The Complicated, Problematic, Thrilling Search for the Origin of Our Species
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The Complicated, Problematic, Thrilling Search for the Origin of Our Species

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The Complicated, Problematic, Thrilling Search for the Origin of Our Species

Historian Stefanos Geroulanos is Director of the Remarque Institute and a professor of European Intellectual History at New York University. He writes on topics of conceptual history, science, and epistemology.

Below, Stefanos shares five key insights from his new book, The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins. Listen to the audio version—read by Stefanos himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Invention of Prehistory Stefanos Geroulanos Next Big Idea Club

1. Prehistory isn’t just the story of human evolution.

We often talk about human origins as if it’s just the story of early humans leaving Africa and populating the world, or about our transformation from ape to human—but it’s so much more. It’s about human inventiveness to create tools, the shaping of human posture, the origin of language, the beginnings of agriculture, the rise of cities and states, the story of gendered roles, and even the origins of theft, war, and violence. It’s a story about our brains and their transformation.

What’s more, it’s a story with a huge cast of characters. I don’t just mean the scientists, like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, or Margaret Conkey. It is also a story of Neanderthals, ruins of ancient Germans, supposed Indo-European conquering horse riders, feasts under a totem, and hominids with strange names like Peking Man, Lucy, and the Taung Baby. It’s about murders and primitive matriarchs and lizard brains and cave paintings and shamans.

When we look at the past, we fill it with speculation and beliefs. As I worked, I got really excited about these figures that rightly or wrongly populate our knowledge and take this huge, powerful place in our imagination.

2. Our talk of human origins is usually about the present.

When we go down our online rabbit holes, or when we read big famous books like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens or David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, we’re getting relatively straightforward popular science for learning about the deep past. Unfortunately, things are much more complicated than the easily accessible information makes it seem, because for a whole two centuries, people have talked about human origins at once in scientific language and in everyday language.

These two languages, scientific and every day, have never been pure. They have never been about the past alone. They’re languages full of ideas about ourselves and about the present time. Because we can’t avoid comparing ourselves to early hominids, conversations about them always include today’s humanity. We never think of early hominids alone. For example, a century ago, people thought of themselves as civilized and regularly talked about savages or primitives. During the computer revolution, scientists would talk about homo faber and the early toolmakers, homo habilis. It’s as though the more that we got into computers, the more we were compelled to talk about how we were originally toolmakers or creators.

“Both the good and the bad ideas have everything to do with how we imagine ourselves.”

And today, we’re constantly trying to find the right language to talk about the past. Some people talk about a creative imagination. Others talk about the origins of human aggression or neuroplasticity. Both the good and the bad ideas have everything to do with how we imagine ourselves.

Meanwhile, new discoveries are never cleanly straightforward. They’re piled onto giant bodies of scientific research, and often become parts of very elaborate debates. So many pictures of the past have been published and come to define how we look at our story, which has great consequences on how we interpret new information. The history of prehistory is a way of wondering both how we came to be and how we’ve been talking about ourselves this whole time.

3. The history of human origins is intimately tied to politics.

Politics is all over the history of human origins. The word primitive is an easy example. Europeans who thought themselves civilized and advanced would describe early humans as primitive, but that was the same term that they used for indigenous peoples that they encountered around the world. When they met native peoples, they understood these people as literally primitive in the way that people from the deep past were. They saw these native, primitive people as going extinct in the face of new waves of modernity.

The politics of colonialism and native dispossession depended entirely on this kind of action-justifying language. Word choice justified the way people thought about themselves, their methods, and the people they were colonizing. Nazis were great at this. Their antisemitism relied fundamentally on their ideas about Aryan versus Semitic racial origins, and they mined scientific research to find “proof” to back their annihilationist policies. And then even today, for example, politicians who want to sow fear about refugees use language about hordes of refugees flooding in.

The way that we talk about politics is mixed up with the way we imagine our earliest human past. It’s not simply how we imagine the origins of nations. It’s also about how we imagine early humans ostensibly descending into the savanna from the trees to embark on the great adventure of humanity.

4. We define humanity by way of our origins.

Why is there a need to understand human origins? Why are we obsessed with Neanderthals and cave paintings? Is it just that they’re fascinating and obscure? I think it is because we have great difficulty defining what it means to be human.

We use terms like consciousness, soul, or human nature, but many are full of problems. The more we try thinking about humanity in inclusive terms, the more we find terms like these to be quite messy. We might struggle to define consciousness, for example, in a way that’s not ableist. Or we might recognize that other creatures, like the octopus, have a certain kind of consciousness. But when we get rid of those terms, we start wondering what really distinguishes us as humans.

“We do, however, hold this potential to use the history of early humanity to create a sense of equality.”

We’ve come to obsess about human origins because it makes it easier to explain what it means to be human through this rich history. In many ways, this is a good thing. In many others, it is very dangerous. We do, however, hold this potential to use the history of early humanity to create a sense of equality—that we’re all equally human—and create a relationship with the natural world. Our relationship with the environment often rests on the assumption that we humans are just a bit better, just a bit more complex than those first creatures that descended from the trees. Perhaps this latent mindset encourages human mishandling of the environment today. We tell the story of humanity to define humanity and who we are, which has its benefits and problems.

5. Do a double-take at the end of the rabbit hole.

It’s totally fine to learn about humanity through its origins, provided that we are critical and intelligent in how we go about it. We obviously need to be careful to avoid all the strange and awful political images that can come from the study of our origins. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t delight in the early human past and our expanding knowledge about it, nor does it mean that we can’t think more intelligently about politics and ourselves. What we need is to start thinking differently about the past, not accepting knowledge automatically as if it were unpolitical, as if it were simply pure science, or as if it were simply correct.

I’ve mostly referenced horror stories in these ideas, but there are far more progressive stories. There are ways in which the past has been used to generate positive new ideas and possibilities in politics and society. Feminist debates about women’s agency in the 1970s, for example, involved a lot of efforts to destroy images like that of men out hunting while prehistoric women supposedly stayed at home. Feminist thinkers managed to transform the way people imagined the role of women.

Provided we understand the weird worlds studying our origins can corner us into, by learning the modern history of our earliest past, we can help direct our story toward a better future.

To listen to the audio version read by author Stefanos Geroulanos, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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