Looking back, looking forward

UW anthropology professor Robert Kelly excavates sticks while doing fieldwork in 2016.

Photo courtesy of Madeleine Mackie

When University of Wyoming anthropologist Robert Kelly thinks about the future, he feels hopeful.

As an anthropologist who studies hunter-gatherers, he spends his research time digging for clues about humanity’s past. But in looking back, he said, he has learned a way of seeing that gives clues about humanity’s future.

In a book published in the fall, “The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us About Our Future,” Kelly argues we’re headed for a post-war, post-capitalist, global society. Furthermore, this large-scale shift in the way people relate to each other is already underway.

“We can’t maintain the status quo, and we can’t go backwards,” he said.

Kelly started thinking about the ideas in his book about 10 years ago, when he gave a public lecture about how the past can be used to look at the future. In 2012, he began working on the book while on sabbatical.

In surveying human history, he sees humans have already gone through four major shifts, which he calls “beginnings.” They’re visible to archaeologists because they were marked by a change in the “material signature” of humans. That is, a change in the stuff people left behind for archaeologists to find.

Several million years ago, he said, came the earliest use of technology, indicated by the appearance of stone tools. The second beginning, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, was the beginning of culture, indicated by the appearance of art and burial items.

About 12,000 years ago, humans developed agriculture, indicated by the presence of domesticated plants and animals alongside permanent settlements. About 5,000 years ago came the origin of the state — an organization of centralized authority — indicated by large, public infrastructure.

The fifth transition that Kelly said we’re currently in the midst of began around the year 1500, characterized by globalism and interconnectivity.

What’s the material signature of our current age? The first shipwrecks appeared around 1500, and now they’re everywhere on the planet.

We’ve left artifacts on the moon and Mars, not to mention orbiting the planet. We’ve built megacities and covered the surface of the earth with trash. Our continents are literally and figuratively linked by cables.

“Those are all archaeological indicators that we are in the midst of another major reorganization of how humans relate to one another,” Kelly said.

According to Kelly, this fifth transition is leading us away from capitalism and war. The cost of war is escalating even as winning becomes harder, with the arms race essentially over at the invention of the nuclear bomb.

“We’ve reached an end point,” he said.

Capitalism appears to be approaching a similar end point as cheap labor markets disappear and the living standard rises everywhere.

In addition to its economic impacts, globalization has a cultural side, too. Kelly said most people are becoming comfortable living in close proximity to people from different cultures, aided by the spread of common music, entertainment and sports.

“That’s constructing a sense of global citizenship,” he said.

Such global citizenship, and a sense of responsibility to all people, is essential to the development of global self-governance and the end of the nation-state, itself a fairly recent invention.

“The world is all economically linked, and everyone knows this,” Kelly said. “For that reason, it really needs to be politically linked as well.”

Kelly said he’s optimistic about this future. Unlike previous generations of humans, we have the advantage of hindsight to aid the transition, along with enormous potential suggested by today’s rate of technological change.

“We can be conscious of creating change,” he said. “It’s all up to us now. We get to choose what the future will be.”

Kelly, who has worked in the UW Department of Anthropology since 1997, said he can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be an archaeologist. The earliest inspiration came from finding arrowheads in the cornfields of his New England childhood.

“I got trapped by the romance of archaeology at a very early age,” he said.

In 1973, as a 16-year-old high school student, he traveled to Nevada to work on an excavation with David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History. He continued that work in Nevada for years and even today still collaborates with Thomas on textbooks.

Kelly’s current research interests include developing a North American radio-carbon database, excavating a cave site in the Big Horn Mountains and collecting artifacts and natural materials from receding ice patches.

Kelly said every student should study anthropology because it allows people to see the world from different perspectives. People can have very different ways of living, but at the same time we’re very similar in our desire for things like prosperity, happiness and safety, he said.

“Everyone in the world wants those things,” he said. “Anthropology teaches us how to understand the differences and appreciate those similar desires.”

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