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

The wide angle

I’ve taught prehistory for many years, and I’ve found that although students can accept the fact that humanity has a long and complex history, they also think that history is over. Sure, we were once non-human primates, then cultural hunter-gatherers, then agriculturalists, and later members of states and empires, but now evolution is over. They expect technology to change (maybe we’ll get those flying cars we were promised!), but the organization of human society will not. We are doomed to warfare, poverty, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and hatred of all kinds. The light at the end of the tunnel really is a freight train bearing down upon us at great speed.

There’s no reason to think this way, and an archaeological perspective tells us why. The previous beginnings were marked by dramatic changes in humanity’s material signature. Thinking like an archaeologist of the future, I ask: has there been a significant shift in humanity’s material imprint since the fourth beginning? It’s hard to see a transition when you are in it, but prehistory teaches us how to look for the signs. And they are all around us: vast numbers of post A.D. 1500 shipwrecks, trash on the moon and on Mars, cables that link the continents, megacities, trade goods that appear everywhere in the world (cell phones, blue jeans), human bone with trace elements and isotopic compositions that reflect a world food network, vast landscapes that are completely modified by humans, trash dumps that would impress Egypt’s pharaohs. An archaeological perspective tells us we’re in the fifth beginning.

Prehistory also tells us to look for the processes that bring human society to a tipping point and produce change. I see three at work: the spiraling cost of war, the effects of capitalism’s full penetration of the globe, and the cultural effects of globalization. Warfare has become very expensive and yet it no longer solves the problems it is intended to solve (Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost $4-6 trillion and who can say that we won?). Capitalism survives by reducing labor costs, but once Africa is fully tapped there will be no cheap labor left in the world, and if robotics and artificial intelligence replace workers, what then? Globalization has brought about a clash of cultures that is driving the U.S. and members of the EU into the arms of xenophobic nationalism, but it is also producing a culture of global citizenship. We seem to be retreating from global cooperation, and yet a world population that will grow to possibly 10 billion by A.D. 2050, and that will have to cope with the now unavoidable effects of climate change, cannot operate without it.