History based on events and stories, which are frequently considered as being the fundamental elements of history, effectively became evident at the same time as the discovery of written script. It was as if history had not even existed until then and that therefore the entire broad time-span of the past cannot be encompassed by those historical resources that are available. Without sufficient written information the time differences of the past are lost, their division disappears into short periods of time, such as days, months and years. Centuries and millennia without more specific content become mere concepts. This is not just about a preliterate period of history in a chronological sense, however - attributed to the Western conception of prehistory is the meaning that it is about something that took place a very long time ago. This is an evident misconception, however! Once we cross the boundaries of our own individual worlds, we inevitably come to the realisation that history, when we look upon it as the basis of a puzzle of recorded past events, did not exist in much of the world until recently. Africa, South America, most of Asia and the whole of Oceania remained without a past almost until yesterday. Even the most powerful country of the contemporary world was still outside the scope of history even long after 1492 when a call from one small sail boat sounded: “Land ho!”
Information about the unwritten past is provided for us by such sciences as archaeology and ethnology. The problem would be to be able to put findings like these into perspective without having had any contact with our own world. The further back we go, the more the historical perspective fades, notwithstanding the fact that geographically it may be the area in which we are now living. The second level of the problem is learning about societies that are “without a history”; in this case we are not travelling into the past, but we are changing the geographical location to one that is external to our own cultural and ethnic space. In such circumstances members of Western Society often feel that the history of the local population does not commence prior to the actual discovery followed by the arrival of Western civilisation.
|Overseas discoveries marked the commencement of a long era during which Western self-esteem was promoted at the expense of many indigenous societies. The immeasurable cruelty of the Aztec ceremony that the horrified conquistador watched, however, is not of a qualitatively different kind than that which he and his companions brought with them to the New World in the name of Christian civilisation. Illustration by Petr Modlitba.
However, why are we struggling with ignorance and with the lack of interest in societies “without a history”? The answer lies partly in our own cultural arrogance, whereby we do not feel any need to learn about the past experiences of others who are uncivilised - regardless of whether these are societies that are geographically remote or close to home and are different just in regard to their life-style of a different time. The problem of the lack of interest in a preliterate past, however, cannot be simply dismissed as ethnocentrism. Undoubtedly more blameworthy is the actual traditional theoretical framework for studying in recent times that is simply unable to cope with a past without a script.
In the 1930’s historical research focused primarily on individual events in terms of them being features that stand out from the structure of everyday life as something special. Historical events are only fragments, however, that do not refer to cultural and societal realities, and their concept primarily represents a reflection of who recorded them. History defined as a series of individual events is thereby restricted by which segments of events were recorded and that have been preserved to the present day. This selection, therefore, cannot be seen as either representative or objective.
One example might be an official presentation of the events that led to the outbreak of the First World War. On the 28th June 1914 the archduke and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand d’Este was assassinated in Sarajevo. This event then became the trigger for the subsequent responses that plunged the European Continent into an extended war. If we look, for example, at the French Press of that time, we will learn that it was not news of sufficient importance to appear on the front pages of the newspapers - the local news was considered to be more important. Likewise, the post-war documents, selected for a specific purpose, contain disparate information that, however, was also provided by actual witnesses to the Sarajevo plot.
What therefore does follow from this? When we speak generally about such narrative sources as the ubiquitous memoirs, biographies and chronicles that appeared, we must accept the fact that there are moments on the same semantic level in political affairs, economy, the personal ontology of the writer and also records that from our perspective, we consider as either being symbolical or as straight fiction. Once again, we will use an analogy that will help us to understand. One of the most famous songs authored by Bob Dylan is A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. It talks about a highway of gold, wild wolves, blackened branches and imminent torrential rain. Did the singer want to express the rugged natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains or being exposed to the bone by a heavy rain? Is the text a reflection of waiting for a ride when hitchhiking on some unnaturally straight American road? Or is it just a babbling imaginative sequence while being high on heroin? We are lucky that we are able to reveal the meaning of this exceptional song, because we know the context in which it was created. Dylan composed this song at the end of October 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the nuclear apocalypse was imminent. The singer later recalled: “I was in Bleecker Street in New York. We just hung around at night – people sat around wondering if it was the end, and so did I. Would one o’clock the next day ever come?…It was a song of desperation. What could we do? Could we control men on the verge of wiping us out? The words came fast, very fast. It was a song of terror. Line after line, trying to capture the feeling of nothingness.”
How to deal with a motley group of historical information, the original meaning of which was lost long ago? Traditional history copes with it by extracting, from the whole set, only information related to the history of political elites. Every history book is actually composed solely of such stories about rulers who made history by their deeds. This form comprising an epic story of all the names, dates and places is nothing but an artificial structure, however. A change to the concept of the past came primarily through an association of French historians involved with the journal “Annales d’histoire économique et sociale” in the 1930’s. They, among other things, also criticised the accepted concept of time.
Time as a physical value is considered by the exact sciences as being absolute and independent of space (which means that the time between two events is perceived as being same by all the observers). Anthropology and History are not exact sciences, however. History describes resultant dynamic development and changes, while anthropology captures the static condition of the archaic society within a “frozen” time-frame.
The problem with the concept of time from a historical perspective was addressed by the French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) when he was studying the history of the Mediterranean at the cusp of the medieval and the modern ages. The basic concept was to distinguish cultural time, perceived by people as representing the background of their specific society, their environment and its artefacts, from its actual physical value. Specifically, this meant distinguishing three levels of chronological diversity: 1) the seemingly unchanging horizon of geographic time, 2) acts of social, economic and cultural history, 3) level of events.
Want to learn more?
- Braudel, F. 1972. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. New York: Harper & Row (1966. La Méditerranée et le monde méditeranéen à l’époque de Philippe II. Paris: A. Colin).
- Carneiro, R. 2002. The tribal village and its culture: an evolutionary stage in the history of human society. In The Archaeology of Tribal Societies. International Monographs in Prehistory, ed. W. A. Parkinson, 34-52. Michigan: Ann Arbor.
- Giddens, A. 1979. Central Problems in Social Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Sorokin, P. A., and R. K. Merton. 1937. Social Time: A Methodological and Functional Analysis. American Journal of Sociology 42 (5):615-629.
Memory of the landscape is one of the valuable resources in regard to understanding past events and this does not just apply to those that are unrecorded. The following video is about the battlefield of the Somme, in the course of which, between June and November of 1916, a million men were either killed or wounded.