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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 447-450



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Book Review

The Origins of Human Society.


The Origins of Human Society. By PETER BOGUCKI. Oxford: Blackwell Publications Inc., 1999. Pp. xvi + 475. $29.95 (paper).

The Origins of Human Society is the prehistory component of Blackwell's new History of the World series. Bogucki is an archaeologist specializing in the early Neolithic of central Europe, but his book is very much in the grand overview tradition of social anthropology pioneered by Lewis Henry Morgan in Ancient Society (1877) and Elman Service in Primitive Social Organization (1962). The scope of the book is global, and the time span is the 2.5 million years beginning with the genus Homo up to the emergence of the earliest literate civilizations in each region of the world. In my view Bogucki has succeeded admirably in his attempt to review the most up-to-date findings and interpretive issues in world prehistory, placing them area by area in a context that will be useful and meaningful to any interested reader. This book will enlarge and modify our understanding of prehistory. The opening chapter provides the non-specialist with a good introduction to the methods and interpretive frameworks of archaeology, and relates archaeology to history and to anthropology as a whole.

Throughout the book Bogucki focuses on household-level decisions about technology, production, and consumption. This focus on individual human agency is a helpful improvement over earlier approaches to cultural development that assumed universal and inevitable stages of progress, or that treated cultures, societies, or civilizations as the units undergoing natural selection and progressive adaptation. There is a strong materialist bias here, but it is posed as an alternative to a Marxist emphasis on social processes and production. Inequality is a matter of individual action, not a creation of the class structure. Social class does not disappear, however. Bogucki situates households within particular [End Page 447] physical environments, and treats them as members of societies existing within particular regional, sometimes continental, exchange networks and polities. The case study material is excellent.

Bogucki identifies no "laws of prehistory," but he assumes that both prehistoric and historic cultural change were produced by self-interested individuals making conscious choices, taking risks, and dealing with uncertainty in order to improve their own lives and the lives of their children. People make choices about the allocation of their time and effort. People are optimizers and investors. The evolution of culture is the unintended consequence of the cumulative effects of individual decision making operating within a "market place" of cultural ideas. This sounds like the invisible hand of Adam Smith, but self-seeking individuals need not benefit society as a whole, and there is no inevitability about the outcome. This approach is remarkably similar to the "dynamic materialism" of economic historian Graeme Snooks (1998). Like Bogucki, Snooks views history as driven by individuals seeking prosperity and security under conditions of competition and scarcity. This approach fits very comfortably with my own view of culture change as an elite-directed process that concentrates social power, and raises important questions about the human costs and benefits, as well as the ultimate sustainability of this kind of cultural development.

Bogucki demonstrates that increasing inequality was perhaps the most important outcome of the great prehistoric cultural transformations of sedentism, domestication, political centralization, and urbanization. Until about 12,000 years ago Paleolithic societies were based on relatively egalitarian mobile bands within which there was a disincentive for private material accumulation. The most basic human society was thus based on cooperative communal life, not intragroup competition. Following new interpretations proposed by several archaeologists, Bogucki argues that the first great transformation was initiated by the massive changes in climate and vegetation at the end of the Ice Age that presumably created new economic "opportunities" that favored more independent household-level decision making, rather than communal sharing, and opened the way for accumulation and inequality by innovative risk takers. The crucial point is that "nature" made it possible for enterprising individual households to become culturally free to seek their own fortunes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 447-450
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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