Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies [by Lynne Kelly]

4019efd44b4995786942be96be002a01I’ve recently finished my first read of this book, written by Dr. Lynne Kelly, and a scholarly well-sourced work it is!

It lays out a theory concerning the nature of certain archaeological findings, with no pseudoscience or other nonsense given serious attention, and those mentioned only in passing. It’s a theory that draws analogies between the use of mnemonic technologies in modern non-literate (very, very different from being illiterate in literate societies) cultures, and the same use, with many commonalities across cultures, of those technologies to build and maintain sophisticated bodies of cultural and, yes, scientific knowledge.

The general idea is that power is, and likely was in prehistoric periods, held by elites who maintain that power without apparent coercion or obvious material wealth by restricting the use and preservation of  knowledge using monuments, story, song, ritual, and dance, art, and small material objects as mnemonic foci, like rock art and carved stone balls or baked clay items that may be hand-held.

This includes those societies often thought to be egalitarian in nature, often mistakenly so, in which elders hold authority by dint of their monopoly on restricted knowledge attainable only by initiation.

Using as case studies such monuments as Stonehenge, Poverty Point, Chaco canyon, and contemporary traditionally non-literate cultures, such as indigenous Australian cultures, African secret societies, and the Pueblo cultures of the American southwest, the case is made, I think, and with much left open for discussion and discovery, that prehistoric cultures would need a wide, robust body of knowledge in order to survive. Such cultures simply would not have done so without mnemonic transmission of that knowledge allowing it to span generations without the benefit of writing, using mostly fallible human memory and memory foci.

Our ancestors were no dummies, or we just wouldn’t be here today to study them. Living in a dangerous world without modern science or written records requires a vast body of lore, especially of the natural world and societal laws.

I found this book entertaining, informative, and very conducive to a further, deeper, closer, and better look at the archaeological record than perhaps has been done so far, with so much more to discover to flesh out the data and answer remaining questions suggested therein.

Well done, Dr. Kelly! Good stuff.


From the beginning, my Twitter timeline has shown me history as it unfolds… the Arab Spring, the U.S. congressional elections of 2010… the disastrous Gulf oil spill… last March, the Japanese trifecta of disasters in the form of tsunami, earthquake, and the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, and even now the Occupy Wallstreet movement.

Though purely physical events, and their resulting need for disaster relief efforts, have been prominent, those involving the policy and politics of humans have been at the forefront of social networking sites, and by far have the largest number of interested persons keeping up with them.

I’ve seen the word get out on Twitter and in the blogosphere even faster than the usual news outlets, and though the accuracy of what’s said is often unreliable, not all of it is.

The notions of bias and error are parasitic on the concept of getting at least something right…we really can know things, so it is nihilistic, and incoherent, to say that we cannot know anything because it’s all fatally in error.

Counterfeit money entails the existence of at least some genuine legal tender, or the term is meaningless.

I personally dislike politics…not one of my favored subjects, but I’ve been schooling myself on political issues, and here and there my readers may have noticed a post dealing, however obliquely, with some form of politically-charged topic, though I prefer to limit myself to those that concern science funding, science education, and policy decisions based on science.

All good science has political ramifications, because it frequently finds itself at odds with the reigning champions of a particular ideology, those with little love for facts or the fact-finders when these conflict with the agenda of those in positions of authority.

I think, though I find politics not much to my liking, that attempts by those in authority to gain it and retain it through corrupt, dishonest, unethical and frequently illegal means need to be vigilantly checked by skeptical eyes trained upon their intent and misdeeds.

Why vigilance?

Because those who would control others through greed, selfishness and intolerance are tireless, well-funded, and with powerful lobbies controlling them or under their control, depending on which way the money is flowing.

In an era of political, ideological and religious extremism, we who value what rights we either have or can make for ourselves have a rightful interest in checking the power plays of whoever we find ourselves opposed to. That’s what free-thinking is about.

Carl Sagan, in one of his last interviews once said “If we are not able to ask skeptical questions…to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs.” And I feel that at no time in our history, save perhaps the first American Revolution, has that been more true than the present.

[Last Update: 12/02/2011 – Grammatical Correction in Paragraph #6]