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18 June 2024

The politics of the prehistoric past

Our understanding of the earliest humans is shaped by contemporary beliefs about race, violence and sex.

By Ann Manov

In one of Seinfeld’s infamous stand-up sequences, Jerry jokes that men flip channels on the TV while women find this behaviour annoying because “women nest, and men hunt!” Absurd as this instance is, the idea of a prehistoric gendered division of labour is broadly accepted, as are a million others: noble savages, brutish barbarians, ruthless males, gentle matriarchs.

Where do we get these ideas of the prehistoric past, which is, by definition, too distant to easily recapture? As Stefanos Geroulanos, professor of history at New York University, explains in The Invention of Prehistory, our conception of prehistory is closely intertwined with present-day politics. Geroulanos’s title evokes Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition (1983), which showed how symbols that we consider vestiges of ancient traditions – such as Scottish tartan – are in fact recent creations in the service of contemporary power struggles. Geroulanos does something similar for the even deeper past.

The belief in a prehistoric gendered division of labour, for example, is tied to more recent anxieties around gender. In the 1960s, the anthropologists Sherwood Washburn and Charles S Lancaster imagined that pre-agricultural families closely resembled postwar nuclear ones. In 1972, during the sexual revolution, the feminist Elaine Morgan conjured a gentle and independent female hominin in The Descent of Woman. In 1981, as women ascended the ladder in corporate America, to great consternation (think of all the Eighties thrillers about hard-as-nails femmes d’affaires), the anthropologist Nancy Makepeace Tanner argued in On Becoming Human that female gatherers had in fact dominated pre-agricultural society.

Was the prehistoric state of nature a gentle idyll of peaceful savages (like those in Paul et Virginie, Atala, or so much of revolutionary-era French literature), or was life “nasty, brutish and short”? Geroulanos’s study of Rousseau shows how the concept of the Edenic state of nature he envisaged in his Enlightenment works dovetailed with the optimistic vision of childhood he had developed to justify liberal education in his hugely influential treatise Émile, or On Education. The childhood of man (native) and the childhood of a man (European) blurred into one – a misty-eyed and patently illogical perspective that persists to the present day.

Rousseau may have deployed the noble savage to serve his liberal principles, but other Europeans came to see themselves as noble – and persecuted – savages. Geroulanos narrates how Tacitus’s Germania, a work of first-century Roman ethnography rediscovered in the Renaissance, became a bible for early nationalism. Never mind that the ancient Germani – pre-Roman inhabitants of Europe born in northern Germany – had never been an ethnic unity, let alone the precursor to modern Germans. Never mind that Tacitus’s ethnographic information was already outdated by the time he wrote Germania; the half-imaginary projections of a Roman angry with his own polity would nonetheless resonate with figures from Hegel to Himmler. The Nazis considered themselves descendants of Tacitus’s Germani, and believed their thriving rested on unflinching devotion to racial purity. So sincere was this identification that Himmler, in a famous incident Geroulanos describes from 1943, while in the middle of a retreat, with the Allies advancing northwards in Italy, deployed an SS detail to search the manors of central Italy for the oldest existing copy of Tacitus’s treatise. By fighting an external enemy in the Asiatic Russians and an internal enemy in the Jews, the Nazis sought to recreate the supposed racial purity of the Germani.

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Our concept of prehistory changed with modern science, though this science was interpreted selectively. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the discovery of Neanderthal fossils placed the childhood of humanity tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Archaeologists invented new terms to deal with the vastness of the past, talking first of the “savage, barbarian and civilised” stages of human history, then of the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages. The Stone Age was one of magic and fetishism, and the march of humanity was from superstition, to religion, to science. Darwin’s theory of evolution complemented this view. He argued that different cultures stood at different stages of evolution. In this ahistorical schema, peoples could be “ahead” of or “behind” their time – a useful belief for the age of colonialism. By the mid-20th century, some tried to combat the racism ingrained in the myth that indigenous people were a more primitive state of man: the anthropologist Ruth Benedict argued in the 1930s that in fact, “man everywhere has an equally long history behind him”.

The history of images of the Neanderthal is a particularly concrete example of how subjective these reconstructions of the past are. When Neanderthal fossils were first discovered and recognised as a separate species, scientists conceived of them as a “brute”, “simian” Homo stupidus, and compared them to indigenous peoples. Depictions of ape-like cavemen carried disturbingly racialised overtones. As research on Neanderthals developed, the fact that they interbred with Homo sapiens became accepted, and more complex social features were attributed to them. In tandem, the picture of Neanderthals changed: they were now white and resembled modern Europeans. Today, theories of Neanderthal assimilation have been displaced by theories of their annihilation by Homo sapiens, coming from Africa and overwhelming Europe’s earlier hominid populations. Members of the far right now see this prehistoric event as the original “white genocide”, showing us how advances in research on prehistory will modify but not eliminate its imagined racial qualities.

As theories of the prehistoric past multiplied, the question emerged of what truly separated “us” from ancient peoples. The story of this enquiry forms Geroulanos’s chapter on the “veneer theory” of civilisation – a term coined by the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who rejected the idea that civilisation is “a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature”. In the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes argued that Christianity was a tenuous veil over paganism. With time, the “thin veneer” came to mean the pretence of civilisation that concealed savage violence, exemplified for the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in American slavery and Portuguese imperial savagery. We, not Neanderthals, were the real man-apes.

After the violence of the First World War, Europeans could see themselves as savages even in their everyday desires. In psychiatry, Sigmund Freud viewed children and neurotics as vestigial primitives, with guilt and repression forming the civilising impulse. Meanwhile, Carl Jung embraced the notion of “archetypes”, common mental patterns legible in Indo-European mythology, reaching out from prehistory to shape our unconscious. Geroulanos discusses Jung’s heirs, from the American critic Joseph Campbell to the contemporary right-wing thinker Jordan Peterson, but he might just as well have invoked the “lizard brain” idea (which he later references in the epilogue). The belief that humans had a “reptilian brain” that evolved to take on more complexity is a neuroscientific parallel to Freud’s unconscious. It has become a way to characterise political enemies as subhuman – as Deepak Chopra said of Donald Trump in 2016, “His reptilian brain is on overdrive.”

Although Europeans came to recognise the savage within, the threat of the external barbarian never truly subsided. Geroulanos describes how in the 19th and 20th centuries the resurrected memory of nomadic invaders was adapted and applied to the “hordes” of immigrants, from the Irish coming to England in the 1820s, to Jewish refugees from the Russian Revolution. Ironically, the ancient Germans, themselves migrating barbarians, were later reimagined as a force of resistance against Asiatic invaders. The most fearsome new horde were Bolshevik Russians, a Jewish/Asiatic torrent crashing against the floodgates of Germany. Geroulanos cites the “Great Replacement” theory – a white supremacist conspiracy that white Europeans are being displaced by non-white populations – as a current instance of the “invading hordes” image. Another striking parallel might be the idea of Ukraine as a bulwark against the anti-Western Russians. Indeed, fighters from the far-right Ukrainian militia Azov regiment have been reported to call the Russians “Asiatic hordes”.

The relationship between a society’s imagination of prehistory and its views of indigenous peoples is Geroulanos’s most engrossing theme, but he neglects topics such as the interaction between ideas of prehistory and sex. Surprisingly, child-rearing is hardly mentioned. Michaeleen Doucleff’s blockbuster success Hunt, Gather, Parent (2021) promised neurotic Western parents that if they imitated “the oldest cultures in the world” they could raise “happy, well-adjusted children”. A quick scroll through Instagram, though, reveals a million “trad” influencer accounts urging mothers to breastfeed and co-sleep for years, as their foremothers supposedly did, lest their children suffer lifelong trauma. Anxieties about our prehistoric past seem as present as ever – though it seems to be the gathering sex that bears them most heavily.

The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins
Stefanos Geroulanos
Liveright, 512pp, £22.99

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[See also: The real Christopher Isherwood]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation