The real meaning of humanity’s origin story

A new book shows what human prehistory has mistakenly taught us—and misunderstands what it still can

An illustration of a tribe of prehistoric 'cavemen' battling ferocious animals.
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An illustration of a tribe of prehistoric 'cavemen' battling ferocious animals.

The real meaning of humanity’s origin story

Why do human beings make war? Why, come to it, do they make love?

We tend to see these patterns of human behaviour as part of our psychological essence. Call it, quaintly, “human nature.” But it’s “nature” as opposed to what? The traditional answer has been “culture,” or even more quaintly, “civilisation.” The norms of civilised life—our complex systems of law, custom, and etiquette—are typically seen as things grafted onto our natures, not strictly essential to our humanity.

What, then, is essential to being human? And how could we ever know? A simple answer suggests itself to the second question: We can look at what human beings were like before civilisation. That’s the period of time that we call “prehistory.” But it’s in the nature of prehistory that there is no conventional archive. We are left to speculate or, more dully, to infer what we can from archaeological remains—a bone or stone tool here, a cave painting there.

The study of prehistory will never yield a story with anything like the granular detail and certainty of even a short history of the First World War. But given that studies of our prehistoric past have been going concerns for well-nigh three centuries now—engaging some of our best zoologists, neuroscientists, archaeologists, geneticists, and philosophers—one would hope that they have culminated in some knowledge of what those very early humans were like.

Stefanos Geroulanos is sceptical. A historian who teaches at New York University, in a new book titled The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins, he declares that pretty much every hypothesis about the prehistoric origins of humanity is not science but “pure ideology.” He is using the word in its Marxist sense of a belief that is held not because there are grounds for supposing it to be true but because it serves somebody’s interests—typically, the interests of those with power. The study of prehistory, Geroulanos writes, claims to be scientific and objective, but it is “often more a narcissistic fantasy than a field of inquiry.”

His dense and fact-rich book makes the case for the prosecution at compelling length: The so-called science of human origins can tell us little worth knowing about humanity. Its record, he claims, is grim. It has helped to rationalise the destruction of Indigenous peoples around the world, to dehumanise the victims of Nazism, and to provide pernicious metaphors for thinking about refugees. He dramatically concludes: “Humanity still bleeds because of our obsession with defining some group of our fellows according to a supposedly savage past.”

These are bold charges. In 20 punchy chapters, Geroulanos takes us through several episodes in the history of prehistory: the quest for the lost “Aryan” language from which many of the languages of Europe and Asia evolved, the constantly changing scientific consensus on what the Neanderthals were like, the many political uses of prehistoric hypotheses to justify one or another contemporary practice as being truer to an essential human nature undistorted by the pressures of civilisation.

The relatively well-known figures in his history are given their due: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his influential ideas about the “state of nature,” Charles Darwin’s account of human evolution in The Descent of Man, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s account of the “primitive communism” that may have marked prehistoric societies, and Sigmund Freud’s theory of neurosis as an “atavistic vestige.”

Geroulanos doesn’t stop at rehearsing these relatively familiar ideas. He also provides detailed and stimulating discussions of the French utopian thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, the attempts made by once-popular Jesuit scientist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to reconcile Darwinian theory with Catholic doctrine, and The Inheritors, William Golding’s excellent novel featuring gentle, intuitive Neanderthals. Nor does Geroulanos restrict himself to literary texts, commenting insightfully on the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the alternative history of the world depicted in the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther, and the claim of certain popular weight-loss techniques to be based on our knowledge of prehistoric human diets.

The book is rich in revealing anecdotes. It is fascinating, for instance, to learn that when the anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers stood as a Labour Party candidate for the British Parliament in 1922, he was greeted by the charge that his party’s principles were fundamentally opposed to human nature. He responded by delivering lectures on the communism of prehistoric man to assure his voters that socialism was entirely natural to human beings. When the German army lost Southern Italy to the Allies, Nazi military commander Heinrich Himmler still thought it worth dispatching an SS detachment to San Marino to find the earliest existing copy of the Roman historian Tacitus’s Germania, which some Nazis believed might give their expansionism a justification in prehistory.

Geroulanos connects ideas and people not commonly discussed together, revealing historical patterns not much remarked upon, making his book informative and valuable even for readers who may know something about the particular authors and historical episodes that he writes about. But Geroulanos is not only interested in a critique of particular authors or hypotheses. His claim appears to be much more sweeping.

Prehistory is not, as he sees it, an honourable pursuit that is often dishonourably carried out; it is rotten through and through, and we would be better off without it. Can he sustain this stronger claim?

I am not sure that he can. For one thing, Geroulanos does not make it easy to follow his argument. Attitudes toward his style will inevitably differ, but I did not take to his persistent sarcasm. Darwin is accused of assembling “masses of tedious evidence,” 19-century linguists of “mind-numbingly dry comparative analysis.” But what else is a scholar supposed to do? The art historian Kenneth Clark’s influential 1969 BBC documentary series, Civilisation, is dismissed as “astonishingly priggish,” the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson as Carl “Jung’s shallowest disciple,” and the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling Sapiens as a “deceptive hodgepodge.” These drive-by shootings of fellow scholars strike me as unbecoming: Why not simply set out their arguments and explain what’s wrong with them?

Historian Stefanos Geroulanos believes that pretty much every hypothesis about the prehistoric origins of humanity is not science but "pure ideology."

For an author aiming not just to collect salutary warnings from history but also to derive from them a philosophical moral about the value of all research into human origins, Geroulanos is oddly reluctant to make any philosophical arguments. He damns, instead, by association, evaluating ideas and arguments not in terms of their truth or validity but the consequences of pursuing them.

"The search for origins," he writes, "began in and then contributed to a long, brutal history of conquest and empire. It has been drunk on hierarchy. It is rooted in illusions—often murderous ones. It has served ferocious power. Its beautiful ideas have justified force against those deemed weak, different, ugly. It has rationalised colonial domination and eugenics. It has contributed to the destruction of Indigenous peoples."

The rhetoric is powerful, but the metaphors are confused and ill-chosen: Can a "search" be simultaneously "drunk" and "rooted"? And what are we supposed to make of that toothless phrase "contributed to"? If Geroulanos's apparent standard for condemning ideas is applied more broadly, it would rule out most scientific research. We need some further reason to think that the terrible things can be blamed on the inquiries themselves and not, for instance, on the racism or callousness of those who pursued them.

When one strips away the ominous rhetoric, one is left with three claims that Geroulanos might be making. He might be saying, modestly and plausibly, that theories of human origins, even when we know them to be true, cannot by themselves justify any claim about how human society should be. Or he might be advancing a more ambitious sceptical thesis: that it is impossible to know the truth about prehistoric humans. But at times, he appears to be saying something even more radically sceptical than that—that there is no truth to be known about human origins.

The first of these claims strikes me as both true and important, but it might be made quite simply without the detailed historical excursus. The idea that one can understand the true nature and purpose of anything by looking to its origins has long been diagnosed as the fallacy it patently is—as if things cannot evolve or accrue new qualities and purposes in the course of their histories.

His second claim about the impossibility of knowing about our origins is in tension with what he rightly concedes in other places about new genetic research, for instance, the kind of work studying the Neanderthal genome that won the Swedish paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo his Nobel Prize. But Geroulanos's praise of this research is backhanded: "However much we may 'know' about him (the Neanderthal), he continues to say more about us." The point is well taken, but the scare quotes around "know" are not.

A skull is displayed as part of the Neanderthal exhibition at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris on March 26, 2018.

The extent of Geroulanos's scepticism becomes clearer in his claim that the past "does not exist independently, suspended in amber, waiting for us. … Every time we find old bones, we dream up a primal scene and flesh it out with details from our own time." To the extent that I can discern an argument in these passages, it seems to be this: Claims about the distant past cannot be proven for certain. When we inquire into the origins of humanity, the stakes of that inquiry for our self-understanding mean that we are unable to be objective about it. The actual history of these inquiries reveals that their discoveries have nearly always been put to nefarious uses. Therefore, research into human origins is either impossible, or worthless, or wicked. We are better off not doing it.

If there must be an inquiry into human prehistory, Geroulanos would rather it took the form of creative and politically engaged mythmaking. Of all the many origin stories he chronicles, he has the most sympathy for the imaginative pictures of feminist theorists such as Elaine Morgan. If Morgan's myth of a primal matriarchy is, as he puts it, "proudly speculative," it was no more speculative than those of her male contemporaries who sought to find the primaeval origins of (and therefore justifications for) the patriarchy. "We need better origin myths," he paraphrases her as saying, making it clear that "better" here does not mean more accurate but rather more politically useful.

I need no argument to feel the force of Geroulanos's least provocative but most plausible claim: that there is little to be learned about what human beings are really like by looking at what they were like back in the Pleistocene (the epoch before our current one, when modern humans evolved). What human beings are supposedly really like is what we know them to be actually like: destructive and creative, prone to violence and capable of peace. If patriarchy is good for us, then it needs to be good for us now, not just something that happened to suit the cavemen. And the same is true of any claims that we would be better off without it: The possibility that it was the cavewomen who once ruled the roost is neither here nor there.

But why can't there be a more innocent motivation for research into human origins? Might our interest in the distant past of our species simply be part of a more general human curiosity about the origins of everything? Is there something equally suspect about physicists researching the so-called Big Bang just because that question is weighted with religious significance? Or about palaeontologists wondering about how the dinosaurs died out? Can't our claims about human origins be as careful, restrained and, indeed, objective as these other inquiries can be at their best? Geroulanos evidently believes not, but he says far too little to persuade anyone who doesn't already share his scepticism.

Arguments will not stop us being curious about our origins as a species. Nor should they. When the French painter Paul Gauguin titled his grandest work "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?", he was not simply asking three distinct questions. He was suggesting that questions about our present and future require a truthful picture of our past, a past that includes but isn't limited to our prehistoric past. Perhaps the impulses that animate this insatiable curiosity are the same ones that send adoptees and the donor-conceived on quests to find their biological parents. They can seek this knowledge without supposing that their genetic inheritance is the only one that counts.

Yet, as those analogies themselves show, our natural curiosity is almost uniquely vulnerable to the usual enemies of truth: wishful thinking, delusion, and fantasy. But fantasy is best corrected in the usual scientific way. We test our hypotheses to distinguish the true from the merely convenient or flattering. The real lesson of Geroulanos's stimulating, provoking history is not scepticism but humility.

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