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.