The Past Is Not What It Used to Be

A Greek temporal celestial calculator @ 200 BCE. Photo by Tony Freeth in Scientific American.

This is the time of year when we collectively think about time, about how the page is turning (ha! my website). But we don’t just turn the calendar page–we switch out the calendar. We might perhaps feel the icy fingers of Time brushing the nape of our neck, yet we also imagine the bouncing baby of 2022. Spring must be coming, yes, sometime soon? Better times?

With the new year circling the tarmac on approach, I have had a heightened awareness of time and history. Recent stories have surprised me: a wet fish slap to the brain about How We Remember the Past. I found enough examples to fill two posts. This one will talk about history by the historians, the next about history in recent memory. The Past is not simply a collection of facts.

The Past No More

History textbooks when I was growing up often had misstatements and exaggerations; I’m sure yours did, too. For example, Columbus did not discover America. He had a very good publicist, given that he didn’t even make it to North America, but only landed in the Bahamas, not to mention “discovering” an area already populated. He also brought smallpox and enslavement along with the possibility for exploitation trade. Even so, I can still visualize the cartoon of my childhood where Peabody and Sherman helped Columbus prove that the earth was round. It’s hard to shake simplistic explanations.

Peabody did correctly surmise that Columbus was a bit of an idiot. Photo from the Peabodyverse

My parent’s office had a poster: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be. It was a mind-bending slogan for an 11-year-old, a Zen koan for 1972. It suggested uncertainty, but also promise. The future might be what you could make it. Now, I think of a new slogan:

The Past Is Not What It Used to Be

Histories are written by historian, who have points of view. There is what happened and then there is that point of view. If you dig a little, sometimes you can see the arrangement. History itself is not always what the historians wrote, even when the history is insightful, fascinating, and instructive. And mostly accurate.

Non-Linear Past, Unpredictable Future

I recently decided to reread a dusty book on my coffee-table bookshelf called Connections, the companion piece to an excellent PBS/BBC TV series from 1978. Hosted by James Burke, the series spawned several spinoffs, and I was and still am a fan. Burke’s energetic and well-delivered argument is that history is not really linear:

…one cannot consider the development of any particular piece of the modern world in isolation. Rather, the entire gestalt of the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events…[and] we will be equally surprised to what the events of today eventually will lead…

Wikipedia summation of Connections.

Innovations jump from culture to culture, inventor to inventor, often by chance and through unexpected pathways. The pace of change is also accelerating, making it more difficult to predict huge impacts from unrelated innovations. That argument still plays out: Twitter was not invented to pave the way for a megalomaniac to compel his followers to attack the Capitol. and yet…

I absorbed this like a sponge in 1978. Who wouldn’t find it interesting to trace the path from the plow to the Atom bomb, by way of Ptolemy and Ben Franklin?

James Burke in Connections. Great show, but dated, and not because it didn’t foresee the personal computer. Photo from PBS.

But a funny thing happened on my way to rereading this 40-year-old analysis. It wasn’t just the amusement at reading a “modernized” textbook that nevertheless predated the personal computer, climate change, and the smartphone. Yes, it’s anachronistic to see him pictured in front of a mainframe and recall the days when IBM was going to run everything. (Silly man! It turned out to be Amazon and Google, not General Motors and ITT).

Narrowing the Field of Inspection

What surprised me was the shock of wading so deeply into the viewpoint of straight white male privilege. Burke’s beloved view of history has virtually no women, people of color, or even examples outside Europe–northern Europe, in fact. Take, for example, how he describes the bubonic plague, the worldwide pandemic which completely upended the economy and culture of the Eastern Hemisphere, with ripple effects lasting over a century.

Burke, Connections, p. 100. He accounts for Iceland but ignores all of Asia.

Burke breezily notes that the plague came from Genoese sailors from Caffa (Turkey). His graphic explains carefully how barely-populated and isolated Iceland was spared, yet he barely mentions Asia and completely ignores Africa. He mentions that the outbreak happened when the Mongolians attacking Caffa threw infected bodies over the wall. Then, he describes the horrific effects on Europe, and how the drop in supply of labor led to inflation and change in production of luxury textiles and paper-making. Yet, the explanation subscribes to its own kinds of Flat Earther view; the origins happen off the map.

If Caffa was under siege by Mongolians/Tartars undergoing a pandemic, then the plague must have originated much further east. (Scholars still argue about whether the source was the grasslands of Mongolia or China). For a book called Connections to ignore the rest of the East seems quite an oversight. Twenty-five million people died across Asia before the plague traveled along the Silk Road and on the trade ships.

The bubonic plague origins aren’t Genoa 1347, but either Mongolia or China. Graphic from Thoughtco.

Or, take Chapter Five, where Burke shares an illustration of Arab doctors diagnosing an 11th-century patient but captions the picture with how “most of [the Arab’s] medical knowledge” came from the Greeks. While it’s true that the Arabs had translated the works of the Greek physician Galen, preserving works once housed in the Library of Alexandria, it’s also true that the Muslims had advanced medicine another eight centuries by then. Why brush that aside?

Burke also comments that the Arabs perfected the astrolabe, revolutionizing navigation, but then highlights Gerbert, head of a cathedral school in Reims, with a page-and-a-half credit for being THE FIRST (Northern European) to teach and study astronomy. Praise also is showered on the French scholar Abelard. Fortunately for him, the brilliant Abelard had 600,000 manuscripts from the Arab library in Cordoba to start with (to “discover” their teachings). Luckily also for the Europeans, their entire intellectual “revival” out of the Dark Ages came from “the fall of [Spanish] Toledo” to the Christians. Presumably the Europeans got all this knowledge that magically appeared … from the Arabs who had written all these books and stocked that huge library in Toledo. Kind of implies that Toledo wasn’t even in Europe until the Christians said it was.

Really, I’m not trying to be politically correct or woke or whatever those darn kids say today. I’m just surprised at how easily facts about the past were squeezed through a keyhole.

Did China Even Have a History?

Burke’s not alone in skewing his examples. I was recently looking through a 2015! Britannica guide to historiography: how historians write about history. There was a scant half page about historians in China but three pages devoted to 16th-century French Enlightenment legal historians. I know very little about Chinese history, but something tells me they had proportionately more to say than a half page over 4,000 years.

From the Historiography: Britannica Guide, edited by Zoe Lowery, 2015. Chinese historians apparently wrote less than the legal history of 16th century France.

I’m not suggesting all historians have to cover all areas equally, but at a minimum shouldn’t they mention limitations? If no one on the editorial board reads Chinese, just say so. At the very least a sentence saying “not much has been written in the English language on this fascinating topic” would admit to the gaps. Instead, people trying to educate are still implying–remember, this was only six years ago–that it doesn’t exist.

Ancient Tools Were Not Just Stone Knives

That was historians ignoring facts. What about when new information puts well-known facts into a new light? Consider this fascinating article in a recent Scientific American about the Antikythera mechanism. Pieces of this device were recovered from a shipwreck near Crete in 1900, although much of it was boxed in a warehouse for decades. Athenian historians in the 1950s finally broke a “giant lump” apart to find 82 bits of an advanced mechanism and have struggled ever since to piece it together.

The mechanism was a controversial because it seemed to be “out of time.” What appeared to be “a geared astronomical calculation machine of immense complexity,” was far more sophisticated than thought possible for the date of the shipwreck. Was it from a much later time period than surrounding objects? Was it a fake?

The Antikythera mechanism, main drive wheel. Photo by Tony Freeth.

Recent research, as described by team member Tony Freeth, says the device suggests that the Greeks were capable of far more precision in their tools than previously thought. Modern technology confirms that the device dates back to at least 70 BCE, if not as far as 200 BCE. If so, it may be the world’s oldest “computer.”

When a pointer in the tool is set to a date–past, present, or future–then dozens of internal gears show the position of 69 celestial bodies, not just the Sun but also nearly all the planets and their moons. The gear teeth in some cases were only a millimeter long, with measurement precision thought impossible for 2200 years ago. Call it a calculator, or call it a really sophisticated VLOOKUP table. Either way, it suggest calculation abilities and tool-making beyond what was considered possible for post-Alexandrian Greece.

The Ancient Primitives Were Less Primitive than You Think

A final example goes back in further, and throws much of what I learned in Age of Empires into doubt. Early human societies, thought to be primitive, should be reconsidered, according to The Dawn of Everything, written by anthropologist (and social justice warrior ) David Graeber. Graeber and partner David Wengrow debunked the long-held view that ancient societies were disorganized until they became progressed and became civilized:

According to this story, for the first 300,000 years or so after Homo sapiens appeared, pretty much nothing happened. People everywhere lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, until the sudden invention of agriculture around 9,000 B.C. gave rise to sedentary societies and states based on inequality, hierarchy and bureaucracy.

David Graeber, The Dawn of Everything
First Spring Tent, 1978, by Napatchie Pootoogook

But the world didn’t “progress” in increasing sophistication, didn’t just expand from disorganized groups into centralized bureaucracies, from hunter-gatherer villages to the pyramids of Egypt or ziggurats of Sumeria. Instead, many types of cultures experimented with egalitarian arrangements, sans emperors sans armies.

… large complex societies that thrived without the existence of the state…

We didn’t simply build bigger, but in many cases thrived for centuries in loose organizations “without kings or cops.” Models of the ancient past might have shown highly rational and complex societies living in peace and/or freedom, ideas which were lost but pose possibilities. After all, which reveals a more sophisticated understanding of society’s needs, a smart watch or sustainable farming?

Ultimately, all these examples from the past suggest the importance of questioning assumptions. We always have to ask ourselves what’s missing from the map. Or question whether we can assume that absence of evidence of sophistication = no sophistication. Maybe we just haven’t figured out how to put the 82 pieces of the past together correctly yet.

As the future slowly pulls back its curtain to show us more, so does the past, and so can we expand our understanding. Either that or I need to stop relying quite so much on Mr. Peabody.

4 Replies to “The Past Is Not What It Used to Be”

    1. I try not to get carried away, but I do anyway. But my 2022 resolution is say what you have to say. Thank you for the positive vibes!

  1. I just realized that I largely picked between Mr. Peabody glasses and Woodstock glasses, last time I went to select eyewear (after a doctor appointment); or Snoopy and Sherman. I went with sunglasses.

    Or Woodstock and Sherman? That might be it; while there’s a Peanuts kid[/2], too.

    I can’t wait to come back and read this with deeper consideration; looks great. Thank you for putting things like this “out there.” I love your writing and approach to history with honesty. Wonderful {chills}:

    “As the future slowly pulls back its curtain to show us more, so does the past… “

    1. Linus (Peanuts) had to get glasses way back when, and Lucy teased him about it. But Linus was just stoic, which is Linus’ fate. I always admired Linus. Thank you for your comments SO MUCH! I aim for these posts to be lighter and shorter, but it’s just not in my nature. If only one person likes it, though, it makes it all worthwhile.

Leave a Reply