Protohistory: The Leaking of History

Posted on May 15, 2011


History, now what’s that all about, Father Theo?

History is something that some people have and other people don’t.  Some people have so much history that it leaks over to other people.

Oh, I never heard of that.  What is that all about?

It’s called protohistory.  Protohistory is what happens when people, who don’t happen to have a history of their own, stray so close to Europeans that they catch some of theirs.

Can that happen?

At one time it was happening all over the place.  The effect of European culture, European technology and European expansionism on the rest of the world is the main subject of history, of course.  –No, no, really.—  But not all of such effects happened within the gaze of Europeans themselves.  That means, if you think about it, they were not-quite-history.  But given the European influence within the evidence, historians couldn’t bring ourselves to leave these matters out of history altogether.  So they compromised and called it protohistory.

But if these people became protohistoric under European influence, what were they before?

Historians once upon a time—or last Tuesday—divided the world into historical and ahistorical peoples, a fundamental divide.  The only way for ahistorical peoples to begin to join history was to adopt an influence from the Europeans, therefore to become protohistorical people.  And if they were very very good, washed behind the ears and ate all their vegetables, maybe the Europeans would move in and take over, and they could sit at the adult table with all the European grownups—and be historical too.

But what really is the difference between historic peoples and ahistoric peoples?

What historians and others seemed to think for a long time is that ahistorical people did not develop or change on their own, and therefore there were no developments or changes for history to map.  Protohistorical, the next step up from ahistorical, admits that there are in fact changes for history to map, changes brought by history-rich European people, but—uh-oh—no European is there to map them, sorry.

But isn’t this all kind of Eurocentric?

Are historians making a virtue out of ignorance?  Are they interpreting and assigning value to what they admit they don’t know?  Well, yes.

Massive ignorance on a subject says nothing about the subject.  Ignorance is always a short-coming of the scholar, not of what is being studied.  Factually, ahistoric doesn’t mean outside of history, it means beyond the scholarship of historians.  That’s all it means.

And protohistory?

That means history.  Period.

Posted in: history