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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fateful distinction between history and prehistory

Latest of evidence of human life goes back to at least 80,000 years back and much farther if we include neanderthal and other earlier specie such Australopithecus as one of our ancestors. 

Human history is indeed a history of progress, a quest for mastery over nature. Its simultaneously a history of growing consciousness, of accumulated knowledge and its imitation. This is as old as humanity itself and this process will live as long as humanity lives.  

While talking about history, scholarly circles divides whole period of human history into two categories. History and Prehistory. Briefly history is the period that covers the time spam from first human settlements which emerged in area we call Levant(its arc which connects Iraq, Syria, Lebanon into Israel, what we also Fertile Crescent) in modern world. In fact in its much tighter and acceptable  definition, it covers the time period from first civilization, which emerged in modern day Iraq approximately 4000-4500 years back(Mesopotamian Civilization). All that happened before is dubbed into a second category, prehistory. Prehistory has this comprehensible negative connotation as age of wilderness and barbarism, for if history is a history of material progress and growing consciousness, breaking prehistorical period from historical period, make it a period, that seems like static, which not much happening in it, as it happened in history. 

The fact that only a chapter or two is entertained to prehistory in history of the world books, and how the whole scholarly attitude towards that period directly or indirectly conspire to associate such notions as backwardness and barbarism with prehistory has one fateful consequences. There is genuine political fall out of it. 

Man lived without any institutional authority for thousands of years before civilization. All institutionalized authority is the product of civilization. It started when some of our ancestors tempted by the growing wild grains and other crops, and how this mode of food was much easier to obtain and secure, felt it more in their interest to settle down than to chase animals. Eventually, as agriculture progressed, and man started producing extra food, what we can call surplus wealth, because food was only wealth at that time, it led to social differentiation. First was the differentiation in occupations. As some people got free from managing for the food  because food was in surplus and could be stored, started doing other type of work, which eventually led to the creation of crafts and other works etc. Al though this was indeed a  tremendous success of mankind but it did not come without a cost. It came at the cost of liberty. The increasing surplus eventually led to the creation of classes within human society. Those who could control more food could also control people and impose their will.

 Such a hierarchy which has been the hallmark of human politics and political consciousness of last 5-6 thousands years came with civilization. We live in a world where hierarchy feels natural as the only suitable political order. This is because we don't really know if man has ever lived without authority. We are unaware of the fact that for thousand of years, man in hunter gathering societies, and even in early small settlements was very much living in an egalitarian non hierarchical social and political order. By consigning prehistory to a category of redundant field, as something to be considered as exotic not to take inspiration from,  and with negative connotations attached to it has caused this massive lapse in people thinking about imagining alternative political order. Man takes inspiration from history. History that we study does not let us take any anti authoritarian inspiration. For all history we read is history of kings, conquerors, aristocrats, statesman  etc. All history is the history of authority told by authority. 

The fall out from this hegemonic status of history against prehistory is real. We just can not imagine the world in any other way than the way we know it has existed. The fact is that the man has indeed lived in a very different way and for a very long time. And such world was not barbaric nor was it essentially of life in it short brutish and nasty. The longest phase of art took place in prehistory during the time of second ice age from 20,000 BC to 10,000 BC. This is  longer than the life of civilization itself. How can we say that world was without any art so there is no inspiration we can take from it? That world did not have most of the diseases that we have. Indians who lived in Americas were pretty much in prehistory when Columbus arrived there. Interestingly they did not have most of the diseases which civilized man had and approximately 80 percent of Indians died due to such transmitted diseases because they had no immunity against them. And one can take so many pages to write about things which were part of the social and political lives of our ancestors and have very positive consequences for human life and its still relevant to take inspiration from them.  

Purpose of this writing is not to elevate one phase of human history over the other. Our history is one. Al though man has made tremendous material progress in last 6000 years. But it did not come without a cost. And most importantly, looking at so much material progress that has taken place, it does not necessarily means that what happened before settled life by default  becomes a "negative" thing  we are not supposed to take take inspiration from. My inspiration from freedom come from prehistory. For when i say life without authority is possible, its prehistory which provides me a living example for it. Something which study of history, with all its material development, would not let you image. For, along with material development, history of last six thousand years is also a history of war, murder and genocide. 

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