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When Does History Begin?by Daniel Lord Smail
So when does history begin? In the K-12 and university curricula nowadays, it starts a lot earlier than 1492. But even if our history curricula have been stretched, there's an eerie correspondence between my schoolboy's sense of history and the way that professional historians and school curricula frame history today. Several years ago I was a fairly junior faculty member at a university in New York State. A senior colleague and I were talking about what it was like to teach college history back in the 1960s. "I taught four courses a semester," he told me. "I did everything: Greeks, Romans, all the way back to the beginning of history." He meant Sumeria around six thousand years ago. The phrase stuck out because at the time I was teaching an undergraduate history course, "A Natural History," which began around three million years ago. To be fair, he didn't mean that humanity began in the watery, irrigated fields of Mesopotamia, the secular equivalent of the Garden of Eden. He meant that something we conventionally call "history" began there. But there is still that thick curtain shrouding the other side from view. Beyond it, there are no dates. No history. An undifferentiated assortment of hunter-gatherers, with their timeless customs, their cave paintings, and their solitary, nasty, brutish lives.
This chronological habit whereby "history" is demarcated from "prehistory" is typical of departments of history in colleges and universities in the United States. Actually, many departments now lack a historian of ancient Greece or Rome, and Sumeria itself is long gone. But the Sumerian origins of history live on in Western Civ courses and textbooks because it is a comforting and familiar place to begin. We have to start somewhere, right? Otherwise, the dark abyss of time opens sharply beneath our feet, and we teeter precariously on the brink, facing the awful immensity of the past. Dimly, we can make out the archaeologists, paleoanthropologists, and biologists who toil away on the other side of the chasm. Yet we can safely leave all that to them, since for some reason it's not history.
Few professional historians deny that there is something over there, on the other side of the chasm. The problem is that we don't know how to think of it as history. Hence, there is widespread if tacit agreement with the memorable phrase coined by two influential historians in 1898: "No documents, no history." And since writing is a little over five thousand years old, this limits history to the past that we're used to. Oddly enough, it's okay to use nondocumentary evidence after writing has reached a given society. Thus, U.S. historians allow themselves to consult archaeology in their efforts to reconstruct the history of the New World after 1492. What they allow themselves to do less often is to rely on archaeological evidence in the absence of documents. The existence of contemporary documents somehow "cleanses" the archaeological evidence of its scientific taint and makes it worthy of being history.
By this logic, we are limited to a history encompassing no more than five or six thousand years. It is hardly a coincidence that this time frame corresponds to the Judeo-Christian chronology, according to which the world was created in 4004 BC. One hundred and fifty years ago, the limits of Judeo-Christian chronology were cast off during the course of an intellectual revolution at least as significant as the discoveries of heliocentricity and relativity. Thanks to Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and others, we are now aware of the immensity of geological and astronomical time. We have learned about our primate ancestry and the unity of life. Yet we still teach history as if it begins between the two great rivers of Mesopotamia around six thousand years ago. In this way, we translate the story of Genesis into suitably secular terms but leave the basic narrative intact. For all intents and purposes, "history," as framed in our curricula and syllabuses, has not yet experienced the Darwinian revolution.
So what would history look like if we jettisoned the idea of prehistory, pulled aside the curtain, and launched ourselves into the abyss of time? A deep history can never enjoy the full range of sources available to historians of the more recent past. Biography and the history of ideas are pretty hopeless, and we can never touch the people of the deep past through their own words. But there's history there to be written. Jared Diamond, Tim Flannery, and others have shown how ecology, environment, and disease can provide mind-capturing ways to connect the deep past to the recent past. We can plot the movements of peoples, things, and phonemes over the past fifty thousand years with considerable fidelity, writing histories that talk about human diasporas, trade, and the status hierarchies. Bones and fossilized excrement provide extraordinary insights about health, diet, and the gendered division of labor, themes that connect to the work of historians of the recent past. The dark abyss isn't so dark anymore. As long as we give up the association of human history with cities and empires, as long as we acknowledge that bones, tools, grave goods, fireplaces, trash heaps, clothes, phonemes, and genes are just as worthy as documents, there is no end to the possibilities of a deep history.
More than anything, the new science of neurobiology has provided manifold ways to write a long history centered on humanity's defining feature, the brain. We now know a good deal about the operation of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in the brain-body system. We have begun to piece together how these neurochemicals were involved in the co-evolution of the human body and human culture over several hundred thousand years. Obviously we cannot measure levels of dopamine in the synapses of dead people. What we can do is develop histories sensitive to the fact that a great many human practices and human institutions liturgies, rituals, spectacles, foods, drugs, forms of torture and deprivation have innumerable physiological consequences. This did not come about by accident. The human institutions that have emerged in the past five thousand years may have been designed by kings, priests, administrators, or artisans, but they were also "designed" by the process of cultural selection to modulate or manipulate the brain-body chemistry of oneself or one's subjects or clients. This kind of insight can help us understand, say, the evolution of practices of sensory deprivation in monastic religions. What better way is there to inculcate an addiction to the prayers, liturgies, and ascetic practices that lighten the unpleasant sensation of dopamine deprivation? A neurohistory, written in light of neurobiology, can help us see how the modern world economy is designed to deliver dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and all the neurotransmitters and hormones that lend color and pizzazz and comfort to our lives. But none of this will make any sense until we grasp the long history of the brain.
The first time I taught the deep history of humanity, seven years ago, an anonymous student made this comment on a course evaluation form: "This is the first history class that ever made sense to me." My students pressed, and pushed, and interrogated, but they were excited about what they learned and their sense of history was stretched. And, boy, does history ever need stretching. Last year, by my reckoning, half of the senior honors theses written in my history department had a chronological balance point located after 1939. Three-quarters dealt with the twentieth century. In this way history has been reduced to a branch of current affairs. So let's make history historical again. It's time to foster anew our native sense of wonder about the deep past. And by refashioning our idea of what history is, by coming to terms with the Darwinian revolution, we can abandon the secular Eden of Mesopotamia and start our history where it ought to begin: in Africa.
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Daniel Lord Smail is Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of Imaginary Cartographies (1999), which won the American Historical Association's Herbert Baxter Adams Prize and the Social Science History Association's President's Award; and The Consumption of Justice (2003), which won the Law and Society Association's James Willard Hurst Prize. He is also co-editor of Fama: The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe (2003).