The Roots of Civilization
by Alexander Marshack
McGraw-Hill, 413 pp., $17.50
Some forty years ago a revered and internationally known scholar gave it as his opinion to the writer that within a few years all interest in prehistory would be dead. “It has shot its bolt, it is already on the decline,” he said. Nothing could have been further from the truth. At a rough guess, between fifty and one hundred books on prehistory are now being published for every one that appeared forty years ago. But if this is an indication of public interest the question of scientific quality is another matter. As anyone who has watched the style of recent publications must be aware, there has been a marked shift in character and content, especially noticeable over the past decade. The book under review is no exception.
It may be sobering for prehistorians to reflect on the cognate (but somewhat more mature) field of geology where the spoofery and science fiction of, say, a Velikovsky can sell a hundred times more than seminal and penetrating products of genuine research. In the field of human prehistory “aquatic man” and more recently “submarine woman” may well win a large popular audience, while a truly shattering discovery like that which has just shown that man is two and a half times as old as we previously thought, with all that that implies for the concept of human evolution, may be barely noticed except by a dedicated few. But perhaps in the end such nonsense as the recent theories about our watery ancestors does less harm in debasing the coinage than does the derivative journalism of writers like Robert Ardrey or Jaquetta Hawkes who ladle out half-understood results in which they have had no hand, with a pontifical air of “I know all the secrets”—an attitude which in fact is the very antithesis of genuine scientific discussion.
It is accordingly with a wary, if not weary, attitude of mind that many professional anthropologists will open this work by a writer who frankly admits that he is a “scientific journalist” innocent of formal training in prehistory, or for that matter of firsthand experience of scientific inquiry of any kind. As if this were not enough, The Roots of Civilization is written in a style that seems based on the assumption that obscurity equals profundity. To top it all off, the author appears to have a distinctly defective grasp of the English language. As many as two or three times on a single page we get the absurd phrase “time factored time factoring” where “dating,” “sequence,” or “concept of time” is all that is needed, or the still more irritating “rendition” for “rendering” or simply “drawing.”
How comes it then that The Roots of Civilization has already attracted a remarkable diversity of comment and not been simply ignored by competent critics, as is the case of many hundreds of other books of an apparently comparable kind? Neither the subject matter nor the presentation is at first sight wildly original. For Marshack the main path …