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Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture

Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture

Edited by Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley. Pp. xviii + 282, figs. 50, color pls. 24. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009. $29.99. ISBN 978-0-521-73466-0 (paper).

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It can sometimes seem as though a new book on the theme of “becoming human” arrives every week to jostle for attention. Renfrew and Morley’s attractive offering, with some 24 striking color plates and many more black-and-white images, gets off to a strong start, and as I leaf through, it becomes clear that Becoming Human has a different focus from many of its immediate competitors, one on which the subtitle surprisingly fails to capitalize as the unique selling point of this volume—its interest in religion (or supernatural beliefs, or spirituality); wisely, the editors make no attempt to standardize contributors’ terminology. The breadth of not-quite-synonyms for this term that leap off the page as one reads is itself thought-provoking, stimulating the reader to think beyond the religious beliefs and practices of the modern world to imagine other forms and modes of the same impulse to believe in the existence of something beyond the here-and-now.

The introductory chapter by Renfrew gracefully orients the casual reader in space and time and presents all the major themes of the contributions to follow, in the process ascribing to the collection of papers a coherence that can be difficult to perceive as one reads on. Not that the eclecticism of the collection is necessarily a negative point—in fact, the breadth of contributions and perspectives is a saving grace of the book. Individual chapters are short and often necessarily restricted to frustratingly sketchy rough-outs of the contributors’ arguments. Admittedly, the book as a whole is pitched toward a nonspecialist reader, and the editors are to be commended for bringing the volume in at a price point low enough to tempt readers without access to university libraries. But if relatively shallow, the book is certainly compellingly broad—in theoretical approach, at least. While the introductory chapter does a good job of emphasizing the geographically and temporally localized nature of the so-called Upper Paleolithic revolution, most contributions deal primarily, if not exclusively, with the European Upper Paleolithic.

Appropriately, the opening section, “African Origins, European Beginnings, and World Prehistory,” is a little broader in its geographic focus, with Henshilwood’s chapter on the African Middle Stone Age really the only contribution to focus exclusively on non-European material, while Taçon’s contribution makes glancing references to the use of pigments by Homo erectus in Asia and draws in some fascinating data on Australian rock art. By contrast, much of the material employed by Jane Renfrew in her discussion of Neanderthal symbolism suffers from overfamiliarity, but her contribution does provide a nice counterpoint to de Lumley’s paper dealing with the same subject in a more cautious and skeptical view of some of the evidence. Colin Renfrew’s contribution, meanwhile, moves beyond the Upper Paleolithic in the other direction, referring to developments associated with early sedentary and agricultural communities in western Asia. This reader, at least, would have preferred to see this evidence elaborated on to document a rather different trajectory for the development of spiritual beliefs at the expense of the more familiar Upper Paleolithic material that dominates much of the chapter.

By far the most interesting sections of this first part are those dealing with theories of religious belief and the epistemology of their investigation, and it was in the second section, “Approaches to ‘Art and Religion,’” that the book really came to life for me, with a range of well-chosen chapters demonstrating fresh perspectives on art and religion (both in the broadest sense) and the relationship between them. Here, “art” is hallucinatory (Lewis-Williams), effective (as a fiercely competitive means of influencing others’ attention and maintaining coherence of worldviews among larger, more fragmented groups [Donald]), affective and performative (being enacted via ritual and its frequent and undertheorized companion, music [Morley]), and variably materialized (rendering it easily manipulated and transmitted [Mithen]). These chapters draw heavily from the ethnographic record and are all the stronger for it, with d’Errico’s contribution providing a complementary subtle examination of the ways in which archaeological evidence can be interrogated in an appropriately cautious, yet imaginative, manner.

Following from this, section 3, “The European Experience,” suffers a little by comparison. As striking as the evidence is from this region and period, it is perhaps beginning to seem a little stale to many of us. Contributions by Conkey (dealing with the contextuality of Upper Paleolithic art), Clottes (writing about the deposition of small items such as bones and flints in cracks and fissures in cave walls as an attempt to “pierce the veil” separating humans from another world [208]), and Mellars (emphasizing the significance of the environmental context of these developments) are well written and highly readable, but there is nothing really new here to catch the imagination.

The final section, “Reflections on the Ori-gins of Spirituality,” represents an interesting attempt to integrate the perspectives of theologians on the origins of spiritual culture. However, I am not sure the attempt is wholly successful. While both contributions are interesting, in juxtaposition with the other papers they read as rather abstract and insubstantial. Also, both seem to uncritically accept the notion of an Upper Paleolithic revolution as the origin point for behaviorally modern humans (with van Huyssteen explicitly likening the “cultural explosion” to the biblical arrival of a new species created in the image of God [237])—a perspective jarringly at odds with the emphasis placed by many of the earlier papers on the phenomenon as a temporally and geographically restricted materialization of various behaviors, many of which may have considerably older pedigrees. Nevertheless, van Huyssteen’s paper does point to some of the ways in which a more context-dependent, less meaning-oriented phase in the archaeological investigation of such numinous phenomena as art and religion might make interdisciplinary debate easier and more productive. Such investigation focuses on how prehistoric peoples created meaning through their artistic and religious activities instead of trying to reconstruct those specific meanings themselves—all too often relying heavily on projections of current attitudes toward art and religion into the past. The final contribution, by Ward, presents interesting observations on prescribed—and proscribed—forms of material interactions relating to different kinds of religions, on which additional elaboration would have been welcome.

Overall, Becoming Human is highly readable. Its weakness is in its rather narrow geographical and temporal focus on the well-trodden ground of the European Upper Paleolithic. The book is at its best when it ventures beyond this, and in these instances, the brevity of the contributions is frustrating. The strengths of the book are in the contrasting breadth of theoretical approaches represented. A cynic might see this as a little unfocused, but I found much to admire in its “catholicism.” Given how central beliefs and supernatural worldviews are to all modern human societies, and not at all to those of our nearest living primate relatives, it often seems surprising that so little attempt is made in archaeology to investigate the appearance of these beliefs. The eclecticism of contributions and perspectives represented here is perhaps an accurate reflection of the early stages of any scientific endeavor. The optimism and excitement of many of the contributions bode well for future work in the field.

Fiona Coward
Department of Geography
University of London
Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX
United Kingdom

Book Review of Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture, edited by Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley

Reviewed by Fiona Coward

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 4 (October 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1144.Coward

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