Brian Fagan reviews Robert L Kelly’s new book to discover ‘what six million years of human history can tell us about our future’.
Robert Kelly is an eminent North American archaeologist and an accomplished author. He modestly calls himself a ‘dirt archaeologist’, but his learning is formidable and his perspective truly global. The Fifth Beginning is an unillustrated distillation of his thinking about the human past, and what archaeology can tell us about the future. He writes of four important turning points in the 6 million years of our past. The first was the emergence of technology, the second the development of culture, the third and fourth the transformations of human society by agriculture and the state. Kelly stresses just how unique archaeologists are in their ability to look at our history over the long term. His central arguments are based on this perspective – the notion that each turning point was a process from which there was no turning back. Each transformed society, starting from the moment when an African hominin picked up a stone and fractured it over 3 million years ago. The second major turning point came some time after 200,000 years ago, when the symbolic construction of the world, our unique capacity for culture, came onstream. Cooperation, religion, symbols, fluent speech – the cognitive skills of Homo sapiens were behind this turning point, which is still little understood.
The third turning point is agriculture and animal domestication, which developed around 10,000 BC. Sedentary communities, farming, and competitive feasting were but a few of the innovations. This was the moment when culture change accelerated, when human populations increased dramatically. The past 10,000 years have witnessed more change than the 6 million that preceded them.
The fourth turning point came a few thousand years later, with the city and the state, writing, and rapid architectural change. Then there was warfare – very much a phenomenon of the state. Each of these four turning points marked a dramatic change in how people related to one another. This is the moment at which Kelly turns away from the relatively familiar tapestry of world prehistory and poses the question of questions. ‘Are we at the end of history?’ he asks. Are things now the way they will always be? He argues that that ancient societies usually assumed that human existence would be unchanged. We face a totally different future.
Kelly argues that the starting point of the Fifth Beginning was about AD 1500, the beginning of European expansion, followed by
the Industrial Revolution, capitalism, and globalisation. From the archaeological perspective, these centuries were a period of radical change. He focuses not on technological innovations, although they’re a given, but on changes in how people relate to one another, on new ways to organise ourselves.
We often think the problems facing humanity – such as poverty, racism, climate change, and religious extremism – are insurmountable. But an archaeological perspective on the past and human evolution reminds us that just because things are one way today, does not mean they will be the same tomorrow. The arc of history is long, remarks Kelly, but bends toward unity. This makes the notion of a future world government a strong possibility
The Fifth Beginning is different from earlier tipping points because we humans now have the capacity to change the world. None of our forebears had the ability we do – to destroy the world and perhaps to create it. This is why we need to devise new ways to organise ourselves, that release the best in us and restrain the worst. This, says Kelly, is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. We have history to educate us in ways that no Egyptian pharaoh or Maya lord could ever imagine. They assumed the world would stay the same in perpetuity. We know better, that nothing lasts forever – whether a powerful state, social inequality, or dependence on fossil fuels.
Kelly expects the process of evolution to enhance altruism and cooperation, to help forge alliances and competition. His archaeological perspective leads him to expect that the evolutionary process will encourage more such relationships. The result: an economic, social, and political order based more on cooperation than competition. Are we going to use our capabilities and knowledge to play a trick on evolution, to take charge of our future, and achieve the Fifth Beginning – or not? His last sentence lays out the challenge: ‘For the first time, human evolution could be, should be, must be up to us.’
This closely argued and beautifully written book is a brilliant statement as to why archaeology, and an archaeological perspective, are of central importance in today’s world. The past will not predict the future, but it provides us, for the first time, with a 6-million-year perspective on the human experience. That, surely, is an invaluable tool for future generations as they grapple with the world’s fundamental problems. The Fifth Beginning is not only eloquent and entertaining – some of the examples from pop culture and the author’s own experience are deliciously and unexpectedly relevant to the narrative – it is a work born of a broad and deep understanding of human prehistory that is rare in today’s highly specialised archaeological world.
The author’s clear thinking cuts through complex issues like a razor and passes effortlessly from hunter-gatherers (his particular expertise) to pharaohs, Roman emperors, and more recent history. This important book with its multidisciplinary perspective results from an eminent archaeologist’s lifetime of fieldwork and teaching, and talking to wider audiences. It is a distillation of his experience, of his thinking about why archaeology is important to today’s global society. It is a cliché these days to remark that a book belongs on everyone’s bookshelves, but in this case it is the truth. Everyone interested in the past and the future will find this a wonderful starting point for their thinking. Above all, it talks about archaeology in fluent and jargon-free language that will appeal to a very broad audience indeed. This isn’t a book about the romance of archaeology or spectacular discoveries. It is, quite simply, the best essay on archaeology I’ve ever read. I hope it becomes a classic.