by Gene Callahan
I’m currently reading Bryan Sykes excellent book, The Seven Daughters of Eve. Well, excellently written, and, I have to assume, excellent on the genetics. But there are a couple of fundamental misunderstandings of history present in the book, that I think are worth noting, because of the frequency with which people believe them.
The first such error is that Sykes keeps referring to “prehistory,” “recorded history,” “the beginnings of history,” and so forth. These phrases are symptomatic of the error, exploded decades ago by Collingwood, that there is something especially “historical” about written records, that they represent the “recording” of history by those “witnessing” it, and that, in their absence, we only have some fuzzy “prehistory” with which to deal.
But written records do not “record history,” and the task of the historian is not to note down and collect the history others have “recorded.” Those who were there, writing about what happened, have misperceptions. They forget details, sometimes crucial details. They engage in propaganda. They deliberately lie. Their biases distort what they “report” even when they are doing their best to be honest. And others, living later, engage in forgeries pretending to be eyewitness documents.
The historian must interrogate these sources, not believe them. And in this they are no different than a coin, a potsherd, a arrowhead, or the foundation of a building. The idea that, in the absence of written records, the historian cannot proceed, and must throw up his hands and declare that “Beyond here lies the mists of prehistory!” is akin to believing that, in the absence of written reports of a crime, the crime cannot be solved. (Collingwood, in fact, drew this analogy between a detective and a historian long before me.)
The second error appears only once in Sykes’ book, but is nonetheless worth noting. At one point, talking about his research into the genetics of living people as a way of understanding the historical past, Sykes writes, “Most of my archaeologist friends found this proposition completely foreign to them. They had been brought up to believe that one could understand the past only by studying the past…”
Well, I have no reason to disbelieve Sykes’ report here, but it is somewhat surprising that his archaeologist friends would think this, since what they suggest is their correct procedure is literally impossible. The past is gone; as Oakeshott noted, all we can ever examine are present artifacts from which we draw inferences about a now vanished past. Once understood in this light, the use of the DNA of living people in historical research, while adding a nice new tool to the historian’s arsenal, is no revolution in method at all: This DNA is a present artifact which we believe shows traces of a past beyond our reach, and we analyze its present state for what it can tell us about that past. The fact that we find these bits of evidence inside living people, instead of buried in the ground, may be surprising to archaeologists, but it is in essence the same method they have been employing all along.