Who is this creature we call Man? From where did he arise? Where did he come from? And where is he going? These questions have puzzled thinkers ever since the dawn of history. Many Erasmus Prize winners as well have contemplated these matters; I am thinking, in particular, of the many philosophers, theologians, anthropologists and psychologists whom we number among our laureates. The questions surrounding the origins of Man, and what distinguishes him from animals, also forms the foundation of your work, Professor Clark.
In contrast, however, to all previous laureates who have pondered the dim beginnings of Man’s history, you approach these issues, as a prehistorian and archaeologist, by the most matter-of-fact and often seemingly simple discoveries. Based on the exacting study, classification and comparison of divergent archaeological evidence – such as flint stones, hand axes, pottery shards, soil traces and even fossil pollen, as well as a host of other subtle remnants from the distant past – you have demonstrated that there is more to the science of prehistory than merely collecting. By making use of the modern techniques of natural science to ask provocative questions of the discovered material, you have been able to draw conclusions regarding the biological, ecological, social, economic and anthropological aspects of primitive Man. You recognized quite early the interdisciplinary character of your work, and have linked together disciplines which still stood quite far apart from one another at the beginning of this century.
While the historian concerns himself only with the last 5,000 years of human history at the very most, your field of study is somewhat broader, covering a few million years at the very least. Although more has happened regarding the development of Man and his environment in the last two centuries than in the last 50,000 years, and more again in the last 50,000 years than in the last 500,000 years, you have made it clear that there is no more important event imaginable than the moment when Man differentiated himself from the primates and all other animals through the development of culture. During the cultural flowering that has taken place since that moment – at first very gradually and then with increasing rapidity – two revolutions, the Neolithic and the Industrial, formed the most remarkable turning points. With the transition to the period which we term the Neolithic, Man took the step from being merely the beneficiary of what nature supplied to a food-producer with a fixed dwelling place and dominance over plants and animals. On the one hand, this formed the basis for increasingly complex societies with a high degree of diversity, creativity and cultural wealth. On the other hand, it also sowed the seeds of unbridled population growth, large-scale poverty, famine, epidemics, war and environmental pollution. The great challenge of our time, as our laureate in 1987, Alexander King, foresaw decades ago, is to direct the positive achievements of civilization toward the mastering and banishment of all the unwanted and unforeseen negative side-effects of our cultural unfolding.
One of the central questions which has occupied you, Professor Clark, over the years, is how the earliest hominids, around 500,000 – 250,000 years ago, differentiated themselves from the primates. “We owe our identity as human beings”, you write, “to the fact that, in contrast to animals, we belong to societies constituted by shared values”. Your interest in this regard has concentrated itself on the inventiveness and adaptability of the earliest human beings, as well as on their differing cultural patterns, each with its own individual value. Your study of bio-archaeology, alongside that of economy demonstrates the wide ranging circle of your research, whereby you have posed the question of how Man was able to survive and to adapt himself to various ecosystems. In your social archaeological studies, you point out that we are not dealing with individuals, but with communities of people, including their internal stratification, their local organization, their relations to one another, as well as to the world of nature.
You have further pointed out that in the course of the last two to three million years, the most basic biological functions like eating, sheltering, pairing, breeding, fighting and dying were performed in idioms acquired by belonging to historically and locally defined cultural groups, where patterns of behaviour are conditioned by particular sets of values. This is the essential difference between Man and animals. Man’s behaviour is determined more by historical and cultural influences, rather than by innate, biologically determined factors. The sharing of common traditions is a consciousness of sharing a common past. We follow cultural patterns inherited through belonging to societies shaped by history. We are free to initiate change, and this change, in turn, results in an astonishing diversity of cultural patterns.
The prehistorian is especially qualified to recognize this unique diversity in Man, just as you have done in your many publications. Assisted by your knowledge of comparative ethnology and social anthropology, you have come to the conclusion that, quite other than is the case with animals, the entire process of humanization is based on the growth of distinct traditions, which result in a broad spectrum of cultural diversity. It is precisely this diversity, and the resulting social disparities, which are the key factors in the intensification of culture. In this regard, rivalry and emulation are the most important incentives for Man, just as they still are to this day. For Man, unlike the animals, the specific is relevant and not the general.
In your study of the earliest and most primitive artefacts, you have determined that – other than we would have suspected – mere utility was not the ultimate motivation for the form in which many of these relics have come to us. In your essay “Symbols of Excellence” you write that the most refined artefacts – whether it be shells from the Palaeolithic age or ivory, amber, jade, gold or precious gems from later periods – were not made as utilitarian articles or weapons, but were intended for the cult of ancestors and, later, also for personal adornments. Thus, these objects were created not to satisfy material appetites, but to promote religious and political value systems. Consequently, it seems that the ability to discriminate was also a basic ingredient for survival; for he who knew how to make the finest weapons, tools and medicines also had the greatest chance for survival. We see this every day around us. Therefore, the notions of excellence and aesthetic awareness, ideas which can be traced back to earliest vestiges of homo sapiens, are the basis not merely of cultural advance, but of the very attainment of humanity.
As the entire world becomes more and more controlled by industrial technology, and the similarities between peoples appear to be become greater than their differences, one wonders how this process of homogenisation can be reconciled with the diversity of human values. Does not the process of homogenisation, if carried to its conclusion, destroy the diversity of cultural patterns and, ultimately, the dignity of man?
Fortunately, however, you remain truly optimistic, for in your opinion, as I understand it, this greater freedom of opportunity has only stimulated emulation and whetted the collective appetite for success; while the professionalism and specialization present in the modern world only adds to the variety and diversity of Man, rather than detracting from it.
These absorbing questions, which you have suggested in your publications, define the wide scholarly terrain which is brought together in your work. I can imagine with what fascination your students must have attended to your lectures. In Cambridge, you have established, through your inspiring working methods, a scientific school whose influence is felt all around the world. With your countless publications, including three books which appeared only last year, you have enriched the science of prehistory immeasurably. And in addition, you have illuminated for a large public the meaning of prehistorical insights for modern society. But what stands out above all your other activities and accomplishments is your great love for and interest in Man. This is a distinction which you share in honour with a long line of Erasmus Prize winners because, as a colleague of yours once remarked, “to be human is not to be everyman, it is to be a particular kind of man”. And you, Professor Clark, are indeed a very particular kind of man.
And with these words, I would like – and it is a great pleasure for me – to present you with the Erasmus Prize 1990.