The best books on prehistory and what life was like in the Stone Age

Brian D. Hayden Author Of The Eyes of the Leopard
By Brian D. Hayden

Who am I?

I became intrigued by Upper Paleolithic societies when I studied prehistory at the University of Bordeaux. Over time, I became more and more involved in trying to understand why some Upper Paleolithic societies produced such great art – both painted and carved. After years of studying hunter-gatherer cultures, I concluded that the Upper Paleolithic groups producing fine art were not simple egalitarian groups, but were almost certainly more complex types of hunter-gatherers like the ethnographic groups in California and the Northwest Coast with striking economic and social inequalities – and great art. I decided to put all these ideas into an adventure novel for young readers: The Eyes of the Leopard.  

I wrote...

The Eyes of the Leopard

By Brian D. Hayden, Eric Carlson (illustrator),

Book cover of The Eyes of the Leopard

What is my book about?

The Eyes of the Leopard is a historical adventure novel for young and old readers based on a lifetime of research into hunting and gathering societies by archaeologist Dr. Brian Hayden. It is his view of what life and society were like 20,000 years ago in Southwestern France, where he studied (University of Bordeaux) and conducted research in some of the important painted caves from the Upper Paleolithic. He also used experiences from working with Australian Aborigines to document their use of stone tools, as well as working with more complex hunter-gatherers in the Interior of British Columbia. The book has been acclaimed by professional archaeologists, young readers, and others as a vivid, exciting, realistic account of these societies and a wonderful read.

The books I picked & why

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Les Hommes aux Temps de Lascaux: 40000-10000 avant J.C.

By Sophie A. de Beaune,

Book cover of Les Hommes aux Temps de Lascaux: 40000-10000 avant J.C.

Why this book?

Les Hommes aux Temps de Lascaux is in French, but it is the best, most comprehensive summary of the things we know about life in the Upper Paleolithic, from about 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. It covers all the basics (physical types, chronology, stone and bone tools, hunting-fishing, and plant foods) without delving into the minutiae that would only interest specialists. Beaune also deals with the arts, clothing and adornments, games, feasts, music, use of caves, funeral practices, and other interesting aspects of society. A newer version has just appeared, but is also only available in French; the title is Préhistoire Intime: Vive dans la Peau des Homo Sapiens.

The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves

By Jean Clottes, David Lewis-Williams, Sophie Hawkes (translator)

Book cover of The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves

Why this book?

The use of deep caves for rituals and creating extraordinary paintings has provoked many discussions on why people did this so long ago. There are many theories, but one of the most discussed ideas is that the paintings were produced by shamans as records of their spiritual visions, or to connect with their animal spirit helpers. Lewis-Williams and Clottes are the leading proponents of this interpretation. They rely on comparisons of the Stone Age art with art produced in historic times by Bushman shamans in South Africa. This is an excellent introduction to Paleolithic art and arguments about the art. My own explanation shares some aspects of their model, but focuses on secret societies (shamans were usually members). This is also a main feature in my own book.

Underground Religion: Cult and Culture in Prehistoric Italy

By Ruth Whitehouse,

Book cover of Underground Religion: Cult and Culture in Prehistoric Italy

Why this book?

This is a bit more of a technical archaeology book dealing with the archaeological interpretation of prehistoric cave use, but focusing on the Grotta di Porto Badisco and its Upper Paleolithic use by secret societies (in Whitehouse's interpretation). But it ranges far wider, looking at related finds from other areas and times in Upper Paleolithic Europe. Ruth Whitehouse places the use of this cave and others in their ritual and prehistoric contexts, but also examines their social, psychological, and even structuralist relationships. It is a unique and important publication from these perspectives and has been very influential in my own publications.

Social Inequality Before Farming?

By Luc Moreau (editor),

Book cover of Social Inequality Before Farming?

Why this book?

This is actually an edited book of papers dealing with the social organization among prehistoric and ethnographic hunter-gatherers. It is one of the few publications that discusses issues like inequality from a variety of different viewpoints, including diametrically opposed views about Upper Paleolithic societies – whether they were egalitarian or non-egalitarian. Another important aspect of this volume is the inclusion of ethnographic hunter-gatherers to generate insights into how prehistoric hunter-gatherers could have organized themselves. Some unique features include the examination of dogs as indicators of inequalities and the nature of the cave paintings as indicators of inequalities. Mobility, population densities, surpluses, and many other factors all create a heady brew of debate and intriguing ideas. This book is highly recommended, even if a bit technical.

Ce que l'art préhistorique dit de nos origines

By Emmanuel Guy,

Book cover of Ce que l'art préhistorique dit de nos origines

Why this book?

Although this book is in French, it is the most detailed defense to date of the view that at least some Upper Paleolithic societies were non-egalitarian, i.e. that they had significant wealth and power differences between individuals or families. The title emphasizes art, but this is really just a point of departure for understanding the entire economic, social, and political organization of certain Upper Paleolithic groups and why the great works of art were produced. It uses the initial arguments that I developed in an earlier book (in French) to structure the supporting data. So, naturally, I am favorably disposed towards it. But it is a good book as well! If you can read French, this is highly recommended.

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