The Existence of Prehistory?

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I discovered the focus of this week’s readings: History Meets Natural History/Science. Immediately, I was skeptical. Though we have previously discussed the intermingling of history with other academic fields (like anthropology, for example), never had I really considered the possibility of history working effectively alongside science. After reading Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain and the articles assigned for this week, I am much more convinced of the possibility.

Indeed, one of the main themes of these readings proved to be the misconception of prehistory. The historians included in the AHR Forum, “Investigating the History in Prehistories,” put forth interesting claims arguing that there should be no distinction between prehistory and history. Instead, a continuity should be recognized between the two to the point that the idea of “prehistory” should be completely reevaluated and ultimately eliminated. In “History and the ‘Pre’,” Daniel Lord Smail and Andre Shryock argue that, “as a by-product of relentless boundary maintenance, the ‘pre’ does not constitute a historical era in its own right. Rather, it is a narrative space auto-populated by features that define temporal Otherness for the self-consciously modern observer” (713). Thus, prehistory is what modern individuals project onto the past, creating a division between prehistory and history, between a time when there seemingly is no concrete evidence to a time when there is.

Smail explores this idea in-depth in On Deep History and the Brain. He argues that although in the past many have lamented the lack of evidence in what has been deemed “prehistory,” there is in fact plenty of evidence to paint a vivid picture of the past, from the very beginnings of mankind. To properly unearth such evidence, however, historians must willingly work with other academics and be open to collaboration with fields once thought to be irrelevant to the study of history. He writes, “The reconstructions require careful triangulations between all the available and relevant evidence: morphological, archaeological, ethological, molecular, and linguistic” (195). This is a bit unsettling to someone like myself who typically believes in the firm separation of academic subjects: math and science go together much like history and english. But history and science? It seems like a leap but I can certainly see Smail’s point and I do believe there is merit in his argument. However, it is still not clear if historians, particularly those we studied earlier in the semester, in their stuffy offices and ivory towers, will be willing to work with those in academic fields much unlike their own. Smail argues, “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). Will this endeavor succeed? Time will only tell (just not prehistory).