PERSPECTIVES ON THE PAST
Transcript of Audio Clip
Ross Dunn, San Diego State University
Scholars used to take it for granted that history began with writing. Writing however was invented only about 5,500 years ago. From that time to the present represents only about 2% of modern Homo sapiens' earthly experience. Before writing, didn't anything happen that we can call world history?
We know that plenty happened because historians in recent decades have reconceived historical inquiry to embrace many types of evidence besides written words. These include the fruits of archeology as well as the analysis of languages, climatic change, epidemiological change, and most recently DNA. Broadening the range of evidence has freed us to investigate historical change over the several million years since our earliest hominid ancestors appeared.
Beginning in the early 1990s, several scholars — David Christian is the best known — have argued that the history of our species is inseparable from the earth's changing environment. The earliest hominids entered into a stream of biological, climatic, geological, and cosmological development already in progress. To understand human history, you must also understand something about the environmental context and its history. That context is ultimately not just the earth but the entire universe and the historical starting point is not writing but the Big Bang.
This way of thinking about the past has acquired its own informal name: Big History. Because big history's mission requires strong connections between the historical discipline and the physical and biological sciences it's not for everyone.
Thinking about the past on a very large scale, however, steers us toward big but significant historical questions. What makes human beings different from other animals? Why did humans populate the entire world and not just part of it? Why did humans suddenly take up farming after so long without it? What makes our Modern Age different from all past ages of our species? World history education must address many questions about change in the past 5,500 years but the biggest of the big questions are important too.