by Robert W. Kelly, author of The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

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9780520293120Ask an archaeologist why he or she does archaeology and you might hear “we study the past to understand the future.” In The Fifth Beginning I take that charge seriously: What can six million years of human prehistory tell us about our future?

Archaeology’s ability to tell us about the future might seem limited. But with some much time at its disposal, archaeology can see the biggest of the big pictures. As I tell students, we often can’t see the trees, but we see the forest with great clarity. Using this strength, I argue that humanity has passed through four transitions, or beginnings, when human life changed, forever. Archaeologists recognize these transitions by virtue of their significant change in humanity’s signature on earth.

The first four beginnings are familiar to archaeologists. The first is the beginning of technology, marked by the appearance of stone tools some 3.3 million years ago.

The second is the beginning of the capacity for culture, for symbols, and for life in a symbolically-constructed world. Starting between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago, this beginning was marked by art, complex tools, burials and, most likely, religion.

The third beginning was agriculture, which occurred in various places after 12,000 years ago. This was marked by permanent villages, and the spread of domesticated plants and animals.

The fourth beginning entailed the origin of states, organizations with centralized power and authority. This was marked by “shock and awe” public architecture, art, science and clever technologies, e.g., to enhance food production and to transport of goods, people, and information. It’s also the time of standing armies, warfare, poverty, racism, and sexism. It’s the time we live in now.

By taking an archaeological perspective on recent history, I show that an archaeologist 100,000 years from now would recognize another beginning, one marked by the massive impact of humanity on earth, by the connecting of literally every corner of the globe, by widespread similarity in material culture, and by rapid change in material culture.

These beginnings were and are emergent phenomena. Hunter-gatherers didn’t intend to become farmers; they became farmers while trying to be the best hunter-gatherer they could be. The same is true today. In trying to be the best industrialized, well-armed, capitalist nation-state, we will become something completely different.

What might the fifth beginning entail? Using prehistory as a training ground, I detect three processes at work today: the escalating cost of war, the global reach of capitalism, and the globalization of culture. These processes point to a future where war is no longer a viable way to solve problems, where capitalism will reach a logical endpoint, and where the nation-state will no longer be a sacred organization. It’s the end of life as we know it. But it’s not Armageddon. It’s the beginning of global self-governance marked by new forms of cooperation. And despite how bleak things may appear today, the fifth beginning could be humanity’s finest hour.

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Bob_ at 11_000 feet in Absarokas_ 2014

Robert L. Kelly is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. He is a past president of the Society for American Archaeology, current editor of American Antiquity, author of The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers, and coauthor of two popular textbooks, Archaeology and Archaeology: Down to Earth. He has conducted archaeological research throughout the western United States for more than forty years.