The nothingness of prehistory

When the foundation thinkers of our culture looked back in time, past the appearance of man the agriculturalist, they saw . . . nothing. This was what they expected to see, since, as they had it worked out, people could no more exist before agriculture than fish could exist before water. To them, the study of preagricultural man would have seemed like the study of nobody.

When the existence of preagricultural man became undeniable in the nineteenth century, the thinkers of our culture didn’t care to disturb the received wisdom of the ancients, so the study of preagricultural man became the study of nobody. They knew they couldn’t get away with saying that preagricultural peoples lived in nonhistory, so they said they lived in something called prehistory. I’m sure you understand what prehistory is. It’s rather like prewater, and you all know what that is, don’t you? Prewater is the stuff fish lived in before there was water, and prehistory is the period people lived in before there was history.

Glue Age people.

As I’ve pointed out again and again, the foundation thinkers of our culture imagined that Man had been born an agriculturalist and a civilization-builder. When thinkers of the nineteenth century were forced to revise this imagining, they did it this way: Man may not have been born an agriculturalist and a civilization-builder, but he was nonetheless born to become an agriculturalist and a civilization- builder. In other words, the man of that fiction known as prehistory came into our cultural awareness as a sort of very, very slow starter, and prehistory became a record of people making a very, very slow start at becoming agriculturalists and civilization-builders. If you need a tip-off to confirm this, consider the customary designation of prehistoric peoples as “Stone Age”; this nomenclature was chosen by people who didn’t doubt for a moment that stones were as important to these pathetic ancestors of ours as printing presses and steam locomotives were to the people of the nineteenth century. If you’d like to get an idea of how important stones were to prehistoric peoples, visit a modern “Stone Age” culture in New Guinea or Brazil, and you’ll see that stones are about as central to their lives as glue is to ours. They use stones all the time, of course—as we use glue all the time—but calling them Stone Age people makes no better sense than calling us Glue Age people.