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Summary

Where do we come from? How did our ancestors settle this planet? How did the great historic civilizations of the world develop? How does a past so shadowy that it has to be painstakingly reconstructed from fragmentary, largely unwritten records nonetheless make us who and what we are?

These 36 lectures bring you the answers that the latest scientific and archaeological research and theorizing suggest about human origins, how populations developed, and the ways in which civilizations spread throughout the globe. It's a narrative of the story of human origins and the many ties that still bind us deeply to the world before writing. And it's a world tour of prehistory with profound links to who we are and how we live today.

Woven through this narrative is a set of pervasive themes: emerging human biological and cultural diversity (as well as our remarkable similarities across surprising expanses of time and space); the impact of human adaptations to climatic and environmental change; and the importance of seeing prehistory not merely as a chronicle of archaeological sites and artifacts, but of people behaving with the extraordinary intellectual, spiritual, and emotional dynamism that distinguish the human. Among the corners of our mysterious past you'll explore: human prehistory from Australopithecus africanus through Homo habilis and Homo erectus; the beginnings of agriculture and animal domestication; theories behind the appearance of urban civilization and overall attributes of preindustrial civilizations; the maritime trading revolutions in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia; and much more.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2003 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2003 The Great Courses

What members say

Average customer ratings

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Interesting but a little dated

This is a good whistle-stop tour of world prehistory. The narrator stumbles occasionally but his enthusiasm comes across well and he holds attention. A couple of assertions (such as 'We know that modern humans did not interbreed with Neanderthals') now thought to be false, beg the question of what else is out of date now but I don't think that detracts too much from the purpose of the course: to give a general overview.

One other bugbear. Some of the pronunciations of Chinese words were bizarrely wrong. It does seem a shame that the pronunciations weren't looked up beforehand but again, this isn't a big deal in what is essentially a big picture course.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Little information & often wrong or misleading

Any additional comments?

I'm not sure what I was hoping for but this course is so lacking in information, The lecturer will say we've analysed when in fact ideas were mentioned and very briefly looked into.

The section on neolithic art was risible. No mention that the venus figures exist & only mentioning animal figures, No mention that the earliest art is pre-homo sapiens sapiens & says that art is a development of homo sapiens sapiens, No mention of musical instruments at all.

I'm surprised that the statement that Neanderthals & modern humans didn't interbreed is being stated in something that came out in 2013 was as early as 2010 that findings have appeared that they did. Has this lecturer not bothered keeping up with the latest finding and delivered an old lecture anyway?

I'm not going to criticise that needles have been found in the Denisovan caves used by non homo sapians sapiens as that's very recent but his talk of layering of clothing being an old idea that was lost until recently is very odd too. Yes how clothing layers work has changed but there have always been layers.

Not impressed by the lecturer's delivery either.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • MR
  • 06-07-17

entertaining and informative.

I could feel Fagan's excitement about his subject throughout the series. Pleasant listening too. The newer discoveries Fagan includes make this course particularly thrilling, as well as the interconnectedness in the world he shows his listeners

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Very informative

The series from the great courses is a good way to learn about mans early history. The lecturer presents a lot of knowledge in an easy to understand way. His interest in the subject really shows.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Ed
  • 20-07-16

Crash course

Gets a bit repetitive towards the end, once the author gets "out of Africa" the story changes very little from region to region. Part of me thinks the narrative would have been tighter if he had narrowed down to one region.

Honestly the story just gets too complex at the end, jumping from region to region.

But then again this is a semi-academic course, not a story. It's job is to educate first and entertain second.

Thankfully the start is fantastic! The lecturer manages to cram home the key points in a very short space of time, build up a number of key themes AND make you think about the achievements of our ancestors differently.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Interesting, but now dated

Back when this was first released it would have been great, dated scholarship now. I'm waiting for a new edition.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
  • Amazon Customer
  • 25-09-13

Great Conceptually But Becoming Dated

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

Although this is a course rather than a book, I would recommend it with reservation.

Would you recommend Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations to your friends? Why or why not?

On the upside, it paints human history in broad strokes and provides significant food for thought regarding what impacted early human development. On the flip side recent data is making some very significant points obsolete. The professor asserts that humans and Neanderthals did not interbreed, that Neanderthals did not produce art or have higher reasoning on par with homo sapiens sapiens. In 2003 when this course was first given this might have been the prevailing belief. Modern DNA research now shows that most of humanity outside of Africa is likely to have some Neanderthal DNA in our genetic make-up. Additionally, Neanderthals have been shown to make clothes, and use pigments at least for application on their body if not to create art on cave walls. Although there is still much to decipher and the final verdict is still out on how similar these two branches of humanity's tree were, the professors absolute statements regarding Neanderthals ring a bit hollow now with the passage of time coupled with recent developments. Still a good course overall.

What about Professor Brian M. Fagan’s performance did you like?

Concise. Despite reservations noted above, he still seems quite knowledgeable and has a great deal to offer.

Did Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations inspire you to do anything?

Yes. I went out and read more on the subject. Very interesting.

58 of 58 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Mike
  • 10-12-13

Excellent!!! A Must Listen for Interested Readers

Any additional comments?

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this series. It is one of the best Great Courses I have listened to so far. For those who may not be familiar, the Great courses are a series of lectures by distinguished professors, not necessarily an audiobook per se.

This would be an excellent introduction for most into the topics of Prehistory and the first civilizations. I enjoy learning about history and have more prior knowledge than many would going into this book, but I still learned a great deal and think it would be appropriate for most who are interested in learning more. I was skeptical at first about cramming both topics listed in the title into a single series, but, to my joy and astonishment, the lecturer managed to fit both topics in and still manage to be thorough, detailed, and comprehensive in a relative sense. The series goes from discussion of man's earliest ancestors, through archaic humans and neanderthals, to modern humans, and then covers the development of the earliest civilizations all over the world, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Europe, India, Africa, China, and the Americas. Roughly half of the course covers prehistory and half of it covers the first civilizations, but, believe me, you will leave this course feeling that you have had a thorough introduction to both. The professor is very knowledgeable, articulate, and organized and he proceeds through the material in a roughly chronological manner. The material may be dry for some who aren't used to historical content, but I think the professor did a good job of keeping you engaged with the material and making it comprehensible.

Just as an inside joke to those who have already listened to this, two unforgettable phrases you will hear time and time again are, "We don't really know," and "How did they do this?"

If you are at all interested in the topic, I can't recommend this more. My guess is that you won't be disappointed.

14 of 15 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Aaron
  • 22-09-13

Dull delivery, some interesting facts.

First, I am a college professor, so it pains me to give this lecture series anything but the highest praise. But I feel like they pick people who don't get the basic need for storytelling in the lecture format, and instead go with people with a professorial flair in the delivery. This lecture is the third in this series that I have attempted to plod through, and I am stopping at hour 7 even though the subject is of great interest to me. It may just be me, but I find nothing particularly compelling about this lecture- it's just okay. Most of the time I realize that even if I am listening intently, most of the information is just deserting me and I am needing to go back and listen again, as my mind seems to be completely uninterested in what Professor Fagan is saying. This lecture may work well in a room where you can see his gestures and visual aids, but in this format I find that I am retaining little and enjoying less.

25 of 28 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
  • Tommy D'Angelo
  • 25-05-18

First third of the course is fascinating

After the first third of the course I was utterly engaged and wondering why this course had such negative reviews. By the time I had experienced the last two-thirds of the course I could see why it is currently rating an overall score of 4.0.

One of the main reasons I purchased this course was to learn more about the origins and evolution of early humans prior to the adoption of agriculture and civilizations. And the first 12 or so lectures definitely delivered on that front. I found these discussions fascinating and enlightening. The only criticism I can muster would be that little was said about the social structure of hunter-gatherer societies prior to agriculture; How big were these groups? How were they comprised? What type of interaction or organization existed? However, overall these lectures were the highlight of the course.

But then the last 2/3 of the course (origins of agriculture/farming settlements and the first civilizations) was much less interesting and engaging. Can't exactly put my finger on it but a few general observations on the minus side:

• The professor seemed to spend way too much time discussing the theme of inter-connectedness involving the first urban civilizations in Europe and Asia (how trade drew all of the cultures closer together into a web of economic connections) when more time could’ve been spent on the individual civilizations’ histories and rulers
• Without a map it was difficult to follow some of the lectures including the one on innovations on sea travel between the Mediterranean world and India
• The scope of the course may just be too wide. An astounding amount of time is covered: from our species' origin millions of years ago to the 15th century AD); I like the approach of covering all corners of the globe when discussing the first civilizations but that is alot of ground to cover and maybe the course should've stopped with prehistory or after the very first civilizations in Asia.

A nusiance more than anything: the professor would constantly refer to the Mediterranean region or Near East (middle East) as "Southwest Asia". It kept throwing me off since my first thought when I hear any reference to “Asia” would be China or India so I had to keep orientating myself to "oh he means the middle east".

But I hope you don't think this is a negative review in general. There certainly was good in this course: it is unique in some ways in that it included discussions of empires and civilizations that are not typically well known or covered in other courses including African cultures, the Khmer empire of southeast Asia, and North American cultures. I do give the professor credit for trying to cover such a broad spectrum of time, topics, and civilizations.

In general areas of focus of the course included:
o The first hominids including: Homo habilis and Homo eretus
o Movement of Homo erectus out of Africa and into Asia
o Movement of Homo erectus from Asia to Europe
o Neanderthals in Europe and Asia
o Modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) and their movement out of Africa and into Europe (Cro-Magnons), Asia/Australia, and the Americas
o Invention of human art and spirituality
o Origins of agriculture- food farming and domestication of animals which led to a transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a sedentary one
o The formation of farming settlements in the middle east, Asia, Europe, Pacific islands, and the Americas
o The formation of the first urban civilizations:
 Eastern Mediterranean:
• Sumer/Mesopotamia
• Egypt
• Minoa
• Mycenae
• Hittite
 Asian:
• Harappan/Indus Valley
• Vedic
• Mauryan empire
• Chinese dynasties
• Khmer (in current day Cambodia)
 African:
• Meroe
• Aksum
• East African coast
• Zimbabwe
• West Africa
 Pre-Columbian American:
• Pueblo cultures of the North American Southwest
• Eastern woodlands of North America (mound builder cultures)
• Mississippi cultures in the North American Southeast
• Mesoamerica including Olmec, Maya, Monte Albán, Teotihuacán, Toltecs and Aztec
• South American Andean cultures including Moche, Tiwanaku, Chimu, and Inka

If you're looking for a study of human prehistory (before agriculture/civilization) and the various controversies and theories behind aspects of this time period then I definitely recommend this course. If you're more interested in the origins of civilizations and their histories you may want to instead pick up "History of the Ancient World - A Global Perspective" which I thought was an excellent course. Or "The History of Ancient Egypt" or "Foundations of Eastern Civilization" which I also thought were well done.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Juniper Nichols
  • 01-07-15

Very comprehensive but necessarily shallow overview of millions of years

This is a good jumping off point to decide what prehistoric topics interest you most. He covers all major prehistoric civilizations worldwide, up to the 20th century in select cases. Some societies with writing were explored such as various Mesopotamian cities and Egypt. I didn't know that Incan god-kings were all expected to accumulate their own wealth with new conquests instead of inheriting everything. I was particularly interested in the earliest farming villages and less ostentatious societies that aren't often highlighted.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Jessica
  • 18-05-15

Should listen before any other history lesson

This is a crash course on human history narrated by a man who should teach and narrate everything. The man has an English accent, which is good by itself for listening. He also rolls his r's occasionally and in odd places, annoying from most people but when he does it, it is scintillating. Then Dr. Fagan has a slight lisp some places, and then a hard core lisp other places. Individually, these can be annoying sounds, but in the same way that Morgan Freeman ' s face is beautiful even though it is comprised of average attributes, all of Dr. Fagan's vocal "flaws" come together to create an oratory sensation.

Put this together with a fascinating subject matter by a man who passionately cares about his subject and you become engrossed yourself. Please pay this man lots of money to read his own books, I could listen to him speak forever.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
  • Brian Hartman
  • 13-07-16

Information is dated - Performance is attrocious

What did you like best about Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations? What did you like least?

I enjoy the subject of ancient history and the rise of early civilizations, and so I picked up this course as soon as I saw it. While the information is decent, it's strangely focused on odd areas and theories of the lecturer, and overly broad in generalities of civilian life and politics of the age. Also make sure you examine the syllabus and that it's to your interests, as a lot of the course is concerned with pre-homo sapien species.

How could the performance have been better?

The performance is not good. The pacing is terrible. To the point that I had to speed it up by 50% just to keep from being frustrated by multi-second pauses between words. In addition, the lecturer make every sentence sound dramatically important which is frustrating beyond your imagining. He also uses the words, "flamboyant" and "extremely" waaaay too often and usually inappropriately. Lastly, he mispronounces words strangely. Usually this includes common words and a lay person could pick up on the error, but when it comes to things like the first recorded military clash, the Battle of Kadesh (Kah-desh), and he says the Battle of (Kav-ish), it makes a significant impact on understanding and later research. These seem like little things, but after about 20 hours it starts to drive you insane.

Any additional comments?

As for accuracy, this is too old to be taken as common thought. For example, the lecturer says repeatedly that Neanderthals could not have bred with homo sapiens - that it's genetically and physically impossible. We've known for years that humans who left Africa certainly did breed with Neanderthals, and that up to 20% of non-African human DNA is Neanderthal. Beyond that, at least 20% of Neanderthal DNA exists spread among humans. Further, Devisonian (not a group even mentioned in the course) DNA has also been linked to modern humans, along with other archaic subgroup. I'm afraid that while my limited understanding may catch big things like this - what have I missed?

I would recommend that audible publish and updated version of this book, put a BIG asterisk next to this title, or remove the book from their library. The fact is that you're getting a university level course as Great Courses promises, but it's a 20th century education.

9 of 11 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Katherine
  • 24-05-16

Epic voice.

Fagan has an epic voice and weaves a glorious tale. This is worth listening to if you like history just for his voice.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Brian T. McGill
  • 16-01-16

Better than Sapians

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes. The subject matter is fascinating, and the professor does a great job. His passion for the product comes through in every lecture. He is obviously an expert in the subject.

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

He made a lot of mistakes, which gave it a live course feel. It was very listenable.

Have you listened to any of Professor Brian M. Fagan’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

N/A

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

No

Any additional comments?

I wish there was more about metal development in the Americas. The anthropogenic global warming comments were needed in the lectures as much as an accordian player. What made the lectures real is the reliance on science. Then to move from a lecture about pre-history to a lecture about his politics was a distraction.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Phillip
  • 08-07-15

A Lot of Ground to Cover

Realizing that this was an overview course, it is still a huge amount of history to cover. Two things have stuck with me since I finished listening to these lectures. The first was Dr. Fagan's speaking. His voice was theatrical and almost Shakespearean. However, he pronounces some words in ways that seem tortured. Even though I have figured out what he means, it is almost impossible to say it the way he does. The word "Controversy," for example, is pronounced something like "Contravesee." It is not a British thing, but a Professor Garland thing. The other point that actually bothered me more was the lack of support, especially in the later lectures, for all the great material he was offering. Again, I realize that his was an overview set of lectures, but it would have been nice to have more information to support his perspective. Just the opposite of Dr. Castor, who tended to give almost too much historical support.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful