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'Invention of Prehistory' questions our stories of human origins

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‘Invention of Prehistory’ questions our stories of human origins

Is what we think about the deep past actually more reflective of our present?

Where do our ideas about human prehistory come from? What do we really know about humanity’s origins? And is there any real difference between these modern scientific creation stories and those found in the annals of ancient mythology?

These are the questions which New York University historian Stefanos Geroulanos sets out to explore in his new book The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins (Liveright, 2024).

In many ways, The Invention of Prehistory is similar to W.J.T. Mitchell’s highly influential (and highly controversial) The Last Dinosaur Book (1998), which sought to uncover the reasons for our preoccupation with dinosaur paleontology. Mitchell’s conclusion was that dinosaurs occupy the same mythical role dragons previously held in our collective imaginations, and for the average modern person, dinosaurs are no more real than dragons were for the ancients. Geroulanos offers a potted version of this argument in Chapter 3, and extends that logic to the study of all of prehistory, which he characterizes as “more often a narcissistic fantasy than a field of inquiry.”

Because of this, it might be easy to mistake The Invention of Prehistory for an anti-scientific work, which is likely why Geroulanos is constantly reminding readers that it’s neither a scientific text nor an indictment of scientists and the research they do. Rather, it’s a history of ideas about prehistory and a reminder that all ideas, even scientific ones, can never be sealed off from the rest of society. To drive this point home, Geroulanos points out that while the originators of many of these ideas are scientists, many more are political philosophers, theologians, psychologists, military men, novelists, artists, economists, and a surprising number of lawyers.

Invention of Prehistory cover

Geroulanos begins Invention of Prehistory by arguing that after the banishment of Adam and Eve from the enlightened halls of academia, it became necessary for students of prehistory to recreate them, starting with French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savages.” They existed in Edenic bliss because of their lack of both church and state (two things Rousseau could not abide in his own time), and of personal property.

Rousseau’s noble savage would later influence 19th century romantic ideas about ancient Germanic barbarians, outlined in Chapter 2, who Geroulanos sees as recapitulations of the mythical hero Sigurd. As a result, when the first Neandertal fossils were unearthed in Germany’s Neander’s Valley in 1856, our distant cousins were seen as the first barbarians — simultaneously threatening, but also strangely appealing.

Chapter 6 of Invention of Prehistory explores the idea that ancient people lacked personal property, which appealed strongly to German socialist theorist Friedrich Engels, who argued that the default state of society was that of “primitive communism.” Engles drew inspiration from the work of New York senator Henry Lewis Morgan, who authored several books explaining that this lack of personal property stemmed from early society being matriarchal, since one could only inherit property through one’s father. Swiss philologist Johann Jakob Bachofen built on this notion and fantasized about a mother-goddess cult as humanity’s earliest expression of religiosity.

This talk of a matriarchal, goddess-worshipping early culture appealed greatly to 19th century suffragettes. In the mid-20th century, English feminist playwright Elaine Morgan furthered these arguments via her promotion of the pseudoscientific “aquatic-ape” hypothesis of human origins, as discussed in Chapter 19 of Invention of Prehistory. By the time geneticists had introduced the gestalt figure of Mitochondrial Eve in the mid-1980s, Geroulanos writes in his Epilogue, the narrative had come full circle.

This is only one of several threads which Invention of Prehistory traces in its wide-ranging, fast-paced, and highly readable exploration of the prehistoric imagination. What such cultural history best demonstrates is that while scientists may be able to easily discard ideas which empirical data no longer supports, the general public often cannot, and inaccurate or outmoded notions of the past will linger – especially in the realm of popular fiction – if they continue to prove provocative, interesting, or culturally useful.

As the subtitle of Invention of Prehistory indicates, Geroulanos sees our preoccupation with prehistory not as a mere fascination, but rather an “obsession,” and an often dangerous one. However, even before the Nazis (the subject of Chapter 12), the search for humanity’s beginnings had adverse effects. Despite being a vocal opponent of colonialism and the slave-trade, Rousseau ended up abetting both, as his characterization of Indigenous peoples as noble savages helped to legitimatize bigoted beliefs that they were fundamentally “primitive,” and only a little higher than beasts.

This is where some readers are likely to be put off, as Geroulanos allows his academic objectivity to shade into a subtle cynicism. In a world where the problems of systemic racism and sexism, rising political populism fueled by economic instabilities, and wholesale ecological collapse are ever present, what real relevance does the highly speculative study of prehistory really have? At their worst, Geroulanos fears that such ideas about the “deep past” are more likely to sow division than unite disparate groups, while also being used to justify modern horrors – like total war – via narratives of prehistoric “killer ape” ancestors, as seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

A great starting point for anyone interested in stories of our origins.

In Chapter 15 of Invention of Prehistory, Geroulanos considers UNESCO’s attempts to combat racial discrimination with the Darwinian “myth” of a raceless common humanity. Such efforts failed because as with all other origin stories, not everyone – least of all evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and geneticists – could agree that it was true. As a result, Geroulanos both begins and ends his book with a desperate plea for us to find a way of affirming our common humanity that doesn’t depend on something as flimsy as a creation myth, regardless of whether that myth’s origin is religious or secular.

If you can overlook Geroulanos’ editorializing, which is mostly confined to the Introduction and Epilogue, then there’s much value in Invention of Prehistory. While the individual chapters are too brief to be the final word on any particular subject, the book makes for a great starting point for anyone interested in stories of our origins and where such narratives come from.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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