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).
November 15, 2014 @ 4:07 pm
I guess some of Smail’s ideas were unsettling to me too. Others not so much. I like the idea of triangulating available evidence, but it needs to be pretty concrete for me. Also, the concept of not dividing history into a history and a prehistory makes sense but in practical terms, I’m not sure how that plays out for historians who don’t have training in these other, more scientific areas. So…again we are given ideas and concepts that require quite a bit of thought and reflection. In the end, where will we fall on this idea of deep history? Time will only tell. 🙂
November 17, 2014 @ 4:06 pm
I’m excited to hear you answer your own question of “will this endeavor succeed?” I think we all have different opinions based on our own experiences. In my own thoughts, I think no. I think “prehistory” is another aspect of our field that people will drag their heels to not change it; the stuffy old white guys win again.
November 17, 2014 @ 5:07 pm
Earlier in the semester, I think I would have been similarly unsettled given Smail’s suggestions regarding interdisciplinary work. However, I think one of Smail’s purposes in writing this book was to suggest that just as historians have drawn a line between “prehistory” and history, a line has also been drawn between the field of history and other disciplines. By erasing those lines, it is possible to see history as a whole–multifaceted and continuously evolving. For instance, in order to understand why a particular culture behaves the way they do, it may be important to understand the psychological framework of their predecessors in “prehistory”. Similarly, in order to understand cultures before writing became a form of trace, other traces from other disciplines must be utilized, such as fossilized remains from archaeology.
I look forward to discussing this in class–it seems that we all have fairly strong feelings about Smail’s argument and recommendations.
November 17, 2014 @ 9:07 pm
I think there will always be those in any field that are resistant to change, especially some of the ones mentioned previously in the semester. However, as we have also seen there are historians out there willing to adopt new technology and ideas to further the field. I personally think that a interdisciplinary approach to any subject leads to the most complete story and also to the possibility of new results. In the future I hope more programs like STS and ASPECT become staples within academia. As Stephen Berry said in his Future of Civil War studies Forum, it’s time to stop being a Luddite and embrace new technologies.
November 18, 2014 @ 1:34 pm
I am so glad to be back into the blogging thing again so that I get to read your posts again. I always seem to connect with your insights into the readings. I am glad to see that I am not the only one who was wondering if this connection between disciplines will last, but after seeing that I am not alone in thinking this, I feel a little better towards my takeaway from the readings. I do think that eventually this will become more of the way historians, as well as other professionals will look at the various disciplines, but only time will tell.
November 18, 2014 @ 1:35 pm
Sorry Laura, I realized that I wrote Faith, when I was starting my comment. I did mean to put Laura, but I was thinking that Faith was my next comment to post, sorry…lol.