“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.