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1 February 2008 Solving the “Sapient Paradox”
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The origin of humankind continues to be one of the most difficult and intriguing uncertainties in the field of science. Discoveries of fossils, notably in Africa, and the development of DNA studies situate the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa more than 150,000 years ago, and the dispersal of our species out of Africa about 60,000 years ago. But when and how did the behaviors that we associate with modern humankind emerge? And in particular, if the genotype was established 60,000 years ago or earlier, why did it take the new behaviors that accompanied the sedentary revolution of some 10,000 years ago so long to develop?

These are some of the questions tackled by Clive Gamble, professor of geography—but primarily an archaeologist—at Royal Holloway University of London, in Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory. He is one of the most original of current specialists in the early human past, and the author of Timewalkers: The Prehistory of Global Colonization and of The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. His new book is particularly refreshing because it is not just a review of the hard evidence (hominid fossils and stone tools) that forms the undeniable basis of our knowledge. Rather, it questions the assumptions and the preconceptions that inevitably color perceptions of our own early past. It introduces the fresh argument, sometimes called the “sapient paradox,” that some of the complex behaviors now associated with humans took a long time to develop even after the emergence in Africa of humans who were fully modern in the anatomical and genetic senses. This is difficult territory, because archaeologists have not reached consensus about when language first arose or when self-consciousness developed.

Gamble first reviews the well-established concepts of the “Neolithic Revolution” (associated with the origin of farming) and the “Human Revolution,” involving the appearance of our own species with some of the behaviors (new lithic industries, bone and antler tools, new social relations) that can be detected in the archaeological record from that time. He makes an excellent case that the term “revolution” is not a helpful one, and that we should find new ways of examining and discussing the underlying processes at work. He also critically examines the alleged significance of the origins of sedentism: that is, the first permanent village communities sustained by the new practice of agriculture. He accepts that this change was one of profound significance, even if it happened too gradually to be dubbed a revolution.

Gamble's approach is to undertake a thorough examination of the notion of personal identity and of the material basis for identity, during what he terms the “long introduction” to modernity (up to 100,000 years ago). He then surveys the “common ground” (100,000 to 20,000 years ago) and the “short answer” (20,000 to 5000 years ago). Gamble begins his analysis with the human body, and moves to the instruments with which humans, using that body in intelligent ways, have come to shape the world. Finally, he focuses on the containers—clothes, boats, houses—that humans have fabricated, allowing the creation of new social worlds. Throughout this analysis, he draws expertly on the evidence of the archaeological record, revisiting the archaeological sites—first in Africa, then in Europe and the Near East—that are most relevant to the story, as he traces it, from 3 million to 10,000 years ago.

Many parts of Origins and Revolutions make the reader think, and fresh thought is required when dealing with what is, as I said at the outset, a difficult topic. Yes, the evidence is still fairly sparse. But the main difficulty is trying to think in fresh ways about the human past and to structure a new vocabulary that progresses beyond the notions of earlier generations, with their ready-made “revolutions”.

Chapter 5, “The Accumulation and Enchainment of Identity,” is one of the most demanding. Gamble's emphasis on “fragmentation” and social “enchainment”—the results of exchanging or transporting materials through space—may come as a surprise to some readers. Yet he develops ideas here that will prove influential, and that are essential if archaeology is to transcend the stones and the bones of the material record and grasp some of the underlying social realities. In the final chapter Gamble asks, “Did agriculture really change the world?” And the conclusion is that “agriculture, or more precisely sedentary communal living, really did change the world” (p. 209). But there is much more to it than that. Throughout the book, Gamble stresses the rather neglected field (in this context) of children, of how children are reared, and of what he calls the “childscape.” There are many insights offered here that will lead, productively, to developments in our thinking about human origins.

Origins and Revolutions, which is readable and satisfyingly documented, suffers from one significant defect. In his treatment of early sedentism (and agriculture), Gamble restricts his study to the Near East (including Anatolia), which was indeed one of the earliest focal centers for sedentism and plant (and animal) domestication. But his generalizations would be more powerful if they had been applied to (and tested by) the evidence from other such centers, including those of China, Mesoamerica, and South America. Admittedly, it is a formidable task to become familiar with the “formative” periods before full agricultural life in each of those areas, but their omission denies the reader the opportunity to see Gamble's persuasive ideas tested and exemplified again in those other early theaters of human development. Nonetheless, that omission does not detract from what Gamble has achieved in this thoughtful and refreshing book. This is a challenging and well-informed analysis by a leading scholar on the formation of early human identities and societies. It suggests promising paths for further study, and it will be read with profit by anyone who wants to understand how we have come to be as we are.

Colin Renfrew "Solving the “Sapient Paradox”," BioScience 58(2), 171-172, (1 February 2008).
Published: 1 February 2008

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