Monday, November 26, 2007


Caught: 'In the Grip of Sacred History'

"The narrative of Western Civilization as it is currently understood by historians in the United States has not fully escaped the chronological and geographical grip of sacred history. Sacred history, as promulgated by early modern European historians and their predecessors in the Judeo-Christian tradition, was a view of history that located the origins of man in the Garden of Eden in 4004 b.c. ..."

Read all of "In the Grip of Sacred History," by Dan Smail in The American Historical Review. (Grab a favorite beverage; get comfortable; long article.)

No wonder "Intelligent Design" sounds reasonable: We teach Unintelligent History.


In my humble opinion it is a problem of serial cowardness that is the hallmark of all of academia.

Academia has been controlled by religion up to and through the 19th century. Why get your buttock fired for delving into things the trustees would not like.

Historians are loath to go outside their precious written documents. If it ain't written, (preferrably in a western language by another historian) it ain't history. Fables, old stories, and oral traditions are not acceptable.

No one in academia is allowed outside the borders of their disciplines. Historians may not consort with anthropologists and archeologists, much less paleontologist. Besides no one get credit for a team's work.

Archeologist are the most conservative unimaginative discipline in academia because they are way over-reacting to their early fellows who mixed fantasy with fact liberally.

Anthropologist use oral traditions and they are not written down so they can't be true. Besides they are never on campus.

Academicians in general will not venture where grants, tenure reviews, and peer reviewed publications won't let them and those boundaries are defined by each discipline's old guards whom they may not contradict and still be part of the discipline.

Last but not least, it is safer to build on existing structures even though they may be wrong than build on new ground that will be cut out from under you.

One more thing, look out your office window ER. The earth is flat after all.
Interesting: Just now I am rereading a paper I did on a couple of the earliest Indian treaties, struck by the Continental Congress with the Iroquois, Delaware, Shawnee and others during the Revolution. They were not written treaties, but agreements marked by wampum and gifts, etc., although the Americans kept notes, of course. Trying to figure out how to make the paper publishable ...

And: In the history discipline, at least, outliers who can't be destroyed are made into gods.
I find the article fascinating, but I am puzzled by something - the idea of a "general history" seems very abstract to me. We have the very real, concrete histories of civilizations such as the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Indian, and others that extend back beyond what was considered, when I was a wee lad, the "birth of civilization", some five millennia ago. Yet, these were not considered "important" because none of them directly impacted the history of America, or so we were told. At the same time, we were bombarded with the nonsensical idea of "America the melting pot". It always stood to reason, for me at least, that if indeed America was a melting pot (which we weren't really) then it was necessary to have these non-western, non-Christian, non-European histories as a part of our understanding of who we are as a people.

The Sumerians had a sewage removal system that was unrivaled anywhere in the world until the 19th century. The Egyptians managed huge construction projects without the invention of algebra. The Aztecs (among many other per-Columbian cultures) had highly intricate social systems, also had grand architecture, yet had no concept of "zero" and never invented the wheel. What we call "civilization" is a parochial concept at best, and rather than address something called "general deep history", we might be better off discarding the last vestiges of Biblical baggage, and just examining the evidence we do have.

Of course, part of that would include certain biases, which might include notions of a preference for written over oral traditions; for taking the dating of events more seriously, rather than dismissing them as fantastic; for taking ancient chroniclers at their word, since they were there, rather than assuming beforehand that there was a certain amount of confabulation involved because the presentation of events (the sizes of cities, the sizes of armies and battles, the income production from agriculture, manufacture, and trade, etc.) does not fit some preconceived notion of what was possible in the past.

The best example of the last is the long dismissal of the reality of the ancient kingdom of Zimbabwe in southern Africa. Western historians dismissed it because it seemed impossible that a gigantic city ruled an Empire in southern Africa for several centuries, involving itself in trade north with the Arabs, east with the Indians, and perhaps even west to South America (the presence of African faces in various South American Native artwork seems to suggest there was at least some contact between the peoples). The reason this was impossible is easy enough to figure out - yet the denials continued until late in the 20th century.

There are many illusions we must shed if we are to come to terms with who we are - not the least of which is the illusion that the only civilization that counts is the one we're in.
Being trained as an Academic Geographer (an oxymoron at best) I am a heritic to Historians and Anthropologist and Archeologist because I am an ardent "Difussionist" (as are most Geneticist).

When I look at the evidence from a geographic viewpoint I see things differently than most other academic disciplines.

I see the boat people from 30,000 years ago landing in Australia and South America (Tierra del Fuego). I see the Solutrean peoples of 15,000 years ago migrating to America from Europe along the Artic ice pack and leaving at the least their tool culture in New England, Virgina, and Nebraska to be adopted by those already here who followed the migration of herd animals in a straight line from Siberia to the Great Plains States.
I see the evidence of Japanese technology all along the Pacific Northwest of the USA back at least 2000 years. I see West African Saharan culture in Meso America 3000 to 4000 years ago and Eygyptian culture 2000 years ago in the same place. I see Viking knors in the 1100's sailing down the East coast and around Florida, up the Mississippi, the Arkansas, and the Missouri rivers and leaveing traces all along the way.

People did these things over and over and over. Some left a lot of evidence, some left nothing, some left their culture but not their gene pool. People mix, people adapt, people learn and people fill up every niche they can. Unless something happens to stop us we will spread into the far universe in the same way. It is what we do.

There is hard evidence for all of this, but it is sparse. Oh yes, and where ever we go we will take our God or gods with us along with our sacred history what ever that may be.
Yes! If you look for the significance of peoples by what they deliberately erected to last forever, you'll miss most people. If youl look at what they discarded or accidentally left behind, or just didn't think about, you see more of their actual legacy.

I seem to recall from my historiography class that there actually is ocassional debate within the academy as to whethere there is, or can be, such a thing as "world history." Well, not if you look for it through the thought prisms of the present. Keep yer feet on the ground -- and poke around in it some! -- and you'll see that there was something here before nations and other modren organizations ... and the ghosts of corrupt governments chained together to haunt Ebenezer S. (It's that time of year!)
I wish I could remember where I saw the following historical anecdote, but it has stuck with me because it shows that, despite the narrative of "America" having been "discovered" by Columbus, and the recent blather about "globalization", the truth is that trade and travel are things human beings have done since time immemorial. The weaving together of our global culture in our contemporary age is only different in degree, not in kind, to what human beings have been doing since we wandered away from the north-central African savannah.

The anecdote in question revolves around a coin, found in an excavation of a Viking settlement in Greenland. The coin, I believe, was Genoan. While it might have been possible that it was result of Viking trade with that Italian city state, there were trace elements discovered through spectroscopic examination that showed it had a much more convoluted route from the Mediterranean to the ice pack (this is why science is so important). From Genoa it traveled through Arabia, up through Armenia to Russia, where it was used in trade with native Siberians, who used it, in turn, to trade with Aleuts. From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to Greenland, as the Vikings and natives of the northern Americas did vigorous trade. The time frame of this travel is just over a year, which shows how quickly goods could move in a time when wind and horse were the fastest means of travel.
A few comments on the comments:

African history: someone once said that African "history" has disappeared down the gut of termites.

Discovery and trade: The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial give a great example of both. Nowhere that Lewis and Clark set foot along their route were there not American Indians living or watching them travel. So much for "Discovery".
Also during the winter of 1804 as they camped with the Mandans in North Dakota they made several of a special kind of tommahawk out of an old stove and traded them for corn. The next fall they found that one of their tommahawks had already been traded all the way west to the Salish tribe in Idaho. It had traveled west faster than they had.
In another example as they traveled down the Columbia River they encountered Chinese coins incorporated into the ornamentation of womens clothing.

All that technology does is compress time and space, it seldom changes the nature of what we do.
I remember as a kid all those Chariots of the Gods kinds of books, in which "startling discoveries" of Phoenician coins and relics in Mexico; Chinese coins and artifacts up and down the west coast of the Americas; African relics and images in South America; various pre-Columbian European relics on the eastern seaboard of the US were all brought up as "shocking". Seen in the context of the human tendency to (a) travel; (b) seek to do business with those they meet on their travels; (c) not consider either of these things "startling" or "shocking", it stands to reason that, while European or Chinese or African settlements in the Americas may have been non-existent before the 16th century, that does not mean there was no contact.

Could it be official, academic historians have been bamboozled by focusing so much on assumptions earlier generations of their fellow academics held without question?

Nah. Couldn't be that they acted like every other group of people.
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