Editors: Colin Renfrew and Paul G. Bahn
Publisher:  Cambridge University Press – 2,049 total pages
Book Review by: Nano Khilnani

What is the Cambridge World Prehistory in 3 Volumes?

  • It is essentially an authoritative and systematic examination of:
  • The prehistory of every region around the world
  • From the early days of human origins in Africa two million years ago
  • To beginnings of written history, which in some areas began just two centuries ago

The three volumes of this prehistory include:

  • Both traditional topics and cutting-edge approaches
  • Such as archaeological linguistics and molecular genetics
  • And essential questions of human development around the world

The volumes are organized:

  • Geographically, exploring the evolution of hominins and their expansion from Africa,
  • As well as the formation of states, and the development in each region of
  • Technologies such as sea-faring, metallurgy, and food production

The Cambridge World Prehistory in 3 Volumes

  • Reveals a rich and complex history of the world
  • Is an invaluable reference for any student and scholar of archaeology,
  • And related disciplines looking to research a particular topic, tradition, or region
  • Within prehistory

One hundred and two contributors (102) from all over the world authored the various chapters of this work. They are from 22 countries: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, Spain, Scotland, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The contributors are in a large range of diverse occupations: they are anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, authors, doctors, Egyptologists, historians, journalists, professors, researchers, scientists, and writers. They are specialists in the various arts, cultures, humanities, legal fields, and various science fields: the anatomical sciences, engineering, ethnography, ethnology, health sciences, and much, much more.

This work of 2,049 pages consists of three books with the following titles:

Volume 1 – Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific – Pages 1 to 690

Volume 2 – East Asia and the Americas – Pages 691 to 1353

Volume 3 – West and Central Asia and Europe – Pages 1354 to 2049

Volume 1–Africa, South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific – Pages 1 to 690 – Contents:

  2. Introduction
  3. Introduction: DNA
  4. Introduction: Languages
  6. Early Hominins
  7. Earliest Industries of Africa
  8. The Human Revolution
  9. The Genus Homo in Africa
  10. Becoming Human: Archaeology of the Sub-Saharan Middle Stone Age
  11. The Later Stone Age of Southern Africa
  12. Prehistory in North Africa after the Middle Paleolithic
  13. Holocene Prehistory in West Africa
  14. The Archaeology of the Central African Rainforest: Its Current State
  15. The Later Prehistory of Southern Africa from the Early to the Later Iron Age
  16. The Prehistory of East Africa
  17. Neolithic and Predynastic Egypt
  18. The Emergence of the Egyptian state
  19. Pharaonic History
  20. Summary of Classical and Post-Classical Africa
  21. Africa: Languages
  1. The Paleolithic of South Asia
  2. The Early Paleolithic of Southeast Asia
  3. South and Southeast Asia: DNA
  4. The Upper Paleolithic of South and Southeast Asia
  5. Post-Pleistocene South Asia: Food Production in India and Sri Lanka
  6. The Indus Civilization
  7. India beyond the Indus Civilization
  8. Historic India
  9. Early Food Production in Southeast Asia
  10. Complex Society in Prehistoric Mainland Southeast Asia
  11. Summary of Historic Mainland Southeast Asia
  12. Prehistory of the Indonesian Archipelago
  13. The Philippines
  14. South and Island Southeast Asia: Languages
  16. The Pacific: DNA
  17. Sahul and Near Oceania in the Pleistocene
  18. New Guinea during the Holocene
  19. The Later Prehistory of Australia
  20. Micronesia
  21. Melanesia
  22. Polynesia
  23. New Zealand
  24. The Pacific Languages

Volume 2 – East Asia and the Americas – Pages 691 to 1353 – Contents:

  2. East Asia: DNA
  3. Early Paleolithic of Central and Northern Asia
  4. The Upper Paleolithic of Northeast Asia
  5. Early Sedentism in East Asia: From Late Paleolithic to Early Agricultural Societies in Insular East Asia
  6. The Neolithic of Northern and Central China
  7. The Neolithic of Southern China
  8. Early Complex Societies in Northern China
  9. Early Complex Societies in Southern China
  10. China from Zhou to Tang
  11. Complex Society in Korea and Japan
  12. The Later Prehistory of the Russian Far East
  13. East Asia: Languages
  15. The Americas: DNA
  16. Initial Peopling of the Americas: Context, Findings, Issues
  17. Paleo-Indian and Archaic Periods in North America
  18. The Paleo-Indian and Archaic of Central and South America
  19. The Archaic and Formative Periods of Mesoamerica
  20. Agricultural Origins and Social Implications in South America
  21. The Basin of Mexico
  22. The Olmec, 1800-400 BCE
  23. Oaxaca
  24. The Origins and Development of Lowland Maya Civilization
  25. Early Coastal South America
  26. The Development of Early Peruvian Civilization
  27. Styles and Identities in Central Andes: The Early Intermediate Period and Middle Horizon
  28. The Later Intermediate Period and Late Horizon
  29. Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela
  30. Prehistory of Amazonia
  31. Argentina and Chile
  32. The Caribbean Islands
  33. The Southwestern Region of North America
  34. The Pacific Coast of North America
  35. The Great Plains and Mississippi Valley
  36. Eastern Atlantic Coast
  37. Northern North America
  38. The Americas: Languages

Volume 3 – West and Central Asia and Europe – Pages 1354 to 2049 – – Contents:


  1. The Early Prehistory of Western and Central Asia
  2. Western and Central Asia: DNA
  3. The Upper Paleolithic and Early Epi-Paleolithic of Western Asia
  4. The Origins of Sedentism and Agriculture of Western Asia
  5. The Levant in the Pottery Neolithic and Chacolithic Periods
  6. Settlement and Emergent Complexity in Western Syria, C.7000-2500 BCE
  7. Prehistory and the Rise of Cities n Mesopotamia and Iran
  8. Mesopotamia: The Historical Periods
  9. Anatolia: From the Pre-Pottery Neolithic to the End of the Early Bronze Age (10,500 – 2000 BCE)
  10. Anatolia from 2000 to 550 BCE
  11. The Prehistory of the Caucasus: Internal Developments and External Interactions
  12. Arabia
  13. Central Asia before the Silk Road
  14. Southern Serbia during the Bronze and Early Iron Periods
  15. Western Asia After Alexander
  16. Western and Central Asia: Languages


  1. Early Paleolithic Europe
  2. Europe and the Mediterranean: DNA
  3. The Upper Paleolithic of Europe
  4. Upper Paleolithic Imagery
  5. Early Food Production in Southeastern Europe
  6. Early Food Production in Southwestern Europe
  7. Hunters, Fishers, and Farmers of Northern Europe, 9000-3000 BCE
  8. The Aegean
  9. Post-Neolithic Western Europe
  10. The Later Prehistory of Central and Northern Europe
  11. The Post-Neolithic of Eastern Europe
  12. The Classical World
  13. Europe and the Mediterranean: Languages

In sum, this is a comprehensive, very well-researched and organized, and thoughtfully written prehistory of the world. Information that is not based on written records, I believe, is more difficult to ascertain and therefore risky to write with confidence. I believe prehistory requires a lot of pre-organizational thought, plus verification effort, to put on paper.

Some little-known anthropological or archaeological discovery can easily be missed. For these reasons, it requires a tremendous amount of highly rigorous effort by the numerous scholars worldwide who contributed to this massive project, as well of course, the highly expert efforts of the editors – Colin Renfrew and Paul G. Bahn.

All chapter authors and editors are hereby heartily congratulated and effusively commended for this massive project and their very valuable contribution to the advancement of knowledge about prehistoric men and women.



Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) is Emeritus Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, where he is a Senior Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. He is the author of many influential books on archaeology and prehistory, including most recently with Iain Morley, The Archaeology of Measurement and with Paul G. Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice, which is one of the standard textbooks on the subject.

Paul G. Bahn is one the world’s leading scholars and popularizers of archaeology. He is the author or coauthor of more than thirty books, including the Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and more recently, Prehistoric Rock Art: Polemics and Progress. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including Nature, and he is an editorial consultant to Archaeology Magazine, DIG and the Rapa Nui Journal.