New Orleans For all of the superrich interest in space as a new frontier for the future, it seems that science is making major advances in discovering clues about our past. I’m not talking about last year or one-hundred years ago, I’m talking about tens of thousands of years ago back before the Enlightenment and the Euro-versions of history became the definition of today. Dating has improved for archeologists. Imagining systems in the ground and from the air are opening up new pages in prehistory. Discoveries both in water and where shores receded have revealed amazing finds. Joining with anthropologists, some are coming up with new questions, new possibilities, and new theories that offer a more nuanced understanding of the past than any of us were taught, and that some may not find comfortable.
Just to name a couple of breakthroughs in the recent past will give you an idea of this brave old world opening up before us now. Some findings are giving more weight to theories of North American settlement via boats to our western shores, rather than a land bridge from Russia. On the other side of the continent, the notion that Columbus discovered much of anything other than a well-peopled continent, make him perhaps the first here from Italy, rather than much more than that. Cultivated chickpeas have been found that predated pottery making in some societies by thousands of years in deep digs in the Middle East underneath Jericho. And, then there’s the find in White Sands, New Mexico, of a set of footprints dating back 23,000 years proving human activity in North America more than 10,000 years early than the Clovis benchmarks that had been settled versions of our history.
Putting the new pieces together into a more cogent understanding of our history actually really matters. Nick Martin, writing in High Country News, makes the inarguable point that this is an “indigenous story, not merely a triumphant discovery of capital-s Science.” Further, he calls us to take more seriously the oral legends of generations of Native American elders that have been uncredited voices that may be equally illuminating of the past, as their credibility rises.
A new book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow, make this case, and many more, even more powerfully. Not only do they draw on the history of first peoples in North and South America, as equal, if not superior, to Hobbes and Rosseau’s versions of prehistory that have dominated since the Enlightenment in Europe, but they argue that they may have developed superior models of human activity and organization that what we now take for granted. As they question, “…the very essence of our humanity consists of the fact that we are self-conscious political actors, and therefore capable of embracing a wide range of social arrangements, would that not mean human beings should actually have explored a wide range of social arrangements over the greater part of our history?” They cite the Wendat, the Natchez, and the Yurok as pathbreakers here.
This is exciting stuff! These discoveries offer us a new, and better, version of who we are, and what we are meant to be. Now, if only we’re willing to open our minds to this, rather than retreating stubbornly to past history, simply because it was “our” past history, rather than that of many, many other peoples, then we’ll actually get somewhere.