Prehistory is murky and often ignored. It lacks the appeal of the nearer, written past. We prefer to make use of Ancient Rome or Greece, China’s Confucius or the Founding Fathers of the United States to illuminate the present through the window of the past. The reason for this is that historians are building on the discoveries and conclusions of previous generations of scholars and there are two great problems with this approach.
Firstly, we now have a vast amount of data available to us which earlier scholars simply were not aware of. Secondly, those earlier historians’ view of the past was coloured by the prevalent prejudices of the time. For an early Western scholar, any culture in the past or present which lacked the defining characteristics of contemporary Western civilisation (advanced technology, complex social hierarchy, rational scientific thought and visually attractive art) was inherently uncivilised. Lacking the wealth of data now available to us, they drew on presumptions based on prejudice, rather than inferences grounded in fact.
Our concept of civilisation’s birth has now advanced to the border between history and prehistory. The Bronze Age, with its Homeric heros, palatial settlements and recognizable cultural groups stands as the first beacon of what would become a modern, civilised humanity. What came before this age of civilisation’s conception, before writing or metallurgy, was dark.
This is the same narrative of darkness which pervades histories of the later Dark Ages, when mankind supposedly fell into a lull in terms of technology, social complexity, science and art. The Middle Ages are seen as an age of savagery and superstition, even if this period saw continued advances in metallurgy, astrology, social revolutions such as the rise of Protestantism and an artistic flowering which paved the way for the so-called Renaissance.
The lesson here is that any narrative which attempts to portray the past in terms of periods of light and dark, civilised and primitive is fundamentally flawed and short-sighted. Previous historians saw past societies with no writing systems and compared them with contemporary illiterate societies: hunter-gatherers, pastoral herders and nomads. They have described these as primitive ways of life, either portraying prehistory as chaotic and barbaric or noble, peaceful in its savagery.
The wealth of archaeological and anthropological evidence now available to us defies any and all of these presumptions. It is highly likely that the pre-literate groups observed and recorded by early scholars were not backwards remnants of a prehistoric human condition, but rather societies which at some point made a conscious choice to live beyond the frontiers of “civilisation” or else were marginalised by the expansion of more “advanced” cultures. Roaming tribes of hunter-gatherers are characteristic of life beyond the frontiers of settled human societies and there is no reason why this should have been any less true of prehistory.
The myth of “civilised” and “barbarian” societies is as outdated as the xenophobic Ancient Greek cultures which coined those terms. Tentative attempts to trace civilisation further back into the deeper human past have already established the Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic as standing among the two most important developments in human history, the other being the Industrial Revolution. But it is difficult to persuade modern people living in industrial, non-agrarian societies of the importance of this fundamental shift in the human experience.
There is an overwhelming need to push deeper into this shadowed backdrop of human history, exploring the many other ways in which the hallmarks of civilisation pre-date any cultures to which its birth or conception has previously been attributed.