of specific ideas. But I don't have a Ph.D. in pre-history; maybe it's obvious if you do.
I would have enjoyed examples of successes at understanding the influence of ideas on pre-historical evolution.
I was very happy to find this a properly academic text, and not just a work of popular science. Having listened to The Great Courses on similar subjects this was the perfect deeper level I was looking for. I am going to get this book in print as well, and might even use it in my PhD dissertation.
What is known about what happened before we had writing?
The sources and credibility that knowledge are well discussed in this book.
Colin Renfrew is highly respected and this book pulls together a wide variety of recent research in a comprehensive whole. However, it is too detailed for most listeners. "Before the Dawn" is much better.
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