Science  /  Book Review

The Abuses of Prehistory

Beware of theories about human nature based on the study of our earliest ancestors.

Before the modern era, Europeans had little conception of prehistory as we know it. Their legends and narratives about the past, most prominently the Bible, went back in time only a few thousand years, and assumed that early humans were not dramatically different from later ones. To be sure, the encounter with the Americas’ native inhabitants, who could not be fitted into the biblical story, led many to question the old stories’ accuracy. It also led to new dichotomies: Some writers in the seventeenth century began to argue that there was a difference between “civilization,” where humans followed strict rules and documented their past, and the “state of nature,” which knew no laws and no recorded history. But in a Europe that was still ravaged by religious conflicts, the gap between the two initially did not seem particularly wide. The political theorist Thomas Hobbes claimed in 1651 that the best example for chaos and lawlessness was his home country of England, which only recently had emerged from a devastating civil war.

In Geroulanos’s telling, two things came together to spark a new understanding of the human past. The first was the Enlightenment’s belief in progress. For figures like philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, humans were naturally endowed with the capacity for self-improvement and critical observation. This was something they were born with as children, and which society corrupted; the goal was to craft social and political institutions that would allow them to preserve these qualities. Such understanding of individual lives was then projected onto humanity, which Enlightenment thinkers began to describe as a child that grows from innocence (the past) through confusion (the present) into self-emancipation (the future). Reflecting on the time before society was a way to explain why clericalism and monarchism, which legitimized themselves by claiming to represent tradition, were a recent deviation from human nature, Rousseau was the most prominent example for this intellectual move. As he proclaimed in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), people before civilization were happier and freer than in his time. Animated by the belief in science, Enlightenment thinkers inaugurated new ways to study this mysterious period. They systematically studied languages and ancient texts that until then enjoyed little attention.

The second and more important force behind the turn to prehistory was the radical expansion of European colonialism. As part of their justification for new conquests, many white Europeans and their counterparts in North America insisted that Asians, Africans, and Indigenous Americans lived in an earlier mode of existence. They may have breathed the same air and drunk the same water, but they represented an earlier and “primitive” stage of development, which allegedly lacked culture and self-control. The Enlightenment’s love of tripartite schemas proved especially convenient for this purpose, as many thinkers utilized them to divide humanity into three distinct stages. The French biologist Georges Cuvier represented a widespread trend when he categorized all humans as either the “savage” who had no rules, the “barbarian” whose lives were governed by tradition, and the “civilized” who embraced rationality and self-improvement. In this intellectual universe, the study of prehistory was a way to classify Indigenous enemies and explain why they were destined to be superseded by “advanced” races. As the British banker and archaeologist John Lubbock explained in 1870, the value of prehistory was its service to “an empire such as ours.”