How We Chronicle the Past

Although many species note the passing of time, only our own species, Homo sapiens, is capable of sharing accounts, or memories, of past events and turning these into stories or “histories.”

A Babylonian astronomical calendar, c. 1000 BCE© Science Source
What Is History Anyway?
As humans discovered ever more precise ways of keeping track of time, so we have also developed more accurate ways of keeping records and recording history.
What exactly is history? We could argue forever about that, but let’s just agree that it means “a shared knowledge of the past.”
Why is it important to know about the past? How does that help us? Do animals need history? Did our ancestors have a sense of history in the Paleolithic era, and how has that sense changed over time?

How Do Animals and Plants “Do” History?

All living things carry “memories” of the past. Animals need to be able to keep track of the seasons so they know when to hibernate, when to hunt, and when to have children. Many rodents and birds store nuts and other food in special hiding places, and they need to remember where they stashed them so they can find them months later. Wolves leave their marks on the perimeters of their turf, creating a sort of record that says to other wolf packs: “This is owned by the BHP pack. Keep out!”
Even plants seem to record the passing of time. If you slice through a tree, particularly in a region with lots of seasonal changes, you’ll see “growth rings.” Every year a new layer grows just under the bark. There is often a light part formed early in the year and a darker part that forms later, so each ring represents one year of growth. Wet seasons typically produce thicker rings than dry seasons, so dendochronologists — the scientists who study growth rings — can frequently figure out the exact year in which each layer was formed. They can also see evidence of climatic events such as droughts or forest fires.
But “tracking the past” isn’t the same as having a “memory” of the past. A tree ring might record the date of a major fire, but the tree wouldn’t respond if I asked, “Do you remember the great fire of 1730?” Only humans can share their knowledge of the past because only humans have a communication system powerful enough to share what they know and learn.

Growth rings of a tree© Georgette Douwma / Photo Researchers, Inc.
The First Histories
We don’t really know when humans first began to share their knowledge of the past. But our understanding of collective learning suggests that they probably did so early on. If we assume, as we have done in this course, that even the earliest members of our species were capable of collective learning, then we must assume that they could share ideas not just about where water holes or lions are, but also about last year’s bush fire, or that fight that took place with the people who live beyond the river, or even of earlier geologic events. All modern foraging societies tell stories about the past, many focused on ancestors, but also on the creation of what’s around us. Indeed, most humans tell “origin stories,” and origin stories count as history because they share ideas about the world.
In the beginning the earth was a bare plain. All was dark. There was no life, no death. The sun, the moon, and the stars slept beneath the earth. All the eternal ancestors slept there, too, until at last they woke themselves out of their own eternity and broke through to the surface.
This is the beginning of an Australian Aboriginal origin story from recent times. We don’t know if the people who told this story believed it was literally true, but it provided a way of thinking about how things came to be as they are. Here is the same origin story recounting the creation of humans:
With their great stone knives, the Ungambikula carved heads, bodies, legs and arms out of the bundles. They made the faces and the hands and feet. At last human beings were finished.
It’s very tempting to believe that at ancient sites like Blombos Cave in South Africa, where humans lived and worked and made different colored paints more than 70,000 years ago, they were also telling stories about the past, passing them on from generation to generation and tribe to tribe, and perhaps also illustrating and recording them in some way.

History Based on Memory

But if there were historians in Blombos Cave, they relied mainly on their memory for the stories of the past, because there were no written records. We know from studies of modern foraging societies that people who cannot write down information rely on such “oral tradition,” and develop powerful ways of remembering. Ancient storytellers could keep telling stories for days, and poets had many techniques to help them recall long epic poems so they could recite them at will. For example, it seems likely that the Greek poet Homer used similar phrases over and over again, such as “the wine-dark sea,” as well as rhymes and regular rhythms, mainly to help him remember his epics.
In ancient Greece, Mnemosyne, or the goddess of memory, was regarded as the mother of all nine muses — the various goddesses of literature, art, and science. (The modern word mnemonic, which means “a technique for remembering things,” comes from her name.) And even in societies with writing, memory remained an admired skill. The Roman philosopher Augustine of Hippo had a friend who could recite backward the works of the poet Virgil. In the Muslim world it was commonplace to memorize the entire Koran. People continued to develop ways of memorizing, such as walking in your imagination through a large building in which you had placed objects, each of which helped you remember something special.

Detail from the fifthth-century Ambrosian Iliad© Heritage Images/CORBIS
History Based on Written Records
Today, though, we expect proper history writing to be based not on the memory of the historian, but on evidence, and mostly on written evidence. I think you’d worry if a history teacher said, “Well, I think World War I began in about 1914 because that’s what my grandmother’s dad told her.”
History based on written records appears quite late in human history. The first written records date back a little more than 5,000 years in Egypt and ancient Sumer. The earliest Sumerian records were made using reeds cut at an angle to make wedge-shaped (cuneiform) marks on clay, which was then baked hard. Many of these clay tablets survive today, and scholars can still read them. The earliest records look like accounts: lists of property, cattle, sheep, and wheat. But even that is history of a sort, and it’s pretty important because it provides details of who owned what.
Within a few centuries, we begin to find elaborate written chronicles, such as the great Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. We also find stories of floods, of gods, and of the creation of the world, some of which made their way into the Jewish scriptures, the Christian Bible, and the Koran. Wherever writing appeared it was used to write accounts of the past. And despite most people not being able to read or write, those accounts started to become the basis for further historical accounts. Written documents began to be seen as more authoritative than oral stories, because once something was written down it was much harder to keep changing the story.

The Importance of Evidence

As societies became more interconnected and people began to compare different accounts of the past, they became more concerned with a crucial question: Which version is truest? Let’s look at a modern portrayal of human origins: “Our hominine ancestors evolved over several million years. But during the last million years, species appeared with very large brains, and our own species, Homo sapiens, probably appeared about 200,000 years ago. We know this because we have fossil remains of individuals that seem identical to modern humans, and we begin to find evidence of technological innovation and symbolic activity.” I wrote that, but it is typical of today’s history writing because it is so concerned with evidence. Where there are competing versions of the past, you have to give evidence for yours if you want to be taken seriously.
We can already see this growing concern with evidence 2,000 years ago in the writings of some of the greatest historians of the classical era, such as Herodotus of Greece and China’s Sima Qian. Both lived in worlds where different peoples made different claims about the past, so both understood the need to base their accounts of the past on evidence wherever possible. Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) traveled widely in the eastern Mediterranean as well as to Olbia, on the northern shores of the Black Sea, where he met some of the Scythian pastoral nomads about whom he wrote so vividly. Modern archaeologists have shown that his somewhat gruesome accounts of Scythian royal burials were very accurate. He also described some Scythian origin stories, and he did so with all the skepticism of a modern anthropologist.
About three centuries later, the Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145–86 BCE) provided lengthy descriptions of the nomadic Xiongnu, who lived north of China, in Mongolia. For example, he wrote that “they move about in search of water and pasture and have no walled cities or fixed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture.” His account was not made up; it was based on the writings and memories of many Chinese travelers who had visited Mongolia, including Silk Road adventurer Zhang Qian, who was cap- tured by the Xiongnu in 139 BCE, and lived among them for 10 years.
But it was really from the Enlightenment era, in the 18th century, that the notion of evidence-based history as the most important form of history writing became more prominent. Today, all professional historians understand that their first task is to get the history right. That means checking all the details against hard evidence, and preferably against written documents. The great 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke pioneered the modern art of writing history on the basis of detailed archival records. And these days, history based on written documents remains the primary form of historical scholarship.
An illustration of Herodotus reading his history by Heinrich Leutemann, 1885© Bettmann/CORBIS
But document-based history has some serious limitations. First of all, history based on written documents often only tells us about the lives of the rich and powerful. That’s because until a century or two ago most other people could not read or write, so they weren’t very well represented in the documents of earlier times. Sometimes, archaeology and anthropology can step in by helping us use material objects — houses, clothes, bits of pottery or skeletons — left behind by ordinary people, or by using studies of modern societies that give us some hints about how ordinary people lived in the past.
Written records have another serious limitation. They only reach back a few thousand years. When H.G. Wells, just after World War I, tried to write a history of the entire Universe, he complained that “chronology only begins to be precise enough to specify the exact year of any event after the establishment of the eras of the First Olympiad [776 BCE] and the building of Rome [753 BCE].”
Only in the middle of the 20th century did we start finding accurate ways of dating events that happened before there were written records. In the 1950s, the American chemist Willard Libby showed how you could use the breakdown of radioactive materials such as carbon 14 to date objects such as bones or food remains that contained carbon. Libby’s work was the beginning of a “chronometric” revolution, as a whole series of new techniques emerged for dating events in the distant past, eventually right back to the Big Bang. Those dates have made it possible for us to write and teach big history.

Have We Gotten Better at Studying the Past?

Today we have access to better records and more types of evidence about the past than ever before. It is astonishing to think that we can actually say something serious about the origins of the Earth or of the Universe, and we have so much evidence about recent centuries that historians will never be able to use it all. So in some sense it seems that we must be doing history better than our ancestors did.
But have there been losses as well as gains in the history of history? Haven’t we lost the vivid, personal sense of engagement with the past that existed in oral cultures where history was always told as a story? Almost 2,500 years ago, in the Phaedrus, Plato described this sense of loss. In this dialogue, Socrates tells how the Egyptian god Thoth, who claimed to have invented writing, bragged that his invention would improve people’s memories. King Thamus (also an Egyptian god) replied that this was nonsense:
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant...since they are not wise, but only appear wise.
(Plato in Twelve Volumes, sections 275a–275b)
Can it be that both arguments have merit? That speech and memory have distinct, perhaps irreplaceable, advantages over writing, but that writing has both broadened and sharpened our collective memory?
A relief depicting Thoth from the tomb of Chamuas in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1200–1085 BCE© Gian Berto Vanni/CORBIS
By David Christian

For Further Discussion

How has writing been a positive innovation for humans? Does writing have any negative impacts that you can think of? Share your ideas in the Questions Area below.


H.G. Wells, Outline of History, 3rd ed. (London [1920] 1921), p. 1102.
Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9. Translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.
Ssuma Ch’ien. The Grand Scribe’s Records, Vol. 2. Edited by William H. Neinhauser Jr. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.