Robert L. Kelly


On his book The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

Cover Interview of April 26, 2017

In a nutshell

I’m what is known in my field as a “dirt archaeologist.” I’ve been excavating archaeological sites in various places for 43 years, and I’m not ready to quit. Why do I do archaeology? Honesty compels me to admit one reason: field research is fun. But I also do archaeology because I believe what Winston Churchill once said: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” A few years ago I admitted that I hadn’t lived up to Churchill’s words. So I decided to make an effort and the result was The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future. At 122 pages, the book is a quick romp through human history—all six million years of it. It’s a lot to cover, but I can do so by using archaeology’s strength.

Many of my colleagues in history see archaeology as their poor country cousin because archaeologists can’t see the past in the detail that historians think is necessary. Our weakness, however, is actually a strength. Without all the details to worry about, archaeologists see the biggest of history’s big pictures. We think about the past in slices of time, periods such as the Stone Age, the Copper Age, or the Iron Age. In The Fifth Beginning, I take that approach to its limit, and search all of human history for global phases. I find four of these, and I call them beginnings: the beginning of technology, the beginning of culture, the beginning of agriculture, and the beginning of the state.

From an archaeological perspective, changes in humanity’s material signature demarcate these beginnings, and those changes signal significant transitions in the organization of human society. The first beginning is marked by crude but effective stone tools. These signal a change in how our ancestors dealt with their environment. Occupying the African savanna, our ancestors became hunters, captured fire, cooked food, and developed pair-bonding and rudimentary language. Natural selection favored this creature, and our ancestors spread beyond Africa into southern Asia and Europe. We never turned our back on technology, of course. Those simple stone tools, in fact, were the beginning of space travel.

The second beginning occurred long after, sometime between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, and is marked by art and burial ritual. This was when our human ancestors truly became human—when we became cultural, capable of using symbols and of thinking of life in terms of a symbolically constructed world. This was when we could tell myths and legends (and lies), use metaphors and analogies, envision an afterlife, and think about gods and supernatural beings. The second beginning saw the appearance of all that makes humans unique: kinship, religions, and ethnicities. The capacity for culture was also adaptive, and it allowed humans to spread, again, out from Africa starting about 60,000 years ago, and to colonize almost the entire globe over the next 50,000 years.

The third beginning began about 12,000 years ago, and took place in many different places over the next few thousand years. The appearance and spread of domesticated plants and animals, as well as permanent villages with substantial houses marks this transition. This was also the beginning of trade; some goods were exchanged for purely economic reasons and some symbolized cooperative relations of support.

The fourth beginning started around 5000 years ago, and is the time of “states,” of stratified societies with professional classes of merchants, bureaucrats, and warriors. Massive public architecture—temples and tombs, public squares, buildings for government and commerce—mark this transition. This was the time of the Uruk kingdom in southern Iraq, of Egypt’s pharaohs, of the Greeks, Romans, and Phoenicians, and of Chinese dynasties. It was the time of the Maya and Toltecs and Aztecs, of the Huari and Inca. It was a time of remarkable achievements in mathematics, architecture, science, art, and government. And it was also the time of inequality, slavery, warfare, and empire. We still live in the fourth beginning.