History Vs. Prehistory

Caught up in our everyday lives, we often forget what a broad, unexplored, and often unexplorable country the past is. Here are a few thoughts and ideas to help us make sense of how much has already happened.

Father of History

Herodotus - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Herodotus – The Father of History (circa 484–425 BC)

Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) is often considered to be the progenitor of history, or at least Western history. Herodotus’s Histories date from the 450s to the 420s BCE. We can figure it’s been about 2,450 years since first publication. In the Western Tradition, this is the beginning of “history.”

The Histories (the title in Greek means “inquiry” and is where we get the word “History” — from the Greek ἱστορία) are a far-ranging investigation into the causes of the Greco-Persian wars. They cover the events, the geography, and ethnographic information relevant to the inquiry.

Herodotus’s epithet was first conferred by Cicero (106 BCE – 43 BCE). There have, however, been some advances in the field of history since then. While we call Herodotus the “Father of History,” the general definition of history as a discipline requires that there be written records to study.

As more discoveries are made, the date for the possible origins of “History” is pushed back further and further. The earliest of written records might be the Dispilio Tablet, dated to 5,350 BCE (or 7,300 BP). That means that we can push the envelope for “history” back thousands of years — even though we can’t actually read the tablet.

Putting History in Perspective

Dispilio tablet text
The text of the Dispilio Tablet, dated to approximately 7,300 BP

Often, we use the field of history to put modern life into perspective.

You’ve probably heard some variation of the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We often take this to mean that we must understand history — but we ignore, perhaps because of what we feel is insufficient data, the terrible fact that most of the human past comes before history was even a glimmer in a scribe’s eye.

Anatomically modern humans appear in the fossil record about 195,000 years ago in Africa. For argument’s sake, if we take Herodotus as the originator of the discipline of history, then all of history is only about 1.32% of the existence of Homo sapiens.

That’s right. History is less than 2% of human existence — WAY less than 2%. In terms of the existence of humans, history could be little more than a statistical error — though I like to think it’s not.

But there have been advances in history since Herodotus, right?

History is linked to writing, so let’s push the date back to the earliest writing we have — arguably the Dispilio Tablet. With a date of 7,300, writing’s only existed 3.74% of the time that people have.

What does all this mean? Trying to understand humans by looking at “history” is (metaphorically) like trying to judge the history of America by looking at only the last 3 years, one month, and two weeks.

Even if we push back the beginning of “history” to the earliest example of writing, a serious stretch of the imagination, the metaphor tells us that we must judge all of America on only the last 8 years, 10 months, and about 10 days — not even as long as we’ve had Twitter.

To Be Fair

It might seem that I’m implying that history isn’t very old just because it only covers a small part of the human past. Just as an exercise, let’s think about how many generations ago the earliest date for history is.

Let’s say that a generation is 20-30 years long (they’re probably shorter on average), and then decide to make it a nice 25 years for easy math. That means that Herodotus wrote the histories a whopping 98 generations ago.

Yes, there are nearly 100 generations of history. From that perspective, history seems as old as it should — and regains its relevance. Of course, that also implies, for round numbers, that anatomically modern humans have existed for a staggering 7,800 generations.


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