Let's begin at the very beginning

December 14, 2007

Despite palaeontological evidence that human history is rooted in Africa, standard chronology starts it at about 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. It is time we rectified our Christian-induced myopia, argues Daniel Lord Smail. For centuries, history was taught and written in the certainty that it began with the creation of man in the Garden of Eden. Before the 19th century, few doubted Genesis was historical truth. In the great universal histories of the past, sacred history was neatly spliced on to secular history. The result was a seamless account running from the creation of the world down to the present. The calculations of Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) even located the precise date of creation in 4004BC. His chronology was sometimes published in the margins of works of universal history, the dates provided by Genesis flowing seamlessly into those of the latter days.

We have known for some time now that human history is much older than that. We know that it is initially an African history, not a history that begins with the creation of agriculture in Mesopotamia. Yet the chronology proper to history has yet to budge. Curricula, courses, the basic assumptions made in lectures and publications: all tend to assume that history still begins around 4000BC. (Something similar applies to geography and the origins of history in Mesopotamia, a favoured location for the Garden of Eden since the 16th century.) In 1962, archaeologist Glyn Daniel asked why historians have taken so long to integrate prehistory into their general view of man. Since then, the fields devoted to humanity's palaeohistory have been piling revelation upon revelation, making Daniel's question even more sharply relevant today.

To understand history's chronological myopia, we need to revisit the latter decades of the 19th century. As I show in my new book On Deep History and the Brain , it was then that historians first encountered the abyss of time, wondered at the depths that had opened beneath their feet ... and chose to retreat from the brink. We can see this process unfolding in the biography of the great German historian, Leopold von Ranke (1795- 1886).

Ranke, who was writing his unfinished universal history 25 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, was aware that the Darwinian revolution was threatening to pull the rug out from under the tottering edifice of history. Ideas of an ancient Earth had been circulating for more than half a century among geologists, and he knew that archaeologists were digging up the fossils and antiquities of man. Yet this was anathema to the providentialist Ranke: he took for granted the idea that God's work is revealed in the course of history. So, in the dying years of his career, he chose to affirm the truth of sacred history by beginning his book with Genesis. But how could he resist the dark abyss of time?

The solution he hit upon was epistemological. "The province of History," he declared, "is limited by the means at her command, and the historian would be over-bold who should venture to unveil the mystery of the primeval world ... The solution of such problems must be intrusted to the joint efforts of Theology and Science." Scientists, perhaps, might be able to discern a history beyond the veil that shrouds the primeval world. But Ranke, as a historian, was uninterested in their speculations. Historians must work with documents, the means at their command, so they can have nothing to say on these matters.

In this way, Ranke professed a kind of disciplinary agnosticism with respect to the historical reality of deep time. His choice is significant because Ranke is considered a father of the modern discipline of history. Although his influence has waned, we are nonetheless bound by the choices made by members of the first generation of historians who confronted the unsettling implications of the time revolution.

Not all Ranke's contemporaries arrived at the same conclusion. Some, including the Oxford historian Edward Freeman (1823-92) and the American James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936), were intrigued by the vast stretches of historical time newly available to them. Casting off Genesis, they sought ways to splice the time of prehistory directly on to the time of history. But resistance to the new chronology was the norm and, although historians did not always follow Ranke's route, they found other ways to deny the historicity of humanity's deep past. The eminent Cambridge historian John Bagnell Bury (1861-19) provides an especially interesting example. A polymath where history was concerned, he ranged freely across historical epochs and grappled with Darwinism in an important essay. Yet he argued that history "deals only with the development of man in societies" and can have nothing to say about pre-social man. In this way he, like others, drew a line in the sand that demarcated the time of history from the time of prehistory.

Among professional historians, Ranke's belief in the divine ordering of human history did not outlast his century. Yet if Ranke were alive today he might find quiet satisfaction in the fact that history, as practised in Britain, the US and other countries, rarely violates the chronological framework laid out by sacred history. The Garden of Eden has been translated into the irrigated fields of Mesopotamia, but in other respects the geography and chronology proposed by Genesis remains intact. Thanks to the continuing grip of sacred history, Africa is neatly excluded from the chronology of human history. When it features at all, it is treated as little more than a source of slaves, rubber or diamonds, never a true source of history.

Humanity's palaeohistory will not count as history as long as the field remains in thrall to written evidence. A related idea holds that writing actually creates history and gives it direction. We can see this idea at work behind the scenes in the national curriculum for England. The original settlement of the British Isles by hunter-gatherers and the rise of the Stone Age societies that subsequently flourished are not considered a matter for history. Even the Iron Age societies of northwest Europe, strangely, are not considered historical because of their own artefacts and bones. What makes them worthy of the gaze of history, to the extent they are noticed at all, is the fact that they are mentioned in written Roman sources. In this way, writing somehow "purifies" the archaeological evidence, rendering it worthy of historicity.

In the late 19th century, a Rankean scepticism about prehistory was not wholly un- justified. Grand historical narratives necessarily coalesce around a chronological scaffolding. The absence of reliable methods for dating archaeological finds in the late 19th century made it impossible to piece together a chronology like those once found in the margins of universal histories. Yet in recent decades the scaffolding of a deep history has been coming together very satisfactorily, thanks to the accelerating pace of discoveries in archaeology, palaeoanthropology, genetics and the other fields of palaeohistory.

The deep history of humanity that is now emerging has abandoned the old historians' narrative of prehistory: the frozen verbal dioramas of hunter- gatherer culture, accompanied by the obligatory nod to the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira. In place of this sterile depiction is a fascinating history of migrations, conquests and extinctions, of changing environments and new diseases, of the complicated dance of culture, technology and biology through the millennia. Above all, it is a history of humankind that begins where it ought to begin, in Africa. Not in Europe. Not on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates in the 4th millennium BC.

An appreciation of deep time is nothing new to the fields of archaeology or palaeoanthropology. Whether these fields want to be brought within the embrace of history is an open question, given the degree to which many practitioners identify themselves with the study of societies without texts. But perhaps we can all agree that the study of pre-textual eras can and should play a more vital role in the ways in which history is conceived and practised.

A century ago, sacred history was abandoned as a matter of historical truth. Yet humanity's palaeohistory was never fitted into the resulting gap in the chronology, leaving us adrift from any historical roots. The narrative of history posits a rupture in time, picking up the story at an artificial point associated with the invention or arrival of writing.

It is high time for us to shake off the grip of sacred history, to make whole the history of humanity, using all the sources at our disposal, to rebuild our curricula and our general conceptions of the matter of history. In this way, we can at last aim to relate a history that really does begin at the beginning.

Daniel Lord Smail is professor of history at Harvard University. On Deep History and the Brain is published by the University of California Press, £12.95.

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