chapter summaries 


Who are we? Where did we come from? What are we like? 

This introduction sets out my book's central thesis that the prehistoric has become an important imaginative resource in contemporary culture. 

In view of a present that is widely considered to be toxic, unsustainable and unconducive to human thriving, the lives and lifestyles of our distant human ancestors inspire attempts to become better, happier, or healthier people.

1.  a turn to prehistory 

My first chapter explores the ways in which prehistory resonates in the twenty-first century. In the context of capitalist and environmental crisis, prehistory symbolizes both the end of the world and the means to start over again. 

What is the relationship between prehistoric and racial others? Why does race feature so prominently in attempts to understand human identity, origins, and characteristics?

2. becoming prehistoric

If human life is under threat by global heating and environmental crisis, what imaginative resources do we draw on to think about our own survival? What is the significance of the colonial framing of survival TV shows?

Is prehistory a capacity that lies within us, dormant and disactivated? Can we get in touch with a truer self and make discoveries about who we really are, or has prehistory become a boutique lifestyle choice in twenty-first-century consumer capitalism?

3. prehistory and the popular culture of the anthropocene

How are prehistory and evolution caught up in our dreams of a world without fossil fuels? Who gets to symbolically escape from an unhappy, unjust and polluting present, and how does prehistoric time-travel endanger the lives of others?

How do we account for the immense popular appeal of Noah Yuval Harari's Sapiens? Has it become a self-help book for living in the present, and if so what does it tell its audience about human agency in the shadow of environmental crisis?

4. genetic prehistory

My fourth chapter explores how genetic ancestry testing has mixed together a cocktail of scientific data and cultural interpretations, telling very powerful stories about race, ethnicity and human origin. 

How has genetic science reactivated discredited ideas about race? Why is the story of 'black Cheddar Man' a tale of proprietorial whiteness? How did the possession of Neanderthal DNA become a marker of white privilege?

5. prehistory, landscape, and belonging

This chapter turns to the prehistoric landscape as the locus of ideas about culture and belonging. 

How is a prehistoric monument like Stonehenge caught up in the politics of nationalism? 

Can the affective attachments of racist nationalism be reworked to support primordial and inclusive forms of citizenship and belonging?

6. facing up to prehistory

Chapter six considers the visual representation of human prehistory in European museums. Why do prehistoric mannequins reflect present norms around gender and race? 

What do mannequins of extinct hominin species tell us about how we understand and make sense of human differences?

 How do they encourage visitors to reflect on life and death, identity and difference, and narcissism and desire?

7. Piltdown Man and the endomorphic gravel pit

In this seventh chapter the famous Piltdown hoax provides a way into exploring prehistory as the site of an ongoing relationship between science and popular culture. 

What is the diagnostic value of a hoax? What responsibility do scientific institutions have for their racist histories? Why does the contestation of human origins matter in the contemporary politics of race?


What is it that gives life to prehistory in contemporary culture? What makes it present to us? What does prehistory do? Why do we seem to want or need it? What cultural needs does it fulfil?

In conclusion I reflect on prehistory’s entanglements with everyday life as a way of understanding and processing the abiding cultural anxieties of the twenty-first century. By throwing light on the culturally embedded character of all prehistoric claims I make the case for the creative and radical political potential of the prehistoric imagination in reworking a distant human past that has never, in truth, been set in stone.