Revising the Past

(Cross-posted at GVSU World History Round-Up)

When teaching history, one of the key issues I hammer into my students in each course is the notion that nothing in history remains constant. History, of course, is not the past in any direct sense; rather it is the stories and narratives we humans come up with to understand, interpret, and explain what we think happened in the past. Ideally, this process involves testing ideas and theories against the remnants of past events (e.g. eyewitness accounts; annals; archaeological remains; personal artifacts, or what have you) or applying new kinds of theoretical approaches to said remnants. Sometimes this process is a bit more free-flowing, rife with speculation, assumptions, and, well, magic fairy dust (to put it more concretely, this is the tension between history as a science and history as art). Nevertheless, the point is that historians and the general public are always reshaping historical understanding, always finding new evidence, always interrogating sources in new ways. Revision is not some sort of alien process destroying the fabric of traditional understanding; it is a fundamental component of the historian’s craft.

In the last few weeks, there was a news story that caught my eye, which in many respects punched home this point for me, particularly since we had just talked about this issue in a number of my classes this semester. According to a report in the Guardian, a group of paleontologists excavating in Georgia (in Central Asia, not the southern US) uncovered potential Homo erectus fossils dating back 1.8 million years ago. The existence of the fossils in that date range challenges the traditional view that these early Hominids developed in Africa only and then migrated out to the rest of Eurasia roughly 1 million years ago:

“The Dmanisi fossils are extremely important in showing us a very primitive stage in the evolution of Homo erectus,” said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. “They raise important questions about where that species originated.”

While not definitive in any sense, this discovery contributes to the on-going revision of our historical understanding of early Hominid migration and the origins of humanity. And that is good…and normal. Welcome to history.

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