Preliminary Warning about Early Prehistory

Historical evidence is discovered constantly, old evidence is reinterpreted, etc. This makes writing anything definitively – especially as an outsider without access to the cutting edge – difficult. Still, many of these are small changes. That’s not the same as minor change – they often led to large changes in our view of history, even if they appear to be fiddly minutiae – but I’m ignorant enough to trust sources that are merely recent-ish.

I don’t mock small historical arguments. On the contrary: without those arguments, I’d have no way to write any of this. Still, it’s easy enough to understand the parody. In 1923, scholars pushed back the fall of Assyrian Nineveh by six years. In the book Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek quotes a comedic poem from a contemporary:

But still I counted on the Past,
Deeming it as steady as a rock;
History, I said, stands fast;
And it has been a horrid shock,
A bitter bitter blow to me
To hear this news of Nineveh

They taught us how in six-o-six
(B.C.) that godless town fell flat;
And now the new-found records fix
A date anterior to that;
It fell, in fact, in six-one-two,
So what they taught us wasn’t true.

The gentleman who worked it out,
He got it from a slab of clay,
And it has seared my soul with doubt
To see the old truths pass away;
Such disillusionment (by GADD)
Might surely drive a fellow mad.

The changes in our understanding of prehistory as of, say, a few months ago, are not like this. They are massive.

For example:

  • Most even very recent scholarly textbooks will tell you that tools are some 2 million and change years old. We now know that this is off by a million years, as the first tools (yet) found date to 3.3 million years before today. The discovery was announced in 2015;  the tools were only found because someone took a wrong turn.
  • The discovery of anatomically modern humans in Jebel Irboud, Morocco, was announced in 2017. Those bones were dated to about 300,000 years ago. Until then, it was assumed that anatomically modern humans developed in East Africa some 200,000 years ago or less, and only spread out much later.
  • Many books written on Neanderthals (even those with very sympthetic portrayals) will tell you that the Neanderthals lacked symbolic thinking. A great deal of them will then hypothesize the consequences of this (e.g. “Did we outcompete them because…”), and almost all psychological theories will be working backwards with that assumption (“What would it look like to have us, but without symbolic thought?”) We now know that this is simply wrong. The earliest paintings we know of were found in February, 2018 (the essay you are currently reading is from July, 2018).

None of that is even to get into the single most consequential change: paleogenetics. Over the past decade, geneticists have almost entirely rewritten human history, from our interactions with archaic hominids to our migrations to our warfare. I’d like to repeat: within a decade, everything has changed. Certainty that humans interbred with other hominids, which is presumably important, can be dated to within a few years.

The point of this, I guess, is that everything I’m about to say for the next few essays should be treated with extreme caution. They’ll be about the paleolithic, they will almost certainly be wrong and, critically, I can’t rely on very many sources. Half of what I’ve read for them – written in, say, 2014 or so – is now incredibly outdated. The most recent and reliable sources still urge extreme caution. David Reich states bluntly:

By the time [Who We Are and How We Got Here, 2018] this reaches readers, some advances that it describes will have been superseded or even contradicted. In the three years since I began writing, many fresh findings have emerged, so that most of what I describe here is based on results obtained after I started.

Some of those results, presumably, have rearranged nigh-completely the archaic history of humanity. Given that simply following this story would take up the time for the rest of it, I’ll speak instead in relatively broad strokes, and come back to revise only when it seems completely necessary.

Razib Khan actually works in the field, and I’d recommend reading him for anything other than a broad overview. Then again, I’d recommend reading a specialist for just about anything here. This particular case is unique only in the scope of expected future revisions. Accordingly, I’ll keep a tally below of superseded versions of the old, old prehistory on this site.


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