Roots of Civilization

Roots of Civilization - [Update]: I've re-read the book since I wrote this review. It's as good as I remember it, maybe even a touch better than I've given it credit for. Marshack goes beyond the notion that primitive man kept track of time and had some sense of a cosmology and makes some forays into how archaeological evidence gives insights into the complexity of thought that the production of such artifacts requires. Primitive man was not so primitive, and, after reading this, I suspect that, given despite the materials they had to work with, primitive man and I could probably hold some very interesting conversations. There may not be so much difference between us and them as we had previously imagined.


It's been quite some time since I've read Marshack's profound work, The Roots of Civilization. I'll have to get a library copy and read it again soon. When I spotted the title on Goodreads, memories flooded my mind. The Roots of Civilization made a deep impression on me when I first picked it up while browsing through the library in San Jacinto, CA. In fact, this book spurred me to minoring in anthropology when I did my undergraduate work a couple of years later. The general argument of the book is that primitive man observed the sky and used artistic representation to symbolize the phases of the moon, seasons, and so forth. The evidence is compelling. Taken largely from carved bone and antlers, along with some rock art, Marshack presents a microscopic analysis (literally examining the evidence with a microscope so as to allow no room for doubt) of what appear to be moon phases being recorded by prehistoric man on bone fragments. This isn't a gimmicky stretch, like one might expect from a Von Daniken. There are no ancient astronauts here. No, this is an anthropological text about how early man communicated what he was seeing through the use of symbols, not a work straddling the line between science fact and science fiction. The next time I read this, I shall have to follow it with one of my favorite non-fiction reads of all time, Hamlet's Mill, which also takes the longue duree approach to the history of cosmology and man's interpretation of his place among the stars.