Historians should cease to write “history.” For what they’re always writing and calling history is not history, but only someone’s history, usually their own, and in particular their own interpretation of the little information, the few facts they may have turned up while doing their researches.
For isn’t it a fact that just as most of our universe is dark matter, most of history itself is still in the dark. Furthermore, as more and more present history is laid on top of past history it becomes even darker, more out of our, not to mention the historian’s, power and reach to uncover.
How much of what really went on at the past moment in time described by the historian is made known by his work? As much as a little but not much more. Furthermore, even the true moment or “time” the historian/achaeologist is writing about may have been missed by hundreds of years or more, by thousands, ten thousands of years in the case of the historian/anthropologist. How much of the past is revealed by the anthropologist’s dig, even when surrounded by clever and willing graduate students laboring happily in the dirt? Probably not much.
So what to do? For we’re told that not to know history is to repeat it, and in particular repeat the same mistakes that others before us have made. Well we might begin by admitting that just as our individual lives are mostly unknown by those closest to us, let alone by ourselves, the history of homo sapiens, say the history of the actual events making up the human migrations over the past 100,000 years or so, as depicted in a Wikepedia map below, is almost forever out of our reach.
What to do? Well go on reading and writing history, much as we have been doing, but never again use the term that historians like so much, “definitive,” as the definitive history of the voyages of Columbus, the definitive account of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, or the definitive biography of Albert Einstein (how many of these definitive biographies have you read?).
The good news? The human past, unlike coal and oil, is truly an inexhaustible resource and that’s why we go on mining it. The voyages of Columbus, no less than the life of Albert Einstein, the lives of us all, will, if we take the time to look at them closely, never stop rewarding our efforts to know and understand them better.
Map of early human migrations