An Interview with Barry Cooper, author of “Paleolithic Politics”

Barry Cooper, professor of political science at the University of Calgary

Barry Cooper is the author, editor, and translator of over thirty books. We recently had an opportunity to talk to him about his newest book, Paleolithic Politics, the first volume in the exciting new series, The Beginning and the Beyond of Politics.

When did you first get the idea to write this book? And why did you feel compelled to write it?

I started research on Paleolithic Politics about a decade ago. Having written on the political science of Eric Voegelin, I learned of his interest in understanding the prehistoric materials in light of his philosophy of history and philosophy of consciousness. As a graduate student I recall him making some offhand remarks about the Neolithic and Paleolithic, but what he said hardly made sense to me at the time. And Voegelin himself never wrote anything systematic on prehistoric symbolism such as is found in the famous caves of Franco-Cantabria. After completing Consciousness and Politics and having figured out the implications of Voegelin’s concepts of “compact consciousness” and “the primary experience of the cosmos,” I realized I could apply these terms to the earliest human symbolism. By then I had an adequate understanding of the major issues that divided various schools of archaeologists and thought that political science might contribute to this scholarly conversation.

What was your research strategy for this book?

Most of the research was straightforward reading of the archaeological and prehistoric literature, with some examination of scholarship on the history of art and even on early genetics. One of the highlights of the research was to visit the prehistoric caves in France and Spain and actually look at the decorations on the walls. I also looked at museum collections, mostly in France, and at archival collections at Stanford, Harvard, and the Getty Museum in Los Angles and benefitted greatly from informal discussions with archaeologists, prehistorians and paleoanthropologists. 

Who is your ideal reader?

The main audience, I expect, will be political theorists who have an interest in very early political symbols, but archaeologists and other paleo-scholars might find the approach taken by someone outside their conventional world of “normal” science interesting, even if they think it misguided. Political scientists may find it challenging to consider that the origins of political symbols can be traced to a period some 35,000 years ago, rather than to Plato and Aristotle.

What did you learn while writing the book?

The most interesting thing I learned, apart from the acquisition of a great deal of information, is that prehistoric scholars are divided along lines similar to the historical and contemporary divisions in political science: the quants pursue precision and rigour, the hermeneutists pursue insight and connoisseurship. I have written quite a few books and would advise someone starting a fresh examination of a traditional problem or, indeed, of a new problem, to read as much and as widely as possible. Eventually things will fall into place and you can apprehend a structure and eventually a meaning.

We are interested in learning what you are working on next.

My next book will be on the Neolithic monuments of northwestern Europe, from Brittany to Orkney. If Ice-Age art, both portable and on the walls of caves, may be said to characterize paleolithic political symbols, the megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Stones of Stenness characterize the Neolithic. Neolithic Politics is intended to continue the argument made in Paleolithic Politics.