History, being myopic and such things

This is an interesting little article, from ages ago now, by Daniel Lord Smail, author of On Deep History and the Brain, which certainly sounds like something I’d read. From the article, it seems like Smail is targeting that tendency of historians to ignore prehistory in accounts of human history – starting, instead, with Mesopotamia and agriculture, because that’s when you really get documents that can be used to examine history (this idea c/o Leopold von Ranke). The use of ‘prehistory’ to describe this period itself indicates this tendency, since it places undocumented times ‘before’ history proper – I really hope it’s something Smail addresses; if he doesn’t, he’ll have lost a bit of cred from me.

Couple of ideas that have been floating around in my head, thanks to reading the precis linked above:

1. I have never really understood the historian/archaeologist divide. I know, from the little bit of Sumerian/Assyian study I did in undergrad, that there is (or has been?) argy-bargy on both sides. I just don’t get it: it’s like animal handlers not cooperating with vets, or something. How can the two disciplines seriously expect to get the most out of their studies without talking to each other? It just seems daft.

2. An issue with the article itself: ” It is time we rectified our Christian-induced myopia, argues Daniel Lord Smail. … Before the 19th century, few doubted Genesis was historical truth.” Yo – if you want to argue for getting an Africa-centric beginning to history, being quite so Euro-centric probably isn’t the best way to go about it! Perhaps he is aiming his accusations primarily at European/American authors, from a Judeo-Christian society, but still… I think he’s also underestimating the amount of undermining of accepted Christian cosmology had gone on in the Enlightenment, and from then on too.

This is something that requires a bit more thought from me, and probably me actually buying the book and reading it. I can understand why historians have gone for the places with documents and so on to base their study on – and perhaps this reveals me falling into the Ranke trap that I was probably indoctrinated with in my undergrad days, and I am just so not post-modern enough to throw that off without a really good reason and several convincing arguments (with foototes).

3 responses

  1. A very thoughtful post. 🙂

  2. Thanks! It took me ages to write the post because I wanted to try and express myself clearly, as I felt very strongly about the issue.

  3. Wow, I guess an open mind is always a good start.

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