Back to the Stone Age

Race and Prehistory in Contemporary Culture

By (author) Ben Pitcher
Categories: Social Science
Publisher: McGill-Queen's University Press
Paperback : 9780228014522, 304 pages, December 2022

How our interest in human origins is shaped by ideas about race.


Prehistoric human life is a common reference point in contemporary culture, inspiring attempts to become happier, healthier, or better people. Exploited by capitalism, overwhelmed by technology, and living in the shadow of environmental catastrophe, we call on the prehistoric to escape the present, and to model alternative ways of living our lives.

In Back to the Stone Age Ben Pitcher explores how ideas about race are tightly woven into the powerful origin stories we use to explain who we are, where we came from, and what we are like. Using a broad range of examples from popular culture – from everyday practices like lighting fires and walking in the woods to engagements with genetic technologies and Neanderthal DNA, from megaliths and museum mannequins to television shows and best-selling nonfiction – Pitcher demonstrates how prehistory is alive in the twenty-first century, and argues that popular flights back in time provide revealing insights into present-day anxieties, obsessions, and concerns.

Back to the Stone Age shows that the human past is not set in stone. By opening up the prehistoric to critical contestation, Pitcher places racial justice at the centre of questions about the existence and persistence of Homo sapiens in the contemporary world.


“An engaging and eclectic catalogue of case studies that highlight ideas of race in places where most people wouldn’t think to look for them, from the iconography of Stonehenge to what it really means to call Donald Trump a Neanderthal. I now feel vindicated in my instinctive aversion to the paleo diet and survival-based reality television; others will find tools for their anti-racist endeavours within these pages too.” Subhadra Das, author of (Un)Civilised: 10 Lies That Made the West

“Breathtaking in scope, often hilarious in tone, serious about scholarship, and full of critical insight, Back to the Stone Age shows how and why we need to engage with the distant past in order to work towards what we would like to be now. Essential reading for our times, this is a book for all antiracists desperate to save our shared planetary home.” Vron Ware, author of Return of a Native: Learning from the Land

“This stimulating book … explores ways in which people seek solace and inspiration by engaging with prehistory in a modern world failed by technology and capitalism. [Pitcher] takes us through “survival” television; race, class and log-burners (this book is nothing if not eclectic); genetic ancestry; prehistoric landscapes (Stonehenge and Brexit); museum representations of Neanderthals; and links between popular culture and science (in which he discovers a buried Wu-Tang Clan cd at Piltdown).” British Archaeology