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UW Professor’s Book Unearths Past to Predict Future

November 7, 2016
man standing outside with red clay cliffs in the background
Robert Kelly

A University of Wyoming professor explains how the study of our cultural past can predict the future of humanity in his recently published book.

“Many people think that history is over,” says Robert Kelly, professor of archaeology in the UW Department of Anthropology. “They might believe that the era of big change is over. An archaeological perspective tells us that’s wrong: There is change in store for us, and we have the potential to direct that change.”

In “The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us About Our Future,” Kelly identifies four key points or “beginnings” in history: the origins of technology, the appearance of cultural behavior, the invention of agriculture and the origin of states and empires. He examines the long-term processes that resulted in these definitive changes in the organization of society.

He then presents evidence of a fifth beginning, one that started about A.D. 1500. The fifth beginning is brought about by long-term processes: a 5,000-year arms race, a capitalist economy’s global reach and the impact of a global system of communication on culture. The cumulative and combined effect will be to bring about what he calls “global self-governance.”

Kelly predicts the emergent phenomena will entail the end of war as a viable way to solve problems, the end of the nation-state as a sacred form of organization, a thorough restructuring of capitalism and the beginning of world citizenship.

Kelly says he dwells not on the coming chaos, but on humanity’s great potential.

“We have the potential to create a global organization that ensures human freedom and, yet, reduces inequality; that focuses on our shared humanity rather than on those things that divide us; that strives for unity rather than division. We won’t realize that potential easily, but we will eventually do so,” Kelly says.

Although the subject is serious and complex, Kelly says “The Fifth Beginning” provides the reader with hope.

“‘The Fifth Beginning’ is short, lively, a bit humorous and, ultimately, hopeful,” he says. “If we can’t look to the future with hope, then there’s no incentive to work toward it at all.”

The 168-page book, published by the University of California Press, is available in hard cover or as an e-book. It can be purchased at or from other online retailers.

An internationally known authority on the archaeology and ethnology of hunting and gathering societies, Kelly has participated in research projects in western North American for more than 40 years. He currently researches the use of radiocarbon dates as measures of prehistoric population, ice patch archaeology in the Rocky Mountains and Paleoindian mammoth hunting.

Kelly has written more than 100 articles, reviews and books, including “The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers” and “The Foraging Spectrum.” He is the co-author of two textbooks: “Archaeology” and “Archaeology: Down to Earth.” He is a past president of the Society for American Archaeology, and is current editor of the society’s flagship journal, American Antiquity.

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