History Is Not Set In Stone.

The early universe, as we see it.

History is the study of the past. But history is also written by the victor, is it not? Whether it be the history of life, history of a particular event, or history of the universe, all specialties of history share that in common. Some specialties are easier to find evidence for — such as studying the history of the universe. People can believe or not believe in The Big Bang; they can believe or not believe in any facet that they disagree with. But nothing can change the indisputable fact that when we point a telescope into the night sky that can see microwave radiation, there is the Cosmic Microwave Background — the leftover radiation of the Big Bang. No matter your beliefs, it does not change the fact that it exists, and we can see it. For my specialty of ancient humanity and its civilizations, the Cosmic Microwave Background is the equivalent of a fully or near-fully entire document of details of a civilization, say the Rosetta Stone or The Epic Of Gilgamesh. But, there is only one Cosmic Microwave Background, and there are only so many Rosetta Stones; it’s not like they’re getting any younger, after all.

Until we invent time-travel, the only way that we can examine the peculiar past of our species is through the leftover remnants left behind for us — “documents”, as we put it. Not just paper or stone writings, but structures, tools, and statues fall under this term too. The further back we go in time; naturally, the more scarce surviving documentation becomes. We can confidently say that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration Of Independence, and its approval was announced on July 4th because there are copious surviving documentation and personal accounts. We can confidently say that William the Bastard was crowned King Of England on Christmas Day, 1066, because there is some surviving documentation, though we do not know as much detail as in the 18th century. Going back to ancient times, we know that ancient Egypt went through several dynasties that were relatively stable. Still, some details are up to speculation because of a lack of surviving documentation. Much of ancient history is up to speculation and educated guessing with what (sometimes) little information has been left for us. If we had as much surviving documentation of the Minoans as we do of The Holy Roman Empire, we would not focus so much on a few strange palaces with fresco's and some pottery.

Ruins of the Minoan Palace at Knosos, in Crete

The Minoans are incredibly crucial to history: they were the “first Greeks” and, in a sense, the “first Europeans”. Naturally, then, we would want to know as much as possible about them. I use quotations for the Minoans because it is entirely possible that there were Europeans with civilizations at the same time or even before the Minoans; the Minoans are just the earliest with any surviving documentation, and even then, the Minoans did not leave much. Another issue with examining history this far back is the possibility that we are wrong. The figurine of a Minoan “snake goddess”, for instance, could very well be the head deity that was worshiped. But it is also entirely possible that we are entirely wrong, and the Minoan woman is not the head deity, or maybe not even a deity at all (although that may itself be a stretch to assume).

In some cases, there is no documentation left behind at all. This is entirely hypothetical because a civilization with no surviving documentation could be no civilization at all. Maybe there was just nothing there. For example, who came before the Olmecs? What were Europeans like before the Minoans? We know that Europe was settled — after all, we have several thousand-year-old caves in southern France, so naturally, we can assume that at least the Mediterranean was settled. France, it would seem, has long been a region of known human populations. The question is, between the time of the cave paintings in Lascaux and the Gaul’s resistance to Romans, who was in France, and what happened? It’s possible, if not unlikely, for example, that a great civilization resided in modern-day Bordeaux. Still, due to a reliance on wood and a lack of religious figurines, we have no idea about them, and so we jump from Neolithic cave paintings to Gaul’s when there could be an entire era of French-region civilization between them.

By contrast, what if our civilizations do not have surviving documentation (or at least digital documentation) for those thousands of years in the future? If we experience an extinction event or if the world enters another dark age countless years from now, it is as possible as anything previously mentioned that this train of events might occur:

Canadians from subtropical Nova-Scotia in the year 6080 travel to the Delaware River and the long-gone city of Washington and stumble upon peculiar sculptures and artifacts in the ruins of buildings whose language they do not understand. Digital technology is extinct and is seen as nothing but strange, albeit impressive pottery. These objects include exploding sticks (muskets), one-quarter remnants of strange writings (Declaration of Independence), remnants of a model Saturn V rocket, and the rotted engine of a biplane. The Canadian explorers decipher some of the languages and find a burned and broken sign buried in front of a ruin. They can only make out “SONIAN”, and assign it as the name of the dead American civilization. Then, historians create a narrative and use the surviving documentation to publish history textbooks. Students read about the ancient Sonians, who worshiped a metal god (Saturn V rocket), had a holly text (DOI) and fought battles in metal chariots with exploding sticks.

Another theoretical future where our civilization is mostly unknown to those walking the planet already exists in a popular medium. A popular video game exists from February 2017 called Horizon Zero Dawn. In the game, which takes place in the 31st century, humans exist in broken tribal nations, or almost like Greek polis. An apocalyptic event occurred hundreds of years prior where a military AI went rouge against humanity and began to devour biomass at an exponential rate, literally eating the life away from Earth. It was ‘stopped’ but at the expense of human knowledge and technology. Now, humanity has regressed, technology is limited in a highly religious society where machines are worshipped, and one tribe, in particular, does not have a god, but rather an “All-Mother”, whose voice is, in reality, a surviving computer in a mountain facility.

As outrageous as either of those futures sound, are they not at least theoretically possible? And is it not theoretically possible that we have made a degree of mistreatment on a previous civilization? If history is the study of the past through the surviving remnants we discover, then we can only do so much when all we have found is some intricate pottery, a doll, and stone foundation of a town. Just as the Canadians in my little story confused the past from what they found in the ruins of the Smithsonian Institute, and just as the tribal world of Horizon Zero Dawn completely misunderstands technology and lacks most knowledge of our present, we might misunderstand aspects of ancient Africans, we might have missed entire ancient empires from North America, and we might be completely wrong about who the first civilization actually was.

While most likely at least relatively accurate, our understanding of prehistory is entirely dependent on what few artifacts and broken stone tablets we can find. We may know that an ancient Sumerian was cheated out in a trade deal, thanks to a stone tablet, but we may also have no idea what the people loved to do in their free time, thanks to the lack of stone tablets. Before then, all we must go on is folklore, cave-paintings, and frozen bodies in Siberia. While that may be a bit of a generalization, I believe that my point still stands. Just as we struggle to understand what the Minoans were like, 3,000 years from now, an archeologist might find conflicting evidence of our civilization when he or she finds a museum full of ancient artifacts and incorrectly associates bronze swords and chariots with our own time.

History, like many things in life, is a fickle thing. It is written by the victor, it is constantly changing and evolving, much like the present. And we might fall victim to it too.

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I talk about things that I love and things that annoy me, sometimes. Strong advocate for self-education and smoothies.

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Samuel David Jolicoeur

Samuel David Jolicoeur

I talk about things that I love and things that annoy me, sometimes. Strong advocate for self-education and smoothies.

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