The Rise of Prehistory

Donald R Kelley. Journal of World History. Volume 14, Issue 1. March 2003.

From the beginning of their craft historians have distinguished between matters recent or of record and antiquities that surpassed memory, if not understanding. Thucydides called the latter “archaeology” and relegated it to an inferior position, whereas Herodotus had not feared to pursue his inquiries into the exploration of the deep past, and in this effort he was followed by other venturesome authors fascinated with the question of origins. “Doctrines must take their beginning from that of the matters which they treat,” wrote Giambattista Vico, and this was especially true of human history. The problem with human history, however, has been how to locate this beginning, or these beginnings. About this there has never been any general and lasting agreement, but the quest has continued on many fronts. In the nineteenth century, cultivation of the arena of ”antiquities” produced a special field that was given the name “prehistory” (Vorgeschichte, prehistoire, preistoria, etc.): the emergence of this back-projected frontier and exploration of this new temporal horizon, which extended and gave a new shape to the study of history itself, is the subject of this inquiry.

Prehistory itself had a prehistory. The questions of pre-Adamite humanity and of human origins were essential to the ancient genre of universal history still practiced in the eighteenth century according to the old paradigm, “the grand design of God.” The great eighteenth century collection by a team of English scholars ( 744-1767), for example, remained uncritically tied to the chronology of Scaliger and Ussher and did little more than comment on the Old Testament story. Johann Miller’s universal history (based on lectures given in 1778 and published posthumously in 1810 reviewed the various theories of the”primitive condition of mankind,” caught between the idea of a golden age and that of barbarism, and the estimates of the ”antiquity of the human species,” such as that of Buffon (who suggested 80,000 years); but in the face of so much uncertainty and disagreement, he surrendered to biblical convention.

Herder, in the style of earlier histories of the earth, set his philosophical history of humanity (1784-1791) in the largest cosmological (astronomical, geological, biological) framework, and not until the fourth book did he reach the emergence of humanity (der Mensch, die menschliche Gesellschaft) as the culmination of the evolutionary—”fourstage”—story, laying particular stress on geography and climate and their influence on human diversity. Yet like other biologically oriented authors, such as C. A. Walkenaer, who published a “history of the human species” in 1798, Herder believed in the unity of humanity and, in his anthropological conjectures and enlightened knowledge, did not deny Genesis—“the oldest scriptural tradition concerning the beginning of the history of humanity.” In the next century, Herder’s point of view was continued in Karl von Rotteck, who defined his “general history” (1812) as “the history of humanity” and “cultural history”; but he went a bit further by suggesting the ”symbolic” nature of origin stories, including that of Judeo-Christian tradition-though at the same time taking as historical fact both the Flood and the post-Noahan dispersal of peoples (if not the Babel legend). Among historians the biblical paradigm persisted long after prehistorians had rejected it. Amos Dean, for example, in his seven-volume history of civilization (1868), drew extensively on the work of Cuvier and Prichard, and yet, finding “no certainty” in such speculation, he concluded that investigation of the antediluvian world “must be more curious than useful.” The other strategy was essentially to ignore the minefield of prehistory, and this is that taken by Ranke, who began publishing his Universal History in 1880, on the grounds that the subject could not intelligibly be separated from “national” traditions and in effect public and political sources.

But the serious and critical pursuit of the story of humanity before the advent of written records was carried on for the most part outside of the classical tradition of historical writing. From the ”new archaeology” of the fourteenth century “antiquities” (Varro’s antiquitates), beyond the collection of curious objects, remains, and relics, were accessible mainly through the disciplines (or protodisciplines) of mythology, philology, ethnography, and anthropology. By the beginning of the nineteenth century mythology, which had been associated with poetry and primitive wisdom and what Thomas Burnet had called “mythological philosophy” had emerged as a discipline. As the Homeric scholar Thomas Blackwell wrote in 1735, mythology was “a Labyrinth thro’ whose Windings no one Thread can conduct us,” although it was accessible through an “original tradition” that, though perhaps corrupted, linked prehistory and history. Idealistic philosophy looked at mythology as an early stage of philosophy in a poetic, symbolic, and unreflective condition. For Schelling, myth was a kind of concealed truth that held the secret to the primitive and perhaps the popular mind that only philosophy in alliance with history could reveal.

Mythology and philology have at all times been linked, and they converged more directly in the later eighteenth century. According to Schelling, language was itself was a “faded mythology.” Both myth and language were subject to inquiries about origins and about the transition of humanity from a state of nature to that of culture, both seemed to pass through homologous historical trajectories, both were subject to historical as well as comparative methods, and both were revolutionized by the Oriental renaissance that threw new light on the Eastern background to Western civilization. The intersection between mythology and philology can be seen in various studies of the Homeric question, including those of Robert Wood, C. G. Heyne, and Friedrich Wolf. “The value and dignity of myth has been restored,” Heyne wrote; “it should be regarded as old sagas, and the first sources and beginnings of the history of peoples, or else as the first childish attempts at philosophizing ….” And moreover, “In interpreting myth we must transport ourselves back into the manner of thought and expression which belonged to that remote period.”

Philology, in the form of historical linguistics, promised a more direct and concrete access to remote antiquity. As J. G. Sulzer wrote in 1767, “The etymological history of languages would indisputably be the best history of the progress of the human mind.” In a more scientific age K.O. Muller argued that “[l]anguage, the earliest product of the human mind, and origin of all other intellectual energies, is at the same time the clearest evidence of the descent of a nation and of its affinity with other races. Hence the comparison of languages enables us to judge the history of nations at periods to which no other kind of memorial, no tradition or record, can ascend.” In the nineteenth century this inspired a quest for an original language, whether Hebrew or, through more sophisticated methods of historical and comparative philology, a lost Indo-Germanic, Indo-European, or “Aryan” root language. Loose analogizing still infected linguistic science, as shown by the work of Gregor Dankovsky, which, on the basis of similarity of words and grammar, argued that Slavic languages could be traced back to Greek. But such analogical speculation was increasingly challenged and corrected by the harder sort of evidence, which underlay the new discipline of comparative linguistics.

Beginning in the Renaissance, the study of newly discovered savage peoples seemed by analogy to offer insights into the earliest periods of human history-the North American Indians, for example, being regarded as the equivalent of the ”barbarians” described in Tacitus’s Germania. This was a view taken by Justus Lipsius and picked up again by Giambattista Vico and others, and it opened the way to a modem conception of ”anthropology” (which had earlier designated only the theory of human nature and was equivalent to psychology). Enlightenment voyages of discovery contributed much more to the knowledge of ”uncivilized” specimens of the human race. Even Kant acknowledged that “[o]ne of the ways of extending the range of anthropology is traveling, or at least reading travelogues.” And as his contemporary Baron Degerando wrote, “We shall in a way be taken back to the first periods of our own history … The philosophic sailing to the ends of the earth, is in fact traveling in time. Those unknown islands are for him the cradle of human society.”

Temporal horizons were expanding even faster than those of global space, as the story of human life was set within the framework of natural history, as the transition from a state of nature to a state of society was in effect historicized, and as nature was linked directly to what eighteenth-century scholars defined as “culture.” Biology, especially in its evolutionary form, furnished the largest framework for human history and the arena for discussions of questions of the unity or diversity of humankind, especially in the form of the significance of race, as Blumenbach substituted physiological standards for distinguishing races (1776) for the cultural criteria of Linnaeus (1758).

It is in this connection that the ”old cultural history,” established in the later eighteenth century by scholars like J. G. Herder, Johann Adelung, and J. G. Eichhorn, began its own ventures across the frontiers of prehistory into the history of the earth and its organic forms. These pioneering cultural historians likewise depended at first on mythology, philology, and early ethnographic researches, but then turned to more scientific methods; by the mid-nineteenth century practitioners of this popular genre were drawing on the full range of resources available for the study of prehistory. Gustav Klemm’s cultural history of humanity (1843) followed the pattern of eighteenth-century (and even medieval and Renaissance) universal histories, but turned increasingly, with the help of his own collections, to the ”material foundations”of culture. Friedrich Hellwald’s Cultural History in its Natural Development (1875) began with the history of the earth and “geogeny” and the beginning of life before examining “the dawn of culture”—the transition between prehistory and history—with reference to contemporary anthropology and archaeology. Another example was Gustav Kolb, who turned, for a better understanding of the earliest period of history, away from theologians and philosophers and archaeologists to geologists, paleontologists, anatomists, and natural scientists (Physiker) for enlightenment, and especially to the ideas of Darwin and Haekel, which produced a new “Copernican revolution” in the human sciences. Kolb focused in particular on the question of race, citing a dozen Naturforscher of the past two centuries to illustrate the ever-increasing estimates of the number of races of humankind.

From a historical point of view, however, these projects shared the defects of that philosophical or “conjectural” history of the Enlightenment. Each of them, however, tried to find a more solid base for inquiry into the deep past. The old cultural history began to include not only “spiritual culture” but also “material culture,” especially in the form of archaeological and art-historical remains. Linguists were similarly divided between “word philology” (Wortphilologie) and “thing philology” (Sachphilologie), and Muller was one who turned against the mythological speculation of Creuzer and Schelling to the realities of social and economic history. Indeed the ”auxiliary sciences” of history taught in German universities-especially geography, epigraphy, numismatics, and sphagistics-and art history in the style of Winckelmann offer ways to turn the study of deep antiquity into a hard science beyond intuitions of mythology and analogies of early linguistics.

This new science was “prehistory,” a neologism self-consciously introduced by Daniel Wilson in 1851. Prehistory (Vorgeschichte; prehistoire; preistoria), an international creation of nineteenth-century scholarship, 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 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.

John Frere published such evidence from a site in Suffolk in an archaeological journal in 1800, although its significance was not appreciated, or accepted, for another generation, as even the great geologist Georges Cuvier, who died in 1832, declared that “fossil man does not exist.” In 1813 James Prichard had already held out, in a speculative way, the possibility of the nonbiblical principle of polygenesis; by 1846 Boucher de Perthes—”founder of prehistory,” as a later philosopher called him 28—was already publishing his findings about “antediluvian man,” though these were not generally accepted in England until 1859; in 1857 the 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 conventional 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.”

Nineteenth-century scholars were inclined to celebrate the novelty of their prehistorical researches, but in a broader perspective the materials for this “new science” 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 George Agricola and Conrad Gesner on fossils were followed in the seventeenth century by state-supported efforts, notably in Denmark and Sweden, undertaken for the ”glory” of the fatherland, and the establishment of societies of antiquities (such as that of London in 1717, and the Dilettanti in 1732), journals (such as that of A. A. Rhode in 1719, which was the first, and Archaeologia, London 1770), and other publications and marks of professionalization. The discovery of Chilperich’s grave in 1653 marked a starting point of French archaeology. Other inspirations to archaeological inquiry came from the study of the ruins of Pompeii and from the study of ancient art history associated with Winckelmann. The appreciation of prehistory grew in circles at least marginal to historical scholarship, and in the view of Rhode as expressed in his publication on northern German antiquities, material remains furnished a much better access to the ancient Germans than Tacitus and all the accumulated commentary and derivative historiography.

Despite these unsettling discoveries, irreconcilable with the ”evidences of Christianity” still being celebrated by William Paley in the early nineteenth century, the big picture, the Eusebian chronology, remained long in place. As one historian of British antiquities wrote of prehistory, “We must give it up, that speechless past; whether fact or chronology, doctrine or mythology; whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America; at Thebes or Palenque, on Lycian shore or Salisbury Plain: lost is lost, gone is gone forever.” In his Pre-Historic Times, John Lubbock quoted these words of Palgrave to dramatize the revolution of archaeological science in that generation, and he painted a glowing picture of the progress of understanding the prehistorical past. Reviewing this progress, Lubbock, who had made his own tours of archaeological sites, including those of Denmark, described the periodization that archaeology had established (though anticipated by Y. A. Goguet in the eighteenth century): 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.

The English came late to this understanding, for continental scholars—French, German, and especially Scandinavian—had appreciated the high “antiquity of man” (Lyell’s phrase) for almost half a century. One pioneering archaeologist was the Danish professor of literature Rasmus Nyerup, who was appointed head of a committee for the preservation and collection of national antiquities. One result of Nyerup’s efforts was the founding of a national museum in Copenhagen in 1819, which was directed by his follower, Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, who was one of the formulators of the three-age system—“archaeology’s first paradigm.” This convention, already in use by other Scandanavian, French, and German scholars, was included in his influential guide to Nordic antiquities (1836), a work translated soon after into German (1837) and English (1838). A variation on the new periodization was offered by Sven Nilsson, professor of Zoology at Lund-savage, barbarian, agricultural, and (taking over the rubric of historians) civilized. Nilsson’s work on the primitive inhabitants of Scandinavia, published in 1834, was translated in 1868 by Lubbock, who drew on other Scandinavian research and publications.

A central-pioneering as well as popularizing-figure in nineteenth-century prehistorical studies was J. J. A. Worsaae, whose work accompanied and ornamented the formation of the Danish state G849). Worsaae, who prepared himself by traveling to Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Hungary, Russia, and elsewhere, ended up as both professor of archaeology at the University of Copenhagen and head of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities. Worsaae’s first book, which was on Nordic antiquities, was published in 1843 and soon translated into German and English. The antiquities of Greece and Rome had long been under scrutiny, he wrote, but not those peoples who had never been conquered and overlaid by classical civilization, although materials were now available, such as those collected by Thomsen in the Royal Museum. Here Stone, Bronze, and Iron Age artifacts could be examined and Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian cultures compared with others; moreover, the transition from warlike to agrarian societies could be traced in more than a conjectural way.

For Worsaae the ”progress of culture” was measured not by writing but “as indicated by the appearance of pile-dwellings and other remains.” However, though cautious in expanding temporal horizons much beyond the conventional limits set by religious faith, he was convinced of the global range of the human species through the cultural continuum divided into the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. At first 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 later wrote, “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.”

As Worsaae argued, Europe was settled late, and Scandinavia even later, after the human race had already spread elsewhere. The evidence for this was above all Stone Age antiquities, as exemplified by India, where these were regarded with “superstitious awe.” From here humanity migrated northward, eventually moving as far as the Bering Strait, across to America, and from the western hemisphere to the islands of the South Seas (an assumption which was still guiding Thor Heyerdal over a century later). They also moved to the Mediterranean, and Worsaae found the great Mommsen wrong in denying settlements in Italy before agriculture: “The museums of Italy tell a different story and might have warned so careful an archaeologist from roundly asserting a negative.” (Mommsen, in his epigraphical enthusiasm, had little respect for what he regarded as the amateurism of field archaeology.) Stone Age peoples migrated northward, between the ”so-called ice ages,” arriving in Scandinavia after “the Mammoth or Reindeer period or the ‘Paleolithic’ Age.” Worsaae distinguished between the Danish population and those “higher dominant people” arriving from the north, although they shared the same global paleolithic culture, as the evidence of braves indicates.

But the story told by scattered archaeological evidence was incomplete, Worsaae admitted, and needed to be filled in by comparison with modern savage culture beyond the European and Aryan context. This was the argument, too, of Lubbock and others, who turned to the evidence of modern ethnography to supplement what tradition, history, and prehistory could provide. The idea of the ”antiquity of man” was confirmed by the evolutionary ideas that emerged and began to prevail in the wake of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species of 1859. Darwinism, preceded by the naive evolutionism of Spencer, Chambers, and Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, gave systematic and scientific basis (as in Spencer’s “laws of evolution”) to age-old organistic and biological analogies, 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 Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages. The uses of archaeology diminish, however, with the emergence of written culture, so that “monumental records and ancient relics,” as Worsaae acknowledged, “become mere illustrations of the internal and external contemporary conditions of civilisation,the main features of which are already known in history.” Later archaeologists, such as Gabriel de Mortillet, likewise insisted on the priority of cultural over narrowly paleontoloical criteria.

Scandinavian history drew extensively on archaeology as well as philology, medieval chronicles, documentary collections, and Latin scholarship, which, as in the cases of the major states, had been published since the sixteenth century, and some of it was translated into German, French, and English. In 1832 Eric Geijer, professor of history at the University of Upsala since 1817, published his history of Sweden, in which he drew on “relics” as well as tradition, mythology, and medieval and classical sources. More directly relying on archaeological sources was Thomsen’s guide to Nordic antiquities, published in 1837, which included illustrations of graves, ships, tools, medals, and runic inscriptions, with comparative asides about American antiquities culled from Alexander von Humboldt’s discoveries.

In 1852 P. A. Munch published a study of Norse folk history, dedicated to Rudolf Keyser (himself later the author of a comprehensive book on Norse social history) and making use of the work of Worsaae as well as Grimm and German explorations of the ”mark” organization apparently shared by Germans and Scandinavians. C. F. Allen’s pioneering history of Denmark, inspired by a competition of the Society for Posterity (Selskabetfor Efterslaegten) and supported by a massive bibliographical foundation, inquired into Danish prehistory, mythology, language, and runes to illuminate the early phases of national culture (including manners, customs, domestic life, laws, institutions, literature, and above all language). This is only a sampling of a vast bibliography, only a small fraction of which achieved European currency.

In 1870 Louis Figuier argued that the science of prehistory did not yet exist but rather was a “chaos” of geology, ethnology, paleontology, archaeology, and history. Forty years earlier, the ”antiquity of man” and the ages of stone, bronze, and iron were still being denied, even by men of science, but the growing mass of evidence, such as that of Frere at the beginning of the century, drove even the cautious Cuvier to admit the possibility of a deep antiquity for the human species. Meanwhile there appeared a large accumulation of books, popular and scholarly, addressing and trying to give historical and scientific form to this “chaos” and to the notion of pre-Adamic culture, about which Renaissance scholars had also speculated.

All of this historiography was shaped by the intellectual and political currents of Europe before and after the traumatic experiences of 1848, and then of 1870. Allen in particular took part in the linguistic nationalism that fired European states in the nineteenth century. In the storied Schleswig-Holstein question, the Danes, as a minority in the Duchy of Schleswig, were menaced and eventually conquered by the new German state, and in 1848 Allen already published a book on the deep background of the underlying Sprachkampf. The ”fanaticism” of the Germans had deep roots, and so did their tendency to overreach their natural-that is, national-bounds, as in their conflicts with the Slavs. In the mid-nineteenth century this linguistic (underlying a poorly concealed political) imperialism was threatening not only the equally old and rich Danish language but also the culture of which it was part. So Allen, like other representatives of small nationalities, invoked cultural history against the new state politics of his age-in vain, of course, except for the outer reaches of European historical understanding.

Prehistorical studies outside of the historiographical tradition increasingly provoked skepticism even among historians about the biblical paradigm, as in the universal histories of Friedrich Scholsser and especially Gustav Struve, who, while acknowledging that history began in darkness, attacked the ”blind Bible-believers” who denied the pre-Adamic existence of humanity, including that of America and Australia. Evolutionism became commonplace in the wake of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and the work of Ernst Haeckel and Friedrich Ratzel 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 both on the history of humanity and “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 of the earliest intellectual development,” followed the anti-Kantian critique of Herder, insisting on the growth of human reason rather than the structure of ”pure” reason. In any case, by the later nineteenth century prehistory was not something that students of world history (or indeed national history) could ignore.

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, although 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 produced by material and spiritual culture, whether governed by laws of providence or of secular progress.

There was a tradition of pre-Columbian history, too, though it was largely expressed in old rumors, prophecy, and poetic visions going back to Dante and Petrarch, and not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did scholars pass beyond myth and ungrounded speculation to ethnological inquiries into the origins of the Indian populations of the Americas, such as arguments for the Israelite origins of the Indians and Grotius’s 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,” and none of them, he went on to add, without some plausibility.

These were not questions investigated by George Bancroft, Richard Hildreth, and other early national historians, but other scholars had long discussed them. The Asiatic theory of American origins, upheld by Lafitau, Alexander von Humboldt, and Charles Lyell, among others, 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 Heyerdahl’s ideas of Polynesian contacts were defended and those of the Welsh (at least indirectly, even by Tylor), and so were Irish claims, based on legend. Less plausible but no less long lasting were arguments for Jewish migrations to the New World, based on speculations about the Ten Tribes of Israel, a theory, assisted by ingenious linguistic analogies, which was apparently accepted by Roger Williams and William Penn. The vast work of William Prescott’s predecessor Lord Kingsborough, otherwise a useful scholarly collection, was a late effort it moonshine theory,” Prescott called it-to prove the Jewish origins of Mexican civilization.

At first American antiquarian studies were locked into biblical chronology and ethnological speculations drawn from the Old Testament. In 1833, for example, there appeared Josiah Priest’s work on American antiquities that begins on Mount Ararat after the Flood, which he tries to explain in natural terms rather than as an effect of ”God’s power.” Priest proceeded through conjectures about linguistic connections and about ancient discoveries attached to many scattered archaeological finds (drawn from antiquarian journals). He described the remains of mammoths (which Jefferson believed still existed) in awe-struck terms and associated them with the behemoth mentioned in the book of Job, and his ethnographic interpretations are likewise tied to scriptural passages. Although Priest believed that the peopling of America was antediluvian, he was especially interested in finding possible Jewish connections, as well as Roman, Greek, Phoenician, and of course Scandinavian connections.

Another devout study of American antiquities was published in 1841 by Alexander Bradford, who claimed to spurn such conjectures and to rely on the most trustworthy authorities. Geological evidence, monuments, mythology, and traditions (some “as old as the deluge”) were, through scientific publications like the transactions of the American Philosophical Society and Archaeologia Americana, the means to extricate historical fact from the ”folly and superstition” of earlier ages. Bradford affected to see traces of traditions about the New World in Plato and Proclus. He examined the various theories of origins Hebrews, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Hindus, Chinese, Tartars, Malays, Polynesians, Northmen, Welsh, the Indians themselves—and judged them in “moral,” not “demonstrative,” terms, that is, according to the degree of probability, but also admitting comparisons and analogies, including physical similarities, as the basis for plausible argument. He concluded that racially the Indians may be traced to almost all of these, though the question of earliest origins remains a mystery, and history must now, he thought, turn to the time “when a new race, and the Christian religion, were appointed to take possession of this soil.”

What effect did these inquiries and discoveries have on the writing of American history? Pioneering authors like George Bancroft, Richard Hildreth, and John Gorham Palfrey preferred to skirt the question with a few references to earlier speculations, but of course they were writing when the issues were in a state of massive confusion and deadly controversy. In 1843 Prescott, confronting the question in the context of Mexican civilization (and in an appendix to his book), surveyed the myths and theories deriving from discredited notions of the unity of the human race, including the transplantation of animals, whether by angels or men, to the New World. The key question was precisely where men reached America. Religious analogies, including the Flood, communion, and baptism, had been invoked, as had those in science, art, architecture, language, especially Mayan hieroglyphics, and physical structure and appearance; but in the end Prescott doubted those who claimed to see similarities, and he found the differences more striking. So he 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.

But of course traditional historians could not evade the discoveries and debates provoked by prehistorians. The major issues have focused on the pre-Columbian contacts made by the Scandinavians over several centuries, testified to mainly by the traditions preserved in Icelandic sagas and later historical writings, especially those collected in the Landnamabok. The sagas had been put into writing by the thirteenth century, and Scandinavian scholars have tended to give them great credence, beginning with the seventeenth-century historian Olaus Magnus and including the later works (cited by Winsor) of P. H. Mallet, E. J. Geijer, P. A. Munch, K. Keyser, Henry Wheaton, and Maurer. Part of the story is the colonization of Greenland by Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson, based on materials collected in the Antiquitates Americanae, edited by C. C. Rafn 0837).

Most controversial was the story of the voyages to Vinland, whether region or island, mentioned in Adam of Bremen and Ordericus Vitalis as well as in a number of other manuscripts. Wheaton argued that Vinland should be sought in New England and Humboldt, somewhere between Newfoundland and New York; Daniel Wilson accepted the view in general, but Bancroft and Hildreth remained skeptical.60 Arguments for the thesis were geographical, linguistic, ethnological, physical, and archaeological, only the last of which seemed very persuasive, but even these (for example, the Dighton Rock) seemed to be of Indian origin. The Norsemen did meet American natives (Skraelings), but they were probably Eskimos.

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 myth and legends, similarities of customs and rituals, intuitive etymologies, comparative linguistics, physical and cultural anthropology, and archaeology (later to be supplemented by radiocarbon and DNA testing); and though the standards and techniques change, the results are still coming in. The question of the ”antiquity of man” raised by Charles Lyell, a recent convert to Darwinism, in his book of that title published in 1863, was imported into America, and at first encountered the same sort of religious resistance as it had in Europe, especially in England. But the work of Tylor, Lubbock, Bastian, and Theodor Waitz, which was based on studies of American Indians, eventually shifted opinion within the scientific community, and in 1896 Andrew Dickson White could celebrate the victory of Darwinism and the findings of comparative ethnology and comparative philology over the obscurantist theological champions of the ”fall of man.”

White’s work signaled the victory of evolutionism in some circles, but questions of prehistory were pursued along more sophisticated lines arising from the ”New Science of Anthropology” and especially archaeology. “Between 1780 and 1860,” according to 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.” As in Europe, the fact that human remains were found along with those of extinct mammals forced acceptance of the antiquity of man and, as C. C. Abbott concluded, following Scandinavian scholars, his existence in paleolithic times in America.

Proofs, assembled by Winsor, continued to accumulate, especially with the collective efforts reflected in the proliferation 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 Archeological Institute of America (1879), the American Journal of Archeology (iMi), the American Folk-Lore Society (1888), the Smithsonian Institution (1846), the Peabody Museum (1866), and others. The assault onthe remote past was concerted and broadly based, and yet, as in Europe, the efforts were mainly descriptive and analytical, with no stable synthesis except the macro-doctrine of Darwinian evolution-appearing before the twentieth century.

American antiquarianism was created in the pious old European image. The American Antiquarian Society called its proceedings Archaeologia Americana, in memory of the eighteenth-century English Archaeologia, and associated itself with a grand tradition going back to Charlemagne, under Alcuin’s aegis (if not the legendary Irish society founded seven centuries before Christ), the English Society of Antiquaries of the sixteenth century, and the recent foundation in Copenhagen. In 1813 the Reverend William Jenks gave an address in which he remarked on the ”high antiquity” that infidels like Dupuis and Volney had assigned to the Egyptians, but was pleased to add the such “pagan fictions” had been disproved by “learned Antiquaries” acquainted with the truths of revelation (citing Georg Horn and Robertson, among others). The society was especially solicitous about collecting books, but it also sponsored field work, for example on the ”Western mounds of earth,” which promised enlightenment on preColumbian America. But of course over the next two generations, as the thesis of the ”Antiquity of Man” gained support, the society was itself drawn into infidelity and even Darwinist ideas, as were other organizations. In its first annual report, for example, the American Bureau of Ethnology, directed by J. W. Powell, was showed itself fully committed to ideas of evolution, at least in language.

The ”antiquity of man” in North America was well established by the time of the publication of Winsor’s great “narrative and critical history,” of which the first volume was dedicated to “prehistory” (the Americans accepting Wilson’s coinage). Evidence had come to the surface earlier, but that was, wrote one contributor, “before the science of prehistorical archaeology had formulated her laws.” There was no “mysterious, superior race” and indeed no “civilized peoples” before the great discoveries, but paleolithic remains suggested that humanity in the New World, paradoxically, was older than that in the Old World. In any case, by the later nineteenth century European and American prehistorical researches had come to a global consensus, if not in their conclusions, then in the agenda for further explorations of the dark times before recorded history.

This was the old paradigm of prehistory, but of course it was to undergo fundamental alterations in the twentieth century in the wake of technical advances and accumulated discoveries that undermined the linear pattern underlying not only the writing of universal history but also early evolutionary thought. As the three-stage theory was elaborated into four, then five, stages, growing awareness of global diversity drove archaeology, anthropology, and so prehistory to notions of cultural multiformity and plurality, complicating the grand narrative of Eurocentric history. Modern cultural studies and multiculturalism open another story, but it is useful to recall that they have their roots in a smaller vision of the world and its history, which venturesome interdisciplinary scholars expanded and transformed, perhaps against their hegemonic instincts, in the spirit of curiosity and exploration. Moving from the known (familiar and traditional concepts of time and space) to the unknown and unimagined, they sought worlds lost to experience and illuminated at least some of the buried traces of human existence in the undefined, perhaps undefinable, period of prehistory.

“Prehistory” is a western coinage, if not invention, but from the beginning it had global aspirations and tried to extend its practice accordingly, as archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology were pursued by an increasingly international community, a new and more scientific incarnation of the old Republic of Letters, despite local interests and the forces of nationalism in the twentieth century.69 Increasingly, too, prehistory was joined to the Western historiographical tradition in the search for a global perspective, a “grand narrative” to encompass the divisive interpretations of national histories and the invidiousone of Western history.

In Henri Bert’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 to consider this period before the appearance of written it sources” (the beginning of which also marked the beginning of history and end of prehistory). Before spiritual advance came material endowment, and before language came the tool; 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, including scholars such as 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,” as Childe put it, “history with its prelude prehistory becomes a continuation of natural history.” It is a noble dream, though still unrealized; for while a vast amount has been learned about global civilization since Jacques de Morgan published his synthesis three quarters of a century ago, his conclusion still holds at the beginning of a new millennium: “What we know to-day is very little in comparison with what remains to be learned.”