Thursday, October 7, 2010

More on Deep History and Prehistory

This guest post comes from Randall Foote, who emailed me last week regarding an earlier post on Deep History. Foote has graciously allowed me to post his note. Retired from business, Foote is now an adjunct history professor at Roxbury Community College. (In the coming days I'll also post Foote's letter to historian John Lukacs on prehistory and history.)

"But is it History? III"
Randall Foote

I read with interest your post of 9/16 on the Historical Society blog regarding Deep History, and I felt I should comment on the question you asked:

“. . . . But, as Heather asked earlier on a different topic, is it history? How can we understand preliterate humans and societies in a historical sense? Can historians add to our understanding of prehistoric humans in ways that anthropologists and archeologists cannot? Historians inside and outside of the guild will have to figure those questions out for themselves.”

How we understand history is constantly changing. It was not very long ago – say, 200 years – when Sumer, Egypt, Troy, Babylon et al were seen as either mythical and/or biblical. Europeans saw two threads of history: the Classical, which began with Herodotus, and the Biblical, which began with Moses. Other cultures had even less historical horizon. No culture had a truly global historical sense before the modern Western European. It was archaeology that opened the doors to a larger view. Yes, writings were discovered, but the larger picture – which is still very much evolving – came from “the testimony of the spade."

Historians follow upon archaeologists to form a larger picture, with broad interconnections. Absolutely there is a place – indeed a necessity -- for applying historical sense every step of the way. After all, History is in essence the science and art of humanity. Certainly, there are now many more "non-historical" tools to gather information for historical understanding of pre-literate cultures, including genetics, linguistics and highly developed archaeological techniques. We should use them all as a part of developing a broader (and deeper) History. An interesting first step of applying the genetic point of view to “deep history” was L. L. Cavalli-Sforza’s History and Geography of Human Genes. Cavalli-Sforza is a geneticist who is more adventurous and ambitious than are most historians. There is much history yet to be written.

I think future historians will view the European Aurignacian and Magdalenian (similarly the Australian Dream-time, Archaic Native American, Chinese Yang Shao and others) as every bit historical as we now view Troy and Sumer. It was not long ago (indeed, in my own school years) that the Ancient/Medieval/Modern triptych was the basic academic framework. I think that the Prehistoric/Historic dichotomy is as limited a mindset as both that one and the Biblical chronology.

Relegating preliterate man to the backwater of “Prehistory” is to miss out on some of the most interesting and creative elements of human history. After all, what is more fascinating than beginnings – our own beginnings.

Historians, like scientists, need to maintain a certain humility about how much we still do not know, but that is really most of all a great challenge and opportunity. There is always so much more to be discovered. In this time of increasing specialization and insularity in academic history departments, what we really need is more history with the long view, even when there is so much uncertainty and likelihood for contradiction as new discoveries are made. The rapid change in understanding prehistory and man's origins is a real case in point: when I was young it was a given that the Five Races evolved separately on their own continents (with the Caucasian Race being of course the most highly evolved). Seems like an eon ago.

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