Friday, February 24, 2012


I just read something very interesting:

"From the earliest times of which we have record-back, say, to two thousand years before Christ-down to the beginning of the eighteenth century..."

The rest of that sentence and its context is not relevant to this post, except that it was written by a very well-educated man in the year 1930.

For all of my life, I have been aware of at least 10,000 years of human history. Yet here is a man, one of the smartest intellectuals and best economists of his time, who only knows about 4,000 years of human history.  Most of that probably comes from the Old Testament and other written records. Anything before Ancient Greece and the New Kingdom of Egypt is a mystery to him, and he shows no knowledge of the millenia-long histories of India and China.

In 1930, archaeology was basically just Indiana Jones-style tomb robbing and nobody had any clue about the overall history of humankind beyond what happened to be preserved in a few written texts. There was no concept of learning about the people of the past by looking at the bones and debris they left behind. Most of the background knowledge of human history and development that I take for granted was simply absent.

It is an incredible state of ignorance. Now I understand how Robert Howard could invent the ancient, advanced civilizations that populated his prehistorical world. As far as anyone knew, it could have happened. Human history might have involved hundreds of millenia of civilizations rising, prospering, and then falling into myth. It is only in the last 50 years of so that we have surveyed enough of the planet to know, with high probability, that there were no forgotten ancient civilizations with Iron Age tech or higher. 

We can trace our history to the beginning. We know where we came from and how. This was not true 80 years ago.

Archaeology has been responsible for this. It has advanced our knowledge of the world and ourselves in many ways. But it is hard to measure the value of this knowledge and put a good price on it, which is why archaeologists are constantly low on cash. It does not produce fun toys like research in physics and chemistry. But I think the quality of my life is higher because I know the history of the human species in a way that previous generations did not.

Edit: I posted to soon, I should have finished reading the article. The fun continues:
The absence of important technical inventions between the prehistoric age and
comparatively modern times is truly remarkable. Almost everything which
really matters and which the world possessed at the commencement of the
modern age was already known to man at the dawn of history. Language, fire,
the same domestic animals which we have to-day, wheat, barley, the vine and
the olive, the plough, the wheel, the oar, the sail, leather, linen and cloth, bricks
and pots, gold and silver, copper, tin, and lead-and iron was added to the list
before 1000 B.C.-banking, statecraft, mathematics, astronomy, and religion.
There is no record of when we first possessed these things.
At some epoch before the dawn of history perhaps even in one of the
comfortable intervals before the last ice age-there must have been an era of
progress and invention comparable to that in which we live to-day. But through
the greater part of recorded history there was nothing of the kind. 
This is so wrong that is it both funny and sad. Note the speculation of advanced civilizations before the last ice age. Archaeologists and historians have have given us records of when we first possessed all of the things he mentions.

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