The Evolutionary Uses of Imagination

I have just published a post on fifteeneightyfour, the blog of Cambridge University Press. Here is a taster. You can read the remainder via the link at the bottom.

Why are we so imaginative? What possible use is there in passing through the looking-glass with Alice or supposing that the moon is inhabited by creatures with aerials growing out of their heads? These are some of the wilder flights of our imagination and not shared by everyone. But doesn’t all this fantasy complicate our lives unnecessarily? Isn’t life difficult enough without keeping track of all the characters in Game of Thrones? Wouldn’t we be better off as cold rational creatures – a world of bean counters rather than hedge fund managers? But without this capacity to take the metaphorical plunge or make the leap into the unknown, we wouldn’t be human, we wouldn’t have a shared past and, I suspect as well, that we wouldn’t be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the earth.

See more on fifteeneightyfour

Charting celebrity

I have been discovering how Google NGRAM can answer all sorts of niggling questions about fame, celebrity and novelty . What it does is search the 5 million books that have been digitised between 1500 and 2000. This adds up to about 4 per cent of all the books published and a staggering 500 billion words. By any standards this is a big sample. NGRAM searches for the words you choose and plots them by the number of times they are found in a year against the total number of words in that year. As a way of picking up broad trends it’s difficult to beat.

Some examples. I have always been bugged by the arrival of that unlovely phrase ‘anatomically modern human’ to describe ancestors who looked like us, who had our genes but for reasons best known to themselves declined to behave like us. Or at least that’s the argument put forward by many who see a great deal of significance in the appearance of art and musical instruments late in the human story. NGRAM nails its appearance nicely to the late 1970s when the idea of a recent human revolution started to gain traction and wider ideas of post-war modernity were rampant.

ngram - anatomically modern human

Then what about a longer perspective? When did we stop calling ourselves antiquaries and become archaeologists? NGRAM shows two things. The switch occurred in the interwar years as university departments and professional archaeology got established. But it also shows that ‘archaeologist’ has never enjoyed the year on year popularity of ‘antiquary’. Perhaps time for a celebrity makeover?


Finally, you can search for famous people. I’m writing a lecture for the Royal Anthropological Institute at the moment (September 20th at the British Museum if you can come). John Lubbock was our first President in 1871 and he died a hundred years ago. In 1865 he published Pre-historic times. In the same year E.B.Tylor published his Researches into the early history of mankind and the development of civilization. Two giants of nineteenth century archaeology and anthropology; although the NGRAM above suggests they would not have called themselves that and, anyway, Lubbock loathed the term anthropology.


Both show a peak in popularity with Lubbock easily winning the battle of NGRAM fame six years after their books appeared; precursors to Darwin’s Descent of Man which also appeared in 1871. So why did Lubbock win the fame stakes?
The reason for Lubbock’s rise has more to do with his private members bill of the same year (he was elected to Parliament in 1870) that gave the British their first Bank Holiday. NGRAM fame lies less in coining terms like Neolithic and Palaeolithic but in making people happy. We have always been a nation that appreciates our Andy Murrays.

The death of prehistory

I know this will upset many archaeologists but let’s admit it, prehistory is dead. Adding a pre- to history no longer makes any sense. Pre-history rightly belongs to the Jurassic’s dinosaurs and the wriggling worms of the Cambrian explosion; those shaley superstars Opabinia and Wiwaxia that Stephen Jay Gould trumpeted so loudly in Wonderful Life. Human prehistory deserves better than being lumped with big lizards and creatures with less neurons than an Arctic midge.

What to put in its place? Deep history is the obvious candidate. Deep in the sense of extremely ancient but also a human history told through stuff rather than through texts. The latter belongs to the realm of Shallow history; shallow only in time-depth not in methods or insights. Both histories need each other. Shallow history needs to understand the evolutionary drivers that account for human motivation and desire. It needs to see how engagement with stuff created the fabric of history. Deep history needs the inspiration of ethnography and the complex stories that emerged as societies intertwined at a global scale. Combined they provide a compelling story of humanity.

John Lubbock

The big story from Deep history is a simple sound-bite: We are all Africans. The narratives of Shallow history are about two things that happened in the last 500 years; the documentation of human diversity that arose as we set out from Africa to become the only earth-wide species and the many reunions of humanity associated with that original global diaspora. And that’s the problem with human prehistory. It sets up a barrier, a break-point in what should be a seamless story of biology, culture and society told through the medium of stuff; bodies, books and beaker pottery.

2013 is the centenary of the death of John Lubbock, Lord Avebury. In a few days time we will all enjoy the Easter Bank Holiday, his gift as an MP to an over-worked Victorian world. As a boy Lubbock shared his love of beetles with his older neighbour Charles Darwin. His father-in-law, General Pitt-Rivers, became with his legislative help the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Britain. In 1865 the thirty-one year old Lubbock published Pre-Historic Times, As Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. He wasn’t the first to use the term but he certainly popularised it. This remarkable book with its hyphenated title has cast a long shadow. But it served its purpose long ago. We now know how to study the human past through the study of cultural and biological stuff drawn from locales, places and landscapes. So, could there be a more fitting centenary celebration for one of the giants of archaeology than to bury his creation, Pre-history, where it belongs – in the history books? Prehistory is dead, long live deep human history!

Ice Age Art and the question of sex

There are many old friends in the British Museum’s must-see Ice Age Art exhibition. As a research student in the early 1970s I worked for several months in the Ulmer Museum in southern Germany. Every day on my way into the storerooms to measure more Palaeolithic reindeer teeth I passed the ivory statuette of the Löwenmensch, the Lion-headed-man.

There was less of him in those days. His muzzle had not yet been handed in and big chunks of his back were missing. There was just a bit of an ear and a lot of guess work about it belonging to either a bear or a lion. There was also a big controversy over his sex. Kim Hahn who had stuck him together from a thousand fragments went for the male. Christa Seewald and Elizabeth Schmid took the female perspective. It all came down to what you made of a small triangular flap located in the crucial area. Over time the boys have prevailed as shown a week ago at a big meeting organised by curators at the British Museum. As Kurt Wehrberger put it “The Lion-man has returned”. No-one disagreed.

In another case at the exhibition are my favourite Palaeolithic women, the female figurines from Kostenki. I first saw these in 1989 on a visit to what was still Leningrad. President Gorbachev arrived in a fleet of black cars to fire the Mayor of the city. I will always remember being shown them by Nikolai Praslov, the latest in a distinguished line of archaeologists excavating at the site. We carefully lifted these ladies of the Don out of their protective boxes.

What Nikolai was showing me was exceptional and new. Shapes and carving that added much more detail to this group that is usually, and crassly, lumped together as ‘Venus figurines’. “These Clive are the Crown Jewels” Nikolai proudly told me in between puffs on his cigarette.

A week later along with a handpicked group of American archaeologists we were the first Westerners to stand on the chalk hill above the site and walk around the excavations. How I got there is another story but it was all due to these old friends.