What Use is Prehistory to the Historian? - 8 minutes read

‘The distinction between history and prehistory has been dissolving for some time’

Jim Secord is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge

In Christian Europe, until the beginning of the 19th century, the key marker in the early history of the world was the Biblical Flood. ‘Antediluvian’ usually referred to a period before the universal deluge, although scholars increasingly debated whether this was sudden (and universal).

Recognition of the significance of a period of human existence before writing is widely attributed to the French pharmacist and antiquarian Paul Tournal in his work on the caves of Bize in southern France. In 1833 Tournal broke with the language of ‘anté-diluvial’ and spoke instead of a ‘Périod anté-historique’ that spanned human origins to the commencement of written records. But although Tournal no longer looked primarily to the Bible, he maintained the belief that written records were the defining source for genuine history.

The term prehistory, defined in English by the Scottish archaeologist Daniel Wilson in 1851, blossomed into significance from the 1860s with the widespread acknowledgement that humans had inhabited the Earth for a vastly longer time than had been recorded in writing. A science of prehistory emerged when human antiquity was accepted in the context of the three-age system, with technological evolution from stone to bronze to iron. The invention of writing became a critical step in a narrative of Western civilisation as a unique story of enlightened progress.

The distinction between history and prehistory has been dissolving for some time. It confers an unjustified authority on text-based forms of evidence and downplays the materiality of tablets, books, letters and scrolls themselves. As historians broaden their geographical horizons, giving such primacy to written records – if not the Bible then Egyptian hieroglyphs or Sumerian cuneiform – is untenable. The notion of ‘prehistory’ simply does not work for cultures that rely primarily on oral communication. It was this division based on writing that gave rise to the widespread notion in the West that much of Africa didn’t have a history.

‘Prehistory’, like so many categories that we use to frame the past, is not only a convenient label, but a deeply problematic inheritance.

‘Archaeologists, like missionaries, delivered the written word’

Helen Wickstead is Senior Lecturer in Museum and Gallery Studies at Kingston University

Prehistory is defined by absence – by a lack of the written word. Modern archaeology distinguishes between history, the recent past, and prehistory, a far longer (and vaguer) time extending into the deeper past. History is the period for which there are written documents; prehistory refers to a time before writing, or before it was introduced into a region.

The concept of prehistory was central to the development of archaeology during the 19th century. In Denmark Christian Jürgensen Thomsen organised the collections that became the National Museum into clusters of finds discovered together, resulting in a three-age chronology with ‘Stone’, ‘Bronze’ and ‘Iron’ ages. In 1849 Daniel Wilson likewise arranged the collection that would form Scotland’s National Museum of Antiquities along these lines. Prehistoric archaeology, Wilson argued, compensated for Scotland’s absence of reliable written sources. He used material remains to supply an alternative record of the past.

In April 1859 geologist Joseph Prestwich and archaeologist John Evans produced early photographs showing hand axes embedded deep in undisturbed gravels in the Somme River Valley. Advances in geology showed that the layers containing these stone tools were extremely ancient. The same layers contained the bones of elephants, rhinoceroses and other extinct animals. A few months later Charles Darwin published a theory of natural selection, suggesting how species might change over almost inconceivably long periods. A vast expanse of time was opened extending back far beyond timescales extrapolated from the Bible or ancient history. Evans described this new field of time spatially, as a terrain ripe for colonisation by archaeology.

The idea of prehistory supported new approaches to the deep past across the world. Collections of prehistoric artefacts were brought to imperial museums and analysed by scholars who sometimes felt little need to investigate the (oral) origin stories told by the people living in the regions from which the artefacts came. Representing certain peoples and places as being ‘without history’, prehistorians, like Protestant missionaries, delivered the written word.

‘Few historians bother much with prehistory itself’

Stefanos Geroulanos is author of The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins (Liveright, 2024)

Most historical subjects have their own prehistory, a time for their emergence, the fuzzy origin in which they are not yet concrete. The philosopher Hans Blumenberg once wrote of his love for the moment in the darkroom just before a photograph comes into focus. Historians like me find the equivalent moment compelling and frustrating: a time when what we study isn’t yet a proper object and yet some of the threads that weave it together are unmistakably there. How do we engage that strange ‘before’ time without inflicting purpose on it – when, by definition, it is not yet what it will become?

This is an intellectual problem that concerns all our work, but human prehistory especially. It is a semi-obscure period ‘before’ a humanity that leaves clear enough traces for us to discuss it but that is not, strictly speaking, available within history. It is about ‘us’ in the sense that it promises that the hundreds, even thousands of centuries until the invention of writing (or until hunter-gatherers moved to settlements, or until non-biological records became reliable) matter to who we are as humans. Few historians (Daniel Smail is an exception) bother much with prehistory itself.

The real game begins when we start wondering in what way the sciences of prehistory shape how we understand human behaviour. In the 1960s prehistory was studied above all in terms of aggression and violence – as a way of answering the question of whether human beings are innately aggressive and, if so, when and how they became so. In the 2000s the key term became ‘creativity’, which was used to complement work in archaeogenetics to show that culture was not simply exuded by biology. Throughout the past century countless other concepts have emerged: ‘man the hunter’, ‘man the toolmaker’, ‘woman the gatherer’, nomads and shamans, killer apes and ‘Indo-Europeans’. It is less ‘prehistory’ that matters to the historian than these concepts, which inform all sorts of accepted ideas. The importance of prehistory is not so much what happened ‘back then’, but which aspects of it haunt our current thinking.

‘Recorded history calibrates the story developed through material culture’

John Mcnabb is Professor in Palaeolithic Archaeology at the University of Southampton

It is a needlessly divisive question. The labels ‘history’ and ‘prehistory’ are artificial and outdated. Archaeologists excavate the materiality of all historical periods, from the Romans to the Cold War. Materiality complements recorded sources, and recorded history calibrates the story developed through material culture.

The question forces us to chop up time. Like history, prehistory is not one undifferentiated period; in Britain it comprises the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic), the Middle and New Stone Ages (Mesolithic, Neolithic), the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, after which history begins with the Romans. However, people did not go to sleep in the Neolithic and wake up in the Bronze Age. Archaeology shows us that these divisions are blurred, and it’s not just between successive periods. As phase 3V of Stonehenge was being built by a pre-literate Bronze Age society in Wessex, Minoan scribes were keeping palace records in Crete using the still-undeciphered Linear A script.

Prehistory versus history – there is the unpleasant whiff of colonialism here, too. Bronze Age to Iron Age to Romans: there is a sense of progression. In southern Africa the Iron Age starts in the third century, perhaps with the arrival of speakers of the Bantu family of languages. The southern African Iron Age continues to the 19th century, incorporating flowerings of society such as Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami. But colonialists thought of Africans as backward because they were still living a ‘prehistoric’ life. Great Zimbabwe had to be reinterpreted as a colony established by non-Africans. Historical documents – the written observations of the Portuguese imperialists – reinforced racist tropes.

How could we think about the lived past that doesn’t require discipline-specific methodologies? Perhaps new categories are necessary. These could include the ‘familiar and understandable’ past, made by people like us, whose motivations we can empathise with; the ‘familiar but not understandable’ past, made by people like us, but in societies that we cannot instinctively understand; and the ‘unfamiliar’ past, made by ancestors so different from ourselves we cannot guarantee their behaviours will ever be comprehensible to us.

Source: History Today Feed