Donald R Kelley. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Historians have long distinguished between matters recent or of record and antiquities, which surpassed memory if not understanding, and which Thucydides (d. c. 401 B.C.E.) called “archaeology.” The pre-history of “prehistory” itself includes the collection of curiosities, remains, and relics underlying the emergent disciplines of mythology, philology, ethnography, and anthropology. The practice of prehistory was also apparent in the tradition of Eusebian world history (which was based on the model of Eusebius’s universal chronicle) and was set within the biblical framework until it was secularized in eighteenth-century conjectural history and shifted to the larger arena of natural history, as in the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder, Johannes von Müller, and C. A. Walkenaer. The pursuit of prehistory was especially evident in the work of Enlightenment philologists and mythologists such as Thomas Blackwell, C. G. Heyne, Georg Friedrich Creuzer, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and Karl Otfried Müller. As Heyne wrote, “In interpreting myth we must transport ourselves back into the manner of thought and expression which belonged to that remote period” (Müller, p. 256).
A major arena for the pursuit of prehistory ante literam was the study of cultural history (Kulturgeschichte), especially in the work of authors like Herder, Gustav Klemm, Friedrich Hellwald, and Gustav Kolb. It was in the later nineteenth century, however, that such efforts produced the modern discipline of “prehistory,” a neologism self-consciously coined by Daniel Wilson in 1851. “Prehistory” (Vorgeschichte; préhistoire; preistoria) drew especially on two new disciplines with old names—that is, “anthropology” (the philosophical study of human nature) and “archaeology” (Thucydidean prehistory). Monuments, memorials, and material objects offered historians access to a deeper past than afforded by written records, private or public. Graves, sepulchral urns, runes, and stone implements uncovered beginning in the seventeenth century threw light on the life (as well as death) and migrations of “barbarian” peoples, while fossil remains forced Christian scholars to confront, and finally to acknowledge, the notion of a humanity older than Adam.
Science of Prehistory
In fact the materials for the “new science” of prehistory had been accumulating for three centuries and more, without the accompaniment of a theoretical framework but with a substantial constituency in the republic of letters. The works of Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer; 1494-1555) and Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) on fossils were followed in the seventeenth century by state-supported efforts, notably in Denmark and Sweden, the establishment of societies of antiquities (such as the Society of Antiquaries of London, 1717, and the Society of Dilettanti, 1732) and of journals (that of A. A. Rhode in 1719, and Archaeologia, London, 1770), and other signs of professionalization. Archaeological inspirations came from the discovery of Chilperich’s grave (1653), the study of the ruins of Pompeii, and the history of ancient art associated with Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768). In the view of Rhode writing on north German antiquities, material remains furnished a much better access to the ancient Germans than Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56-c. 120 C.E.) and all commentary and derivative historiography.
Throughout the century local evidence continued to accumulate. John Frere reported on evidence for the antiquity of man from a site in Suffolk in an archaeological journal in 1800, although its significance was not appreciated, or accepted, for another generation. In 1813 James Prichard had already held out the possibility of the nonbiblical principle of polygenesis. By 1846 Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes (1788-1868), acknowledged founder of “prehistory,” was publishing his findings about “antediluvian man.” In 1857 Neanderthal man was unearthed, and in the 1860s John Lubbock was celebrating Frere’s discoveries, adding his own and those of Boucher de Perthes. About the old biblical chronology he wrote, “The whole six thousand years, which were until lately looked on as the sum of the world’s existence, are to Perthes but one unit of measurement in the long succession of ages” (pp. 1-2).
Even before the English scholars, French, German, and especially Scandinavian archaeologists had appreciated the high “antiquity of man” (Charles Lyell’s phrase) for almost half a century. One pioneering archaeologist was Rasmus Nyerup, whose efforts led to the founding of a national museum in Copenhagen in 1819, whose first director, C. J. Thomsen, was one of the formulators of the three-age system, which was “archaeology’s first paradigm.” A variation on this scheme was offered by Sven Nilsson: savage, barbarian, agricultural, and (adopting the rubric of historians) civilized. Nilsson’s work on the early inhabitants of Scandinavia, published in 1834, was translated in 1868 by Lubbock, who drew on other Scandinavian researches and publications. In 1861 Lubbock painted a glowing picture of the progress of understanding prehistory and described the new periodization in this way: the ages of stone (which he divided into old and new—Paleolithic and Neolithic), bronze, and iron, which replaced or gave solid reinforcement to the “four-stage” system of eighteenth-century conjectural history, by connecting it with more precise chronological—that is, stratigraphic—calibrations.
A central figure in nineteenth-century prehistorical studies was Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae (1821-1885), who was both professor of archaeology at the University of Copenhagen and head of the Royal Museum of Northern Antiquities. For Worsaae the “progress of culture” was measured not by writing but “as indicated by the appearance of pile-dwellings and other remains.” As for the “antiquity of man” he stopped short of Charles Lyell’s estimate of the age of the human race as about 100,000 years. “Yet this much is certain,” Worsaae added, “the more our glance is directed to that epoch-making point of time, when the Creator wakened man in all his nakedness into life, and therefore most probably under a warmer sun in some more genial clime, the more does that point recede into an endlessly distant undefinable past” (The Prehistory of the North, p. 2).
The “antiquity of man” was confirmed by the evolutionary ideas that emerged and began to prevail in the nineteenth century. Darwinism, preceded by the naive evolutionism of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), Robert Chambers, and Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, gave systematic and scientific basis to age-old organistic and biological analogies. It joined all human races, however defined, in one general process, and in this way extended the field of comparisons to the entire globe, which had been the scene of the ages of stone, bronze, and iron. With the emergence of written culture, however, the uses of archaeology diminish, so that, as Worsaae acknowledged, “monumental records and ancient relics become mere illustrations of the internal and external contemporary conditions of civilisation, the main features of which are already known in history” (The Pre-history of the North, p. 181). Later archaeologists, such as Gabriel de Mortillet (1821-1898), likewise insisted on the priority of cultural over narrowly paleontological criteria.
Evolutionism became commonplace in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and the work of Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) in Germany. The connection with prehistory became more direct in the work of Ratzel, who extended the views of Herder into the new discipline of “anthropogeography” and who published works on “the prehistory of European humanity.” A philosophical emphasis was added by Otto Caspari, who, investigating “the prehistory of humanity with a review of its natural development” followed the anti-Kantian critique of Herder by insisting on the growth of human reason rather than the structure of “pure” reason. By the later nineteenth century prehistory was not something that students of world history (or indeed national history) could ignore.
New World Discoveries
How did the New World fit into the prehistorical perspective that was emerging in the nineteenth century? The discoveries of Columbus and his followers and the imperial extensions of the conquistadores were incorporated without much difficulty into the “universal histories” of European tradition, though at first the political and cultural categories of the colonial intruders were imposed indiscriminately on the original inhabitants. The old theme of the four world monarchies was replaced by the modern succession of empires—Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and American—as a way of periodizing the grand narrative of Western history; and historians of all nationalities gave interpretations of the consequences of the opening of the new hemisphere. The old stereotypes of barbarism and civilization, too, were employed to distinguish not only the vanquished from the victors but also the primitive stages of historical development from those of material and spiritual culture, whether governed by laws of providence or of secular progress.
Early ideas of pre-Columbian history were based on old rumors, prophecy, and poetic visions going back to Dante and Petrarch, and not until the seventeenth century did scholars begin to pass beyond myth and ungrounded speculation to ethnographic inquiries into the origins of the Indian populations of the Americas, such as arguments for the Israelite origins of the Indians and Hugo Grotius’s (Huigh de Groot; 1583-1645) choice of the Scandinavians. Indeed, wrote Justin Winsor, “there is not a race of eastern Asia—Siberian, Tartar, Chinese, Japanese, Malay, with the Polynesians—which has not been claimed as discoverers, intending or accidental, of American shores, or as progenitors, more or less perfect or remote, of American peoples” (p. 59)—and none of them, he went on to add, without some plausibility.
The Asiatic theory of American origins, upheld by Joseph-François Lafitau (1670-1740), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and Charles Lyell (1797-1875), was the most popular, although specific tall tales of Chinese discoveries were discredited; and it was reinforced by the fact of the narrowness of the Bering Strait and its frozen condition in winter. Long before the Norwegian author Thor Heyerdahl, ideas of Polynesian contacts were defended, and so were Welsh—even by Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)—and Irish claims. In 1843 William H. Prescott, confronting the question in the context of Mexican civilization, surveyed the myths and theories deriving from discredited notions of the unity of the human race and in the end rejected Hebrew, Egyptian, Chinese, or Tartar origins for East Asia—but in a period “so remote, that this foreign influence has been too feeble to interfere with the growth of what may be regarded, in its essential features, as a peculiar and indigenous culture.” In other words, prehistory was largely a matter of speculation, and scholars should confine themselves to recorded and accessible periods.
Another question was that of the early contacts made by the Scandinavians and testified to by the Icelandic sagas written down by the thirteenth century and by later historical writings, including beginning with Olaus Magnus in the seventeenth century. Most controversial was the story of the voyages to Vinland, whether region or island, mentioned in the works of Adam of Bremen (d. 1081-1085) and Ordericus Vitalis (1075-?1142) as well as a number of other manuscripts. The problem was proving such claims, many of them arising from national pride, and the criteria for such proofs came to depend on increasingly strict and scientific standards of historical linkage. Arguments were supported by interpretations of myths, similarities of customs and rituals, intuitive etymologies, physical and cultural anthropology, comparative linguistics, and archaeology (later to be supplemented by radio-carbon and DNA testing); and though the standards and techniques change, the results are still coming in.
Archaeology and Related Fields
The idea of the “antiquity of man” overcame initial resistance, especially through the work of Tylor, Lubbock, Adolf Bastian, and Theodor Waitz, based on studies of American Indians, and eventually shifted opinion within the scientific community; in 1896 Andrew Dickson White celebrated Darwin’s victory over the obscurantist theological champions of the “fall of man.” But prehistorical investigations were also pursued along more scientific lines. “Between 1780 and 1860,” wrote Bruce Trigger, “archaeology in the central and eastern United States passed through an antiquarian phase which recapitulated the development of archaeology in England and Scandinavia between 1500 and 1800” (p. 105). As in Europe, the existence of human remains along with those of extinct mammals forced acceptance of the antiquity of man and, as C. C. Abbott concluded, following Scandinavian scholars, of his existence in Paleolithic times in America.
And proofs continued to accumulate, especially with the collective efforts reflected in the spread of archaeological museums and periodicals, beginning with the transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1769), whose president, Thomas Jefferson, was himself a pioneering archaeologist, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (founded “to promote and encourage the knowledge of the antiquities of America”), the publications of the American Antiquarian Society (1812), the American Ethnological Society (founded by Albert Gallatin), the proceedings of the American Association for Advancement of Science (begun in 1848), the publications of the American Geographical Society (1852), the American Naturalist (1867), the American Antiquarian (1878), the Archaeological Institute of America (1879), the American Journal of Archaeology (1881), the American Folk-Lore Society (1888), the Smithsonian Institution (1846), the Peabody Museum (1866), and others.
In Henri Berr’s great series on “the evolution of humanity” the study of prehistory—”still in its infancy”—takes a place of honor with eleven volumes devoted to aspects of the subject, including Jacques de Morgan’s Prehistoric Man (1925); and no survey of human civilization can omit consideration of this period before the appearance of historical “sources” properly speaking. Before spiritual advance came material endowment—before language came the tool; and the understanding of this link leads back to a modern sort of “conjectural history,” which underlay the efforts of the post-World War I generation, scholars such as Jacques de Morgan and V. Gordon Childe (whose Dawn of European Civilization also appeared in 1925), to achieve a “new synthesis” for the study of humanity in its terrestrial home. “Aided by archeology,” Childe wrote, “history with its prelude prehistory becomes a continuation of natural history.” Yet there is still truth in the remark made by Morgan in the synthesis published three quarters of a century ago, that “What we know to-day is very little in comparison with what remains to be learned.”