Wednesday, 2 August 2017

There's Probably No Pre-History?

I think the term 'Pre-History' should be changed to 'Pre-Record History' or maybe 'Inaccessible History'.



Ok, so what can we agree is history? Let's go through it one-by-one.

Writing - if someone wrote something down and we can get it, especially they themselves were deliberately trying to record their own past, then everyone can agree that yes, this is definitely history.

This is kind of a shit definition since even people who would strongly defend it can probably think of things that are definitely history but that don't involve writing. But it’s also the clearest and most inarguable one that has the most consensus. Like, most people would agree that things other than a painting can be art, but everyone agrees that paintings are art.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was a bit of a dick, asked the question "Does Africa have a history?*", which is a typically dickish way of putting it since most people will immediately say "Yes of course Africa has a history, even the non-literate bits that didn't write anything down."

So there is something to examine here in the way we think about the validity of the record. If the subject we are talking about is near-modern people who were non-literate, or mainly non-literate, and who we interacted with in a creepy and colonialist way, pretty much everyone will be willing to say that group has a history, even if it’s unclear to us. We are assuming and accepting the existence of a history which is present but which we cannot directly perceive.

Whereas if we are talking about actual deep-history non-literate stone-age cultures, well we didn't colonise those people and we have no perceivable relationship with them so we are happier dumping them into 'pre-history', which is a slightly different mental category.

(And just to be clear, I don’t think it’s bad to have a ‘hard’ definition that might be unfair or limited in some way. The world needs hard definitions, without them things become a bit of a blur and people don’t even know what they are arguing over any more.)

Oral Stories - still the baseline of intra-person communication for most people on earth. Much more low-fidelity than writing but capable of doing some crazy stuff (Polynesian oceanic navigation, aboriginal Australian stories that seem to record deep-historical geological events). You can run a pretty damn complex society on oral transmission alone. Insanely and utterly near-impossible to ever get an accurate date out of them.

Big Stone Things - If someone spent a lot of time building something FUCKING MASSIVE like a pyramid or a coliseum, then even if it doesn’t have any writing on it, or if it does but we can't really understand what it says. Or if we have sweet fuck all about the exact and specific reasons that it exists (i.e. Stonehenge or anything Neolithic), we still never claim that it is anything except history. Because look at it; its huge and made of stone.

Pictures and Art - Ok but to what extent. So a European oil painting or a Mughal Miniature is history. Are those French cave-paintings history? Probably? How about a piece of bone with cross-hatch scratches and ochre marks? Mmaybe?

That brings us to;

Small Made Things that Probably Aren't Art - An Assyrian clay tablet with a bit of Gilgamesh on it must be history because that’s a thing, and writing, and the writing is itself about past events, making it double-history. History Plus. What about a Greek Cup with some gods and centaurs on it? Ok that's in. What about an unmarked clay cup but the tag on it says it was excavated from so-and-so level on such-a-date in the ruins of Mojinder-Daro? What about an unmarked clay cup? What about part of an unmarked clay cup? What about a single shard of worked clay, but you know where it came from?

Bodies - So a bunch of Iron Age bodies in a bog, with particular weapon wounds and forensically-identifiable damage so we can see that they have been in a battle and estimate the kinds of combat and weapons used; that's almost certainly history. I mean the wounds are a record of a precise series of events. Like words. So they must be history.

That guy that got frozen in ice with his hair and tattoos and whatever. That should be history probably? We can read the wear on his teeth, see the fractures in his bones that healed and puzzle over his tattoos.

Here's a question for you - at what point, from what origins, in what context and of what subject do a bunch of bones move from being a record of history to something other than that? When they are from an indeterminate person? When from a non-human hominid? A near-human hominid that could probably speak a bit?

Genetic History - So this is a very weird one. I suppose we can break it into two parts.

Analysing the Genetics of Old Bodies - This is almost certainly history. We can slot it in as an expansion of or improvement of forensic and cultural Archaeology. If we can look at tooth wear patterns and shards of iron in a wound then adding genetic knowledge to that seems reasonable.

Reading Our Genetic Book - The archaeology of our own bodies. So the ways in which this is like history is that its literally a code - information. An abstract piece of knowledge you can print out on a sheet and which says *only what it says*. Once recorded and understood, the information is the information.

The way in which it is unlike written history is that in using it to build an image of the past, we are creating this imaginary supposition, a winding webwork of descent and change which we try to overlay on, and adapt to, what we know from other sources. The way we interpret this is unlike other forms of historical analysis.




Look at the enormous cognitive, cultural and behavioural differences between people living at a stone-age level of technology in our formally-recorded history. By the standards of 'Pre-History', all these people are simply 'Hunter-Gatherers'.

Hugh Trevor-Roper said another interesting thing, which I've mainly forgotten; "It is not in how they get but how they spend that men show their nature*". Hunter-Gatherers might have done relatively similar things to get their living surplus but they spent that surplus in becoming radically culturally and maybe even cognitively different to each other.

I'm just going to assert at this point that the world had a greater diversity of culture and cognitive styles before the advent of civilisation, with a lower total population, than it did after, and that the growth of civilisation, which has raised the population level, has also reduced diversity of thought and experience.

And I'm not doing evidence because this has taken too long already, because I'm not smart or well-read enough to do it and because it would take years to really do it properly.

So, having blindly accepted that, we now know that 'pre-history' had a great diversity of particular and specific cultures, more than we have now. The societies and groups of that time had specific structures of authority and specific cultural desires. They wanted different things and saw the world in different ways. They had cause to co-operate and cause to compete, and did so in specific ways.

Second - 

There are no non-specific actions in the human past. 'Humanity' never left Africa, particular groups of humans did, and of those groups one particular group must have been the first, and that particular group must have had an authority structure; a way of making decisions. And that means there is a particular range of times and places you could go and see, directly, the decision structures that lead to humans leaving Africa.

You could tell a story about it about a particular group of people, and it would be a true story. We will never know what it was, but the information did exist at one point.

The same is true for every human migration in 'pre-history', humanity didn't cross the land-bridge to the Americas, specific people did, and moved to Australia, and, crucially, arrived in New Zeeland.

And its here that 'pre-history' which I think might not really exist, meets 'history', because no-one reading this is going to tell the Maori that they don't have a history, yet if we go purely by the technological and material record, the colonisation of New Zeeland by the Maori was 'pre-history' even though it happened in near-modern times.

The same with every technological development. 'Humanity' never discovered fire. Specific people did, and then many probably re-discovered it in many places, but these too were particular people. Same with flint knapping or building a particular kind of canoe. Nothing happens to Humanity, humans do things.

And our current global configuration, the way societies work and are laid out, is utterly dependant on these particular actions and decisions made by these particular people.


(or is History What Happened, regardless of whether we know it or not?)

If History is the record then, logically, we know all history at any particular time. Because we know what we know. We know everything in the record; that’s what history is. Therefore we know all history.

No-one accepts this as reasonable or true.

History cannot be defined simply as what has been recorded.

It might be more interesting and accurate to define it as a process. As the act of remembering, of contextualising and questioning and of searching for memory.

And, if we go back to the beginning, if Africa has a history (but we don't know what a lot of it was), then Pre-History also has a history.

The mistake we have made in thinking about the world is like having a photograph of something really important, and the photo being really blurry and out of focus, and then confidently stating that the events depicted in the photo are 'The Blurred Times'.

"Ah yes, the Blurred Age, things were terribly out of focus then you know. All a big wash of shapeless forms."

Except we know that for the people in those circumstances, things were not blurred. They were particular, individual, highly distinct and mutually consequential. It is accepting our own lack of knowledge about the time as a reasonable label about that time.

That is an insane thing to do.

If I have one central element to my argument its that we should stop accepting the idea of a 'Blurred Age' and instead think about the existence of a specific, unique and consequential series of events which we will never be able to fully access.

The difference between these two modes of thought might seem minor but it changes our moral and intellectual relationship to our own past and our own selves from something comfortable, superior, thoughtless and wrong to one inquiring, curious, humble, ignorant and right.

So there is no 'Pre-History', only 'Inaccessible History'.

*I read this about 15 years ago, can barely remember it and can't find the reference so I may as well be making it up.


  1. prehistory is much easier to write out than "inaccessible history." Fun read but from an archaeological perspctive it feels like an argument of semantics. No one studying prehistory with any serious intent thinks that it is anything other than the terminology to define the period before the written word became available.

    1. Yeah, I agree that your points are valid but you seem to be arguing about semantics. "History" is a word derived from a particular cultural practice of writing down a "story", i.e. a verbal narrative, in a way that presents itself as an account of true facts about things that happened. To say that we can learn things about the past and construct our own narratives from things other than these written narratives ("histories") is a point nobody would disagree with.

      Same issue for "hunter gatherer" -- anyone who thinks about these things would agree with your point that there is a great deal of cultural (including artistic, technological etc) diversity that exists within the category of "hunter gatherer". The term "hunter gatherer" is intended to denote societies where people don't have agriculture (i.e. domesticated plants and/or animals used for food production). That's all it means. Within that constraint, there's of course a huge deal of cultural variation -- as is true of the categories "agrarian" or "nomadic herders" or whatever. And you're also right that highly industrialized societies are in fact more like each other culturally than hunter gatherer societies are. I think all of this is uncontroversial. But I don't exactly see where that gets us. Is there a particular attitude that you perceive out there in the world that you're attacking in this essay?

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  3. History has to meanings:
    - The old one "Learing about the past, by reading about it, and determining what of the written stuff is true".
    - The more modern, more popular one "Everything some scholars have found out about the past, that is considered to be true."

    As the first meaning is still a serious field of study, and was even more so a hundred years ago, Prehistory only means everything we can't access with this limited method.

    Also what Nicholas Bergquist said.

  4. The word history comes from the Greek word "historia" which means "a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one's inquiries, history, record, narrative".

    History is an innately inquisitive field engaged in investigating the past and finding and revising what is known. To define the past as "inaccessible history" is a defeatist attitude that makes the ongoing efforts to learn about the past seem pointless.

    I have a number of friends that are historians. It's nonsense to categorize their view of the past as "comfortable, superior, thoughtless". Nobody is more likely to get into the ambiguities of what we know about the past than a historian.

  5. Your argument's crucial and well-put. I can remember my high school (even some college) history classes starting off with the "cradle of civilizations" stuff, with a real disregard for non-literate and non-statist folk. So that kind of mindset's still hanging around, at least in education circles and pop history. But this here's a concise, legible and persuasive takedown of it. Good work.

    1. Are you honestly trying to argue that the achievements of (eg.) Kalahari Bushman society are equal to those of the Classical Greeks, Vedic Indians, the British Empire? That the only reason we don't value them equally is because we simply don't know how to appreciate the culture of the Bushmen? This is brainless egalitarianism.

    2. I would make the argument that there's a huge degree of inequality between Kalahari people and the British empire - I just went ahead and googled up how many people the British empire killed and the first result was "Mike Davis in his book 'Late Victorian Holocausts' estimates the number of deaths to be 29 million in 19th century famines in India alone." Hopefully you can see the point I'm driving at here.

      Also, I don't mean to shit on your picnic, but I think some of your phrasing is maybe a touch hostile. You call as to how you comport yourself, but I would like you to know that I would personally appreciate a more convivial tone in my internet haunts <3

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    1. "I'm just going to assert at this point that the world had a greater diversity of culture and cognitive styles before the advent of civilisation, with a lower total population, than it did after, and that the growth of civilisation, which has raised the population level, has also reduced diversity of thought and experience."

      This is an absurd claim and somehow you're able to admit that without dropping it. Society has only become more complex since the advent of civilization (however you want to define it - agriculture, urbanisation, etc). The tools which we use to produce culture and shape our own thought have multiplied endlessly.

    2. I believe what Patrick may have been getting at there was the fact that individuals that develop with absolutely no frame of cultural reference are (possibly) going to develop very complicated, unique understandings of the world. In the same sense that children have more scope for imagination and variation of thought than adults (generally), there was more space for vastly different cultures and, key phrase, cognitive styles to develop when people the next valley over didn't even share your language, let alone get sent to the same schools.

  7. And on that I believe I will cast FREEZE RAY