History Is a Telescope

Posted on September 12, 2012

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Computers in the Jungle, Pt. 2.   Continued from The Measure of Stone Age Skulls.  An excerpt from Featherfolk, a work in progress.

In the story of humanity, actual history, history as told, history as memory, is as ancient as language.  Yet until quite recently in Western culture, only written sources were accepted for the production of scholarly histories.  But consider that written sources began to be available only some five thousand years ago, and, such as they are, these sources are relevant only to a small proportion of humanity, failing to be representative even of the societies which possessed writing.  Even the record we have has been censored by a hundred generations of tyrants who didn’t like what the record told.  Some of our earliest records are about the destruction of records.[1]

Excavations of the fourth level of the temple of the fearsome goddess Eanna, in the city of Uruk, uncovered tablets, some intact, others in fragments, pulverized or burned, that can be dated between 4100 and 3300 BCE.  This discovery contains a great paradox of the Western world: the discovery of the earliest books also establishes the date of their earliest destruction. – A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Báez.

As an instrument for seeing and knowing, then, text-reliant history is deceptive.  It denies a voice to the whole of humanity existing before writing was developed.  It denies a voice to oral, non-literate cultures.  It skews the evidence by favouring the stories of certain peoples while denying the stories of others.  History constrained by literacy begins 5000 years ago in Sumeria but—for the most part—500 years ago in the Americas.

History as written down, we must remember, begins with civilizations already established, already of ancient pedigree.  Eighty or ninety percent of human history is already over before written history begins.  And no historical culture ever invented writing or agriculture, music, art or science, religion or philosophy, medicine or psychology, architecture or poetry, or ever pioneered law, romantic love, or living in cities; they were the inheritors, not the inventors, of human civilization.  Civilization is a product of the Stone Age.

In respect of this, I am reminded of two stories, one from my own experience.

Ever since I was ten I have been interested in the night sky.  This interest led me to school libraries where I read about the stars and planets in books of popular astronomy.  One of the things I learned was that our own sun, as stars go, was a little on the small size.  On a statistical basis, according to the books I read, there were more stars larger than the sun than there were smaller.  Fast-forward to university, where, to fulfill my Arts-degree science requirement, I took a course in astronomy and geophysics.  There I learned that our sun, as stars go, was a little on the large size.  Statistically, there were more stars smaller than the sun than there were larger.  These conclusions were in apparent opposition to each other.  What had happened?   Had the sun grown since my school days?  Had the other stars shrunk?

Of course they had not.  But in the time between my first and later investigations, the technology had improved.  Telescopes could now make out stars smaller and dimmer than the telescopes of my childhood.  The star lists now included many small stars which the earlier technology had been unable to detect.  The sun had not grown, merely the list of stars smaller than it; the information available to astronomers was simply better and more complete.

My point here is that history is a telescope.  Using only written sources, it can see only what has been written about.  It is capable of clearer and better resolution only if we use all the information and understanding we have available to us.  The alternative is missing information, and, perhaps, getting things wrong.

My second story—and this one actually happened, too—took place at a scientific convention.  An astronomer, scheduled to lecture about the sun and how it works, began his talk with the sentence: “The sun is really a very simple thing…”  Immediately a voice from the audience spoke up: “You’d look simple too if you were 150 million kilometres away.”

We have to remember that history works this way as well.  Distanced by time and obscured by ignorance and a faulty record, some cultures may appear to us as simple and laughably primitive.  But, in the words of Sportin’ Life, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Our civilization is a mountain (if you’ll excuse an extended metaphor in place of an extensive review of the evidence.)  The mountain has been built bucketful by bucketful, by all sorts of people, over tens of thousands of years.  Each generation leaves some kind of mark on its construction.  The mountain has both peak and foundation, and not every bucketful of dirt will stand easily on the one before.  Some falls aside, and becomes part of the foundation.  Some falls aside, washes away, and is forgotten.  Some, alas, is deliberately thrown aside.

Today, in our turn—and like everybody before—our generation stands at the mountain’s peak.  While still seeing only a part of what there is to see (a condition of being human) we see further than most of them who stood at the peak before us.  We take pride in the height we stand on.  We wear the mountain like elevator shoes.

But it isn’t our mountain.  It wasn’t our effort alone, or because we are inherently wiser or better, that gives us the ability to see so far.  We have had the benefit of the sweat and learning of all those diverse people from so many places, of all those previous generations, who built the mountain that we are standing on, the source of our pride, our twenty-first century civilization.

We forget our roots and the others who contributed.   We lose sight of how we came to be where we are.   Arrogantly, we interpret superiority in opportunity for superiority in ourselves.

I suggest we are mistaken.


[1] A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, From Ancient Sumeria to Modern Iraq (Atlas & Co, NY 2008) by Fernando Báez tells a horror story for the lovers of knowledge.  It makes you wonder how much we know about the past at all.  It should be required reading for all historians.

Posted in: Featherfolk, history