Deep Thinking on Deep History

“By adding deep historical perspectives to the critical impulses of postcolonial historiography, perhaps we can decisively break free of the self-justifying myopia that is the hallmark of modern historical consciousness. As the “pre” and modern fall away, the potential for speaking new languages of past and present will flourish in their place” (Smail and Andrew, 737).

Prior to beginning the reading for this week, I had resigned myself to the fact that it would most likely be fairly dry and tough to muddle through. Much to my surprise, I was fully engaged when reading On Deep History and the Brain. Though there were intense sections of psychology and physiology that I did not fully comprehend, I came away from the book with a better sense of the field of history, its limitations, and its potential, as I have with most of the readings for this semester. Though Smail’s work offered numerous takeaways, I believe the one that struck me most was his explanation of why historians work the way they do and what opportunities are available if the discipline were to open itself up to other disciplines and knowledge, as well as new methods of doing history.

In Chapter 2, the author discussed why historians have held so tightly to written documents in the past, and why some are still reluctant to loosen the grip. This was particularly striking to me because, as we’ve discussed in class, we historians like having evidence. The more evidence available, the more factual or legitimate we deem the source or event. However, as often as I have spoken of or defended ample evidence, I had never realized how often the evidence I was referring to was written documents. On some subconscious level, I have always considered these documents or records to be the pinnacle of evidence in the field of history. Yet, as this book explained, limiting history to that which has been recorded results in a very short chronology. Initially, historians considered the civilizations or peoples that had written documents to be those that had a history. Certainly, this frame of study excludes not only those peoples who did not have written records, but also anything that occurred prior to written work. In the twentieth century, there was a shift toward a focus on social history, in which the cultures and societies that had been overlooked or not adequately historicized were included in the conversation. However, there still seems to be a gap between the Postlithic and Paleolithic, and much of that gap can be attributed to a lack of written evidence. Smail suggests that only by considering the work and knowledge of other disciplines and recognizing written documents as one form of trace, will historians be able to weave together a narrative that includes deep or prehistory.

Though the lessons from this week’s readings seem logical during reflection, most of the main points had never occurred to me before. As a fledgling historian, I have prided myself in being able to discuss how things came to be with other historians or people who might not have any historical background. However, when understanding of the past begins at an arbitrary date or “turning point” in the historical past, a large section of the narrative is lost. In order to fully grasp the way civilizations form, or why humans in different cultures act or structure themselves in certain ways, the deep history has to be considered. To achieve this deeper understanding, Smail suggests, “For this to succeed, historians will have to become more scientifically literate, and biologists and physiologists, many of whom have ceased to be historically minded, will have to learn to think again with history” (73). I agree that deep history cannot be understood without knowledge of other disciplines, but I wonder how exactly this knowledge will be gained. Will more classes in science or other disciplines be required to gain degrees in history? Or will previously existing curriculums in history be modified to include prehistory? I wonder what the impact of Smail’s assessment has been, and am interested to see what comes of this call for deeper understanding of deep history.

5 thoughts on “Deep Thinking on Deep History”

  1. Hi Carmen,

    I wonder too! When so much science needs to be added, is it practical? And will biologists and physiologists become more historically minded? Maybe I am too skeptical, but it seems like a stretch to me.
    On another point, don’t we all look to written documents in history? I know that I think of the archive with all it’s old books and letters as the pinnacle of research heaven. I wonder how all we are learning will change that idea for us…

  2. I had a similar experience, Carmen. I was engaged and enjoyed reading through this book…though I definitely had an increasingly visible frown as I did so. I had a reaction similar to Faiths, wondering how much science needs to be understood or added to history, and how a balance can be struck between history as a humanity and history as a science.

    As for written history as evidence–our oral history course has given me so much to think about on this topic. It’s difficult to respect non-written sources, but I’m coming to appreciate how articulate they can be. Material culture, I think, is a great example of how non-written sources can be used and analyzed. But, of course, historians mainly do this, currently, in a Postlithic sense where anthropologists do this in the Paleolithic! So, again, how do we balance?!

  3. Carmen,

    I, too had a similar reaction to Smail’s book. And I agree, how will his method be implemented in schools around the country (and world)? Will we begin taking science and history classes from a young age that relate to one another? Will, like you mentioned, science classes be required for history majors? Certainly, it seems that Smail is calling for an overhaul of historical studies and this includes the means by which historians actually become historians in the first place. I am not so certain that Smail realized such implications would be part of his argument when he wrote On Deep History and the Brain. I will be interested to see what others think on Tuesday.

  4. I wonder if we should be focusing so much on “how much science” we’ll need to learn and instead think about all of the interpretive possibilities that appear when we open ourselves to the idea that history is all of the past and everything in it? Our veneration of written texts has been a defining trait of our tribe, but just as our sense of what history is has evolved to include people who did not necessarily write so might our understanding of how history is made become much richer if we think about ourselves as social creatures embedded in relationships conditioned by biology as well as culture — both of which are not defined by texts alone.

  5. “…as we’ve discussed in class, we historians like having evidence. The more evidence available, the more factual or legitimate we deem the source or event.”

    I freak out when I have no “evidence.” And by that I mean written. I seriously can’t fathom having to articulate about a history that has nothing written. But after this weeks readings, I do see how not having documents isn’t a history-killer, it’s a challenge requiring adaptation and interdisciplinary work. The question then becomes how successful can we ever be in interpreting a past with no “true evidence,” so to speak? Will we ever be able to get it completely right?

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