Back to the Stone Age: The Uses and Abuses of Prehistory

Stefanos Geroulanos argues in The Invention of Prehistory that the scientific investigation of human origins fueled Western racism and colonialism. Yet his heightened sensitivity to the political abuses of prehistory introduces exaggerations of its own.

A detail from a seventeen-thousand-year-old painting in the Lascaux Cave in France. (Wikimedia Commons)

On his recent trip to Washington, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant warned Hezbollah that it had the capacity to send Lebanon “back to the Stone Age.” His threat has a long pedigree. Back in the sixties, General Curtis LeMay wondered aloud if the United States should not bomb the Vietnamese “back to the Stone Age!” The cultural historian Stefanos Geroulanos, who takes LeMay’s outburst as a chapter title in The Invention of Prehistory, believes there is more to this rhetoric than vicious bluster: it expresses the conviction that technologically advanced states are allowed not just to dominate nations they regard as inferior but also to send them violently backward, returning them to the savagery from which Homo sapiens so slowly emerged.

The Invention of Prehistory is a generally bleak survey of the Western obsession with human origins from the eighteenth century to the present, suggesting that imperialists, warmongers, and racists have often appropriated and even steered the scientific investigation of the first people. In his best-selling Sapiens, Gallant’s countryman Yuval Noah Harari celebrated humanity’s development from the Rift Valley to Silicon Valley. Geroulanos has written an anti-Sapiens, which concludes that such neolithic just-so stories have been so closely tied to Western superiority that it would be safer to renounce our interest in cavemen altogether.

By opening a new flank in the decolonization of intellectual history, The Invention of Prehistory will delight Verso Man. It boasts rapturous blurbs from Samuel Moyn, Amia Srinivasan, Pankaj Mishra, Andreas Malm, and Merve Emre. These endorsements are overblown. This is an omnivorous but also a hasty book. It exaggerates the scale of the modern evils that the study of prehistory has ostensibly caused, the better to deliver us from them. In the way of much recent cultural history, it is not content to cast its author’s preoccupations as merely interesting: rather they must have been ubiquitous. Cavemen lurk behind every rock.

Fossil Men

The idea of human prehistory is remarkably recent. The discovery of the New World encouraged European intellectuals to emancipate themselves from what now appeared to be scripture’s misdated account of human origins. Previously unknown indigenous peoples were not just a puzzle but a valuable resource for these thinkers, allowing philosophers to flesh out what life had been like in the state of nature that preceded the formation of human societies.

“In the beginning,” wrote John Locke, “all the World was America.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau took this idea further by suggesting that the state of nature was not only a thought experiment but also a historical period. That made indigenous people not just natural but “primitive” — a word whose associations could be either pejorative or romantic — because they remained in that state, having failed to develop the tangled mass of institutions and desires that characterized the societies of Rousseau’s day.

The development of stadial thinking sharpened Rousseau’s contention that some peoples remained much closer to the first people. A Danish archaeologist in the 1820s used artifacts to categorize all cultures as belonging to Stone, Bronze, or Iron Ages. The stone tools turned up by the miners and railway builders of nineteenth-century Europe steadily refined this schema further, breaking the Stone Age into Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods. This flattered Europeans, as it suggested that they had operated tool shops since the dawn of human history.

This material triad fitted with the intellectual and spiritual stadialism popularized by Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, which divided up human society into epochs of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, or theological, metaphysical, and “positive” periods. Stadialism identified the economic development of societies such as France’s Second Empire with the movement of history. It also allowed Western intellectuals to plot their movement through space as a journey into the past: the peoples they encountered at colonial frontiers were still in “savage time,” no matter the calendar year.

There was, as Geroulanos nicely shows, never unanimity among the developing sciences about which of them was best suited to investigate or conceptualize prehistoric people. The geologists initially led the charge in the study of what Charles Lyell called the “antiquity of man.” Their discoveries defined the epochs in which ancient Europeans lived, using fossil skulls found in different strata to establish the age and diverse ancestry of modern humans. In contrast, linguists defined humanity not by skulls but speech: they made elaborate language trees to trace human origins and migrations. German linguists, in particular, crafted racial narratives linking themselves and the other noble peoples of the world to the Aryans of northern India. Charles Darwin, however, differed from both schools in subsuming human origins to his theory of evolution by natural selection, minimizing reliance on fossils and eschewing racial or linguistic arguments for the exceptional nature of some or all human beings.

Geroulanos suggests that despite their varied approaches, these overlapping investigations mostly sharpened the spearhead of Western colonization. Confident scholarly reconstructions of the roving movements of different language groups across Europe and Asia fostered anxieties that civilization might vanish beneath hordes or waves of invaders. When anthropologists spoke of indigenous people as “fossil men” — inhabitants of a Stone Age that must give way to iron modernity — they sanctioned the violent disappearance of cultures, even as they regretfully curated their vestiges.

The discovery in the mid–nineteenth century of the Neanderthals was a case in point. Artistic representations of Neanderthals tended to cast them as simian brutes, whose hopeless crudeness had entailed their displacement or massacre by the tidily armed bands of Homo sapiens. When one anthropologist likened them to the Andamanese, indigenous people whose numbers had plummeted when their islands came under the control of the British Raj, he made this colonial paradigm eerily explicit.

Ideological Bleach

Geroulanos allows some exceptions to this dark scene, even at the high noon of European imperialism. He is drawn to inquirers whose good politics seem to generate kinder and more egalitarian accounts of the deep past. The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who was a keen student of North American Indians and an advocate for their rights, combined his knowledge of indigenous societies with his classical learning to imagine the earliest human families as matrilineal entities.

Friedrich Engels, who in late life became anxious to push his critique of capitalist society back beyond the limits of recorded history, used Morgan’s ideas to develop a vivid picture of the earliest households as communist and not just matrilineal but matriarchal. Although feminists later dismissed Engels’s vision of woman as static and condescending, his view was at least more cheerful than that of people who assumed that prehistoric women had been herded into harems, as the chattels of hulking rapists. Into the 1930s, Soviet archaeologists amassed figurines of the earth goddesses who were assumed to have reigned over these primitive female idylls.

It is easy enough to state that the scholars of the past were “drivers of colonial violence”; it is much harder to demonstrate how they were so. Geroulanos does not really try. The thinking of linguists and anthropologists naturally gave scholarly cover to the intricate, intimate struggles through which Europeans entrenched their control over the land, wealth, and bodies of other peoples. But that is hardly the same as suggesting that their ideas caused colonization to happen or even advanced it much.

Although scholars are the heroes (and villains) of intellectual histories like this one, they mostly tend to be the creatures rather than the architects of their societies: they express more than they shape the cardinal assumptions on which they run. Some of the starkest expressions of racism in the book seem to owe little to the academic spats described in its pages: there was not much erudition in Kaiser Wilhelm’s appeals for European states to unite against what he called the “Yellow Peril.”

Geroulanos is so keen to sketch a politics for science that he shows an uncertain grasp of how it works. By dismissing his subjects as mere “real scientists,” and seeing them as “writers” and artists engaged in a battle of competing narratives and images, he fails to appreciate the slow, unspectacular ways in which scientists have painstakingly accumulated hard knowledge about the ancient past.

For example, the investigation of Neanderthals is not just a merry-go-round of fantasies; it has recently culminated in the successful sequencing of their DNA. This approach also opens up a gap between academic representations and their impact, which Geroulanos has to bridge with clumsy metaphors. A chapter exploring the idea that savage impulses lurk beneath the veneer of civilization initially claims that it offered “ideological bleach” for the cruelty of colonizers. Soon the veneer has “intersected with other concepts.” A few pages later, it has become a “weapon of war.” By the time World War I started, this now sharpened veneer has become a “horrible reality,” because soldiers in the trenches were “viscerally aware” that they “carried the deepest human past within” — an assertion for which no citation is offered.

Believing in Barbarism

It is a sign of how hard the book toils at the impact of prehistorical thinking that the arrival of the Nazis comes as a relief. Geroulanos devotes a whole chapter to a regime whose atrocities could be interpreted as a systematic implementation of racist theories about prehistory. It turns out that “artists, linguists and thinkers” had indeed “paved the way” for slaughter by popularizing the ancient superiority of “Indo-Europeans.”

Prehistory undoubtedly sent some leading Nazis mad: in the dying days of the war, Himmler dispatched troops to comb the monasteries of Italy for the earliest manuscript of Tacitus’s Germania, which had sketched the superiority of the clean-limbed Indo-Europeans who once lurked in the German woods. Yet as Geroulanos airily confesses, Nazi thinking on time and power did not form a consistent system. And few ordinary Germans followed it. At best, “they shared a web of ideas that gave metaphysical value” to the killing of World War II. Neither this nor his strained references to Primo Levi’s account of life in the death camps establishes National Socialism as a regime whose genocidal violence was primarily driven by prehistory.

The strongest chapters in the book come when there is less at stake. In its latter half, Geroulanos relaxes his causal claims for prehistory. He instead explores how in the aftermath of World War II, the Stone Age became a sandpit in which thinkers could play around with the most pressing issues of their time. He devotes an excellent chapter to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the gentle Jesuit who speculated that human beings had arrived to bring the planet to consciousness of itself. The Roman Catholic Church, which once censored these speculations, now mildly celebrates Teilhard for sanctifying the theories of evolution it long struggled to accept.

Geroulanos provides an amusing account of the shifting yet persistent intellectual fashions that have governed the study of European cave art ever since its discovery in the later nineteenth century. While academics no longer favor talk of the shamanic artists whose magic animals once excited Pablo Picasso — preferring to see cave art as the creation of men and women alike — echoes of their speculations live on in the musings of Werner Herzog and even in the hairy getup of the QAnon Shaman who stormed the Capitol.

Prehistory faded as a yardstick for Western superiority once anthropologists had staged a successful revolt against stadial thinking. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who fiercely condemned even the qualified statements of social evolution issued by UNESCO after World War II, condemned the idea that some peoples were “younger” or more or less complex than any other. “The barbarian,” he sniped “is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism.” Lévi-Strauss encouraged his contemporaries to decouple their wonder at the sheer diversity of human cultures from a normative understanding of how they related to humanity’s origin — or its supposed destination. His words still resonate today, even if his aversion to the creeping homogenization of the world now seems tinged in romantic snobbery: the whole of Asia, he grumbled in Tristes Tropiques, was beginning to look “like a dingy suburb.”

The Mark of Cain

In the wake of anthropology’s new egalitarianism, the thinkers who grounded racial or civilizational hierarchies in prehistory were diminished but did not vanish altogether. The murderous ape-man with which Stanley Kubrick began 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey drew from the theories of a South African paleontologist called Raymond Dart. He was instrumental in using fossil finds to popularize the idea that the first humans lived in Africa. Yet he also argued that the first Africans bore the “mark of Cain”: his belief in their fratricidal violence sat well with his support for apartheid in the present. But Dart’s kind no longer ruled the roost. By the 1970s, for instance, primeval man finally had to share the limelight with women: Elaine Morgan influentially theorized that the first humans had been beachcombers rather than big game hunters, peaceable women who had kept their babies safe from predators by wading into the surf.

The prehistoric notably became a place to question unthinking faith in technology. The French prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan, who popularized the idea that our eloquent faces and nimble brains were the product of our adoption of tools, wondered whether this would prove to be a benign development in the long run. Decades before the invention of the smartphone, he was pondering whether the human of the future would evolve into a prone and toothless creature, “using such forelimbs as it still possesses to push buttons.”

The most interesting thing about Curtis LeMay’s bomb-slinging gaffe was the condemnation it aroused at the time. The idea of bombing a country back to the Stone Age equated — often uneasily — technological prowess with its civilization: the obliteration of its roads, hospitals, and universities would return it to savagery. Yet the devastation of the two World Wars had caused technology itself to seem the threat to civilization — and the urge to wield it in such fashion the true act of barbarism.

It is disheartening therefore to see such threats still uttered in our own time. Geroulanos represents his strident book as an attempt to tell and therefore to deliver us from a “story of scientific horrors”: the justifications for Western triumphalism that cloaked themselves in an “enchanting” deep past. We might wonder whether kicking over the “pretend foundation” the sciences supposedly created for inegalitarian doctrines would bring many tangible gains. Nor can historians puncture the gonzo historicism of today’s racist right by pointing out the cobwebbed precedents for their claims. Where we can agree with Geroulanos is in the need for “skepticism that never rests” concerning the justifications that some states make to deny other cultures the dignity and security they claim for themselves.