Books about prehistory
June 12, 2006 11:06 PM   Subscribe

What's your favorite book about human prehistory?

I'm looking for good book providing a general overview of human prehistory. I'm most interested in walking away with a general understanding cultural and/or technological developments and where they happened in time. Is there an engaging, informative choice that "ties it all together", similar to the way Boorstin deals with history?
posted by jgee to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Guns, Germs, and Steel. Good book.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:24 PM on June 12, 2006


Derek Bickerton's *Language and Species.* Until you understand the emergence of language, the rest makes no sense.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:58 PM on June 12, 2006


I second the Jared Diamond recommendation. Having thouroughly enjoyed both Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, I'm now into his earlier The Third Chimpanzee : The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal , which may be even more directly along the lines of what you're looking for.
posted by trip and a half at 11:58 PM on June 12, 2006


You want to go a bit abstract, check out The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes...

I would agree with its critics in its lack of verifiable data, but it makes for an extremely thought provoking read.
posted by 0bvious at 1:17 AM on June 13, 2006 [1 favorite]


After the Ice : A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC - by Steven Mithen
posted by megatherium at 3:57 AM on June 13, 2006


At least in part: Ghosts of Vesuvius.
posted by mykescipark at 4:25 AM on June 13, 2006


Jared Diamond's work, as mentioned, is a good direction. If you need crazy mad detail, I would recommend The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins.
posted by deceptiv at 4:56 AM on June 13, 2006


Easy question: Genesis. Answers everything.
posted by herc at 7:06 AM on June 13, 2006 [2 favorites]


I second what Obvious said. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes is a great book. I've been rereading it for decades. Lots of good jumping off points. You might also try volume one of Joseph Campbell's Masks of God, for the cultural background.
posted by RussHy at 7:38 AM on June 13, 2006


I'm reading The Ancestor's Tale now, and I second deceptiv's suggestion, although I might read some of Dawkins' lighter works on evolution before this one.

I found Guns, Germs and Steel to be all over the place. The author couldn't decide whether he was trying to write descriptively or persuasively, and when I was done I had the same sort of idea of what he was getting at that I had when I read the title. It's still a decent read, but it's not earth-shattering research or particularly excellent writing and it's a long read.
posted by mendel at 7:50 AM on June 13, 2006


A prof once assigned me Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From, Where We Are Going by Marvin Harris and it was completely fantastic. Very engaging and informative. I think it's a great book to balance/enjoy with Guns, Germs, and Steel because it goes into a much greater detail about our biological prehistory than GG+S does.
posted by baphomet at 8:28 AM on June 13, 2006


Another recommendation for Diamond. (I can't believe that crackpot Jaynes book is still selling—I thought it would die with its silly decade, the '70s.)
posted by languagehat at 10:36 AM on June 13, 2006


The Fossil Trail is pretty neat. It discusses human evolution in the order that we've figured it out... it's kind of an intro to human evolution and a history of the study of evolution rapped up together. It's pretty engaging, and you get a real sense of the way that individual people and their interests shape the things we know.

I have mixed feelings about Diamond. He writes very accessibly and engagingly, but I find that students who use him often have misconceptions about important things. I wouldn't recommend him if you are only planning on reading one book.
posted by carmen at 12:15 PM on June 13, 2006


You want to go a bit abstract, check out The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes...

I would agree with its critics in its lack of verifiable data, but it makes for an extremely thought provoking read.


While you're reading speculative 'anthropology' featuring a bunch of made up 'data' why not check out Rianne Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade? Probably complete bunk, but definitely interesting, and as a bonus, gets whole sections ripped off for Daniel Quinn's highly overrated "Ishmael".
posted by norm at 12:48 PM on June 13, 2006


Little late to the game, but had to jump in with two by Carl Sagan:The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, although I'm not entirely sure if either will give you the whole picture, just some ideas about the development of human society from primate roots, and the formation of sentience.

For that reason, I wholly second Our Kind, as it really began my love of anthropology.
posted by nelleish at 7:52 PM on June 17, 2006


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