Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

3. Inventing ourselves

Why start a course about the teaching of history with human evolution – surely (and actually in UK National Curriculum terms) the preserve of the scientists? One answer has already been given: evolution lays down the ground rules by which history is played, not just in the remote past but over the amazingly short time span since the invention of writing. A second answer lies the fact that some people are inclined to define human nature in terms other than scientific ones, as if the human species – uniquely – was subject to laws of its own, un-demonstrable by scientific method. These people still make use of the products of scientific methodology, including all the inventions which have brought the modern world into existence. When it comes to themselves however they prefer to stand outside nature and believe in theories for which there is not a shred of proof and a great deal of ordinary, observable evidence to the contrary. Their authority for these ideas are sacred books which they believe to be literally true, even though they are manifestly a product of a particular time and culture and were written down long before the invention of the telescope or the microscope revealed dimensions to the universe that their authors could not have guessed at. This is not to deny the truths of religion. The very nature of what evolution has bequeathed to us requires us to take an elevated view of ourselves for without such a view society, as we know it, is impossible. Nevertheless I reach this conclusion by the application of scientific method not by denying it.

When it comes to arguing with creationists both scientists and historians are handicapped by the provisionality of their conclusions. The most favoured view of the human story places our origins in Africa some four million years ago with the emergence of the first apes to walk on two legs – the australopithecines. It’s important to rehearse with your learners just exactly what the nature of the evidence is that places these creatures first in the line of human evolution. Bi-pedal creatures have narrower, more bowl-like pelvises to carry the weight of their intestines and enable them to keep their balance whilst adopting an upright posture. Such a posture has important advantages: it enables the creature to run rather than lope along; it frees the hands for tool manufacture and use; and it gives greater all round vision. Yet it comes at a price: a narrower pelvis means a narrower birth canal for the female, so that the young have to be born prematurely, so that childbirth has been difficult and hazardous ever since. This may be one reason why human evolution took such a long time and populations remained small. Only in the last two hundred years has population growth seemed a threat: for most of human history maintaining the population has been the problem.

In my horrendously over-simplified telling of the human story I single out the arrival of Homo Erectus as the next stage, though it probably took more than three million years to come about. Homo Erectus is a fascinating creature, examples of whom have been discovered as far from Africa as Beijing. Perhaps the best known recent find is the immature male known as Nakriotome Boy, from the location in Kenya where his skeleton was excavated. Although he was only about eleven years old, he was already five and a half feet tall, and would probably have grown to six feet had he not somehow ended up face down in a shallow lake, safe from the attentions of scavengers and so fossilised in his entirety. How would he have differed from the average Year 7 boy in one of our classrooms today? From the neck down, very little; above the neck however he still had an ape-like face and a brain about one third the size of a modern lad. I like to tease any physical education enthusiasts at this point by comparing him to a rugby player. He’d be great at running, catching the ball and trampling on opponents but he wouldn’t be so hot on the rules of the game, let alone the concept of ‘sport’, because he lacked both the power to conceptualise thoughts and the language to express them. Both these things were to come but as he stands homo erectus is proof that we are all the descendants of brainy cowards – those with that little bit of extra intelligence to stay behind and father the next generation whilst others went out to play the hero. Naturally with older learners I emphasise that heroes are necessary because are many occasions when the survival of a group requires courage and sacrifice. Those who have to die for the people should at least have the reward of admiration and evolution has ensured that they generally receive it!

What I am advancing here is a very functional view of human nature i.e. that nothing survives the test of time unless it offers a clear advantage in terms of survival. On the other hand it seems that the universal law of biology – ‘use induces growth’ – is frequently carried to excess in successful species. In the case of humans it was our ability to learn and the frontal areas of the brain within which it is located. Hence we have far more learning capacity than we actually need, which is why we can make up worlds inside our head that have never existed (and could not exist) whilst still functioning happily in the world that does exist. Equally importantly our expanded frontal areas did not replace any older structures. These structures are still there, influencing behaviour and generating a special kind of tension – between feeling and thinking. To the first belong what Shakespeare would have called the ‘appetites’, basically food, sex and love in that order. To the second belong all the stories referred to earlier, the ones we construct about ourselves and about others; as we’ve seen these stories can themselves generate feelings because the part of the brain where they are stored is connected by a myriad of links to the older emotional centres. Only in our imaginations are the frontiers between mind and body distinct; in fact consciousness seems to consist of the ceaseless dialogue that takes place between the two.

What is important is control. Society cannot function unless individuals trust one another and trust requires that individuals subordinate their desires to the interests of the group - even if the group permits the satisfaction of some desires as a reward for the suppression of others. Thus I’m allowed to go a few miles over the speed limit where it’s safe to do so but I’m expected to stick to it rigidly in built up areas and especially where children are about. Moreover I keep to the left-hand side of the road (except when overtaking) because if I ignore this rule, and others do too, driving home would become a form of ‘Russian roulette’. The achievement of control is one of the core processes of growing up and the more liberal we are, the more we depend upon it.

Self-control is also required for the achievement of any longer term goal. Not all lessons or lectures are interesting (!) and learners at all levels become practised at dealing with boredom. By the time that they reach university students are highly skilled in the art of appearing to be paying attention whilst their minds are actually focussed on something else entirely. The greater the reward the more people will put up with to achieve it but we all have our breaking point as may be demonstrated quite simply by calling up one of your learners to represent the human race then leaving him or her standing in a state of increasing restlessness and embarrassment whilst you get on with the session. Depending upon the person the desire to conform to the teacher’s instructions generally gives way to irritation after about ten minutes. Few learners will go longer than twenty minutes before self-control gives way to annoyance and they sit down, willing to brave any rebuke that may result. They have - temporarily at least - ‘lost it,’ the ‘it’ being their ability to sacrifice present comfort for future advantage. By and large children ‘lose it’ much quicker than adults but it is astonishing how early the capacity for self-control is achieved. Those unfortunates labelled ADHD are in the position of someone who sits down after barely a minute: their restlessness, whatever its cause, makes them very difficult to deal with in any ordinary classroom.

It’s often said that ADHD is a disease of modern living and that it did not exist fifty years ago. I would argue that it is attitudes not behaviour that has changed. Faced with a child who constantly left his seat a teacher ‘in the old days’ would quickly resort to punishment, suppressing the behaviour through fear or discouraging others from joining in by making an example of the offender. Punishment appears to be as old as society itself, along with laws that define its nature and systems that determine its scope. Law codes, such as that of Hammurabi, King of Babylon (circa 1750 BC) are amongst the earliest documents to survive, the written form ensuring both public dissemination and an agreed, common, text. We will return to reasons for the invention of writing, later. All we need to remember at this stage is that human beings have always recognised a conflict in themselves between order and chaos, between ‘good’ instincts and ‘bad’. In almost all pre-scientific cultures what is bad is defined as that which – if not curbed – will lead to the disintegration of society. Sometimes it is seen as an external force although its power derives from our own natures. In Egypt it was known as Seth; the Greeks called it Typhon; in Christian and Muslim mythology, Satan or the Devil. As has been frequently observed the embodiment of evil often seems more real than its opposite – and inevitably, given its nature, more attractive. In our search to understand ourselves through history it plays a vital part.

To return to the story of human origins. Homo erectus was a highly successful species but the very fact it spread into many different areas of the globe seems to have caused it to change. By half a million years ago that are distinct variations on the theme: in colder climates a thickset, heavy limbed type called Neanderthal Man after the location of the cave in Germany where his remains were first found in the mid-nineteenth century, and in warmer areas like Africa a slender, less hairy variety more like modern humans. It is assumed that we are descended from this second type, probably from a very few individuals who lived around a hundred thousand years ago. Their descendants were so successful that they had displaced the Neanderthals entirely by about thirty thousand years ago and colonised every continent, including Australasia. What precisely gave them the edge we’ll never know but here is a theory and it has to do with language.

Once upon a time it was believed that the capacity to process language was located in a specific part of the brain; however, the invention of scanners which enable brain activity to be observed in living patients has led to a different picture: it seems that processing language involves large areas of the brain and requires a large brain in order to do it. The Neanderthals had brains as big as ours and seem certain to have been able to communicate using sentences to describe actions and to locate events but maybe they lacked the ability to hypothesise, for which much greater syntactical sophistication is needed. To put it more simply, they may not have invented the little word ‘if’. ‘If’ allows us to make one action conditional on another and to ‘think outside the box’. Faced with competition from invaders who could plan ahead and try a different strategy if their first failed, the poor old Neanderthals may have been doomed to be a ‘blind alley’, at least in evolutionary terms. Such a theory may be doing them a great disservice of course, as have the many reconstructions of their appearance. For the most part they appear wild and ugly – true ‘ape men’ – but they may have been gentle and relatively hairless; they certainly seems to have cared for their dead.

With modern human beings apparently the sole inheritors of the human genome, we enter the world of consciousness for the first time. From the era known as the Palaeolithic comes undoubted evidence of the use of the imagination – the wonderful cave paintings of the south of France and Spain. Why do I make such a bold claim? Because you cannot create images without stories. Abstract artists are always beset by public demands to know what their art represents. Even the severest of formal painters, Mark Rothko, generates all sorts of narratives in those seeking to understand his great squares and rectangles of colour. Prior to such attempts to turn the world upside down it was taken for granted that art involved the making of images, whether they were of things imagined or things real. In some cultures this led to a fear of representation because of the power that images can exert – a power all too evident in our own highly visual world. In other cultures images act as a kind of collective memory, with membership of the society defined by possession of their meaning. For the cave painters of Lascaux they seem to have been both a celebration of the community’s achievements and a way of enhancing its luck. They also seem to be evidence of a kind of love.

The skills of the prehistoric cave painters are proof that their minds were every bit as good as our own and that a baby born in a cave twenty five thousand years ago would have been just as educable as a baby born today. Nevertheless it seems to have been a harsh world that the cave dwellers inhabited. The planet was still in the grip of an ice age which had begun some half a million years earlier and the woolly mammoths whose remains are found in such places as the famous Kents Cavern in Torquay could only have flourished in a sub-Siberian climate. Herding, chasing and bringing down such large creatures must have meant living in bigger groups, promoting social cohesion and leadership. In other parts of the world a scarcity of ‘big game’ would have encouraged greater self-sufficiency, with individuals and families units moving from place to place, aware of others but not competing with them. In each case the environment is the prime determinant, inter-acting with human nature to produce what we call ‘culture’.

Two things define culture: the first is practicality, the second is continuity. Culture represents an age-old working out of the modern proverb ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. This is a principle we will find repeated again and again in history, especially where survival is precarious and where tradition is reinforced by a powerful sanctions that demonstrate the folly of risk taking. We see it in the case of the Australian Aborigines whose way of life in a harsh climate lasted for thousands of years precisely because it was so effectively passed on, both by example and through the cycle of stories known as ‘the Dreaming’.

The ‘Dreaming’ represents a mythologizing of the landscape that must have been typical of the relationship between hunter-gatherers and the flora and fauna on which they depended for their survival. In it there is an equivalence between Man and Nature which gives animals co-ownership of the process of creation and which expresses a feeling of debt towards those living things whose life has to be taken in order that humans may survive. We will meet this feeling of debt in more developed cultures like Ancient Egypt which were still in spiritual contact with their prehistoric past. It has to be stressed that there is nothing illogical or primitive about the explanations the Aborigines advanced for their existence. Only if you believe that modern science has all the answers can you dismiss previous attempts to make sense of the way things are. Our notion of an ever-expanding universe may well look as inadequate to future generations as do the stories in the Dreaming and it is not as beautiful. This is not however a plea for ignorance. It is not possible for people who know that the Earth is round to pretend that it is flat, simply because – artistically – it is nicer that way!

The fortunate survival of the Aborigine way of life into the modern era allows us to see how little we know about the lives of past generations of hunter-gatherers. In a film called Desert People, made more than forty years ago expressly to record what was then a vanishing mode of existence, we see an Aborigine family temporarily camped beside a water-filled creek. The father of the family makes tools from rock debris left by previous visitors to the site; his wives grind flour from seeds gathered during the day, using grindstones they usually carry with them. In the end little remains to show how complex and skilful are the routines which enable the family to survive. This is the gap that confronts the student of prehistory everywhere. What would we give to know precisely which gods were served at Stonehenge or who was worshipped at Avebury?

Occasionally, very occasionally, archaeology opens a window on long vanished mentalities. Such a window was provided by the discovery (1991) of the mummified corpse of a five-thousand year old shepherd in the Alps, complete with his clothing and equipment. Initially it was thought ‘Otzi’ (so called from the Otzal region where he was found) had died of hypothermia, caught far up the mountains by a sudden worsening of the weather. Konrad Spindler, the first scientist to work on the body, wrote rather fondly of his ‘ice man’, imagining him courageously plodding on through snow and ice but eventually succumbing to the extreme cold. Gradually however, the circumstances of his death were shown to be more complex and less noble. In 2001 X-rays revealed an arrow head lodged beneath his right shoulder whilst traces of the blood of four different people were found on his coat and weapons. As he was about fifty kilometres from the valley where (according to his tooth enamel) he grew up, some experts now suggest that he was part of a raiding group that came off worse in a fight with the local inhabitants.

For the teacher of history Otzi is significant in two ways. Firstly, like the Aborigines, he had the skills and tools to lead a largely self sufficient life. It’s not difficult to visualise him lighting a fire, cooking his meals and repairing his clothes. With proper safeguards some of these activities can be replicated in the classroom. Moreover, if you ask a group of learners of any age whether they’d like to know what kind of underwear prehistoric men wore and you will always get a positive response. Apart from the slightly ‘naughty’ aspect there is a feeling of one-ness with someone whose intimate secrets you know!

The second reason for Otzi’s significance is rather more sombre. The manner of his death tells us that violence – organised violence at that – was already part of human life thousands of years ago. For those who like to believe that ‘civilisation’ is responsible for most of the evil in the world (i.e. those broadly on the left of politics) this is a bit of a problem. Nor, as we have seen, is Otzi the only prehistoric murder victim to have been discovered. Half way in time between Otzi and Lindow Man a man was buried in the ditch of Stonehenge with half a dozen arrow heads embedded in him. A recent theory suggests that he was caught by sanctuary guards trying to steal something, perhaps a fragment of one of the bluestones which may have been thought to have healing properties.

Vivid as such ‘crime scene reconstructions’ are (especially when re-created for television in soft focus with weird sound effects) they don’t constitute an argument for imagining that prehistoric life was ‘nasty, brutish and short.’ Violence has news value because of its rarity and because we are all bound to be fascinated by extremes. Otzi and his companions may have been attacked by wolves; he may have been hit by accident; you choose the scenario you find most believable.

What we do know is that Otzi was carrying a copper-bladed axe, the earliest known. He lived therefore during the time when stone tools were giving place to metal ones, a change to which earlier generations of archaeologists attached great significance, partly because it allowed objects found in prehistoric sites to be fitted into a sequence and partly because they wrongly assumed that technological advance meant cultural advance. Otzi himself gives the lie to this interpretation as he was still making use of flint for his arrow heads and for the blade of his dagger. Metal tools did have one supreme advantage however: they could be easily re-sharpened and once it had been discovered that copper could be hardened by mixing it with tin, the result really was ‘cutting edge’ technology!

We’ll never know the name of the genius who first fished nuggets of copper out of his fire and realised that they could be re-melted and poured into a mould; nor will we know who first experimented with the mixing of metals. Nevertheless we can assume that they were people with a problem: they were engaged in a project for which stone tools – however beautifully made – were proving inadequate. That project appears to have been the clearing of woodland for farming.