The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins (Hardcover)

The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins By Stefanos Geroulanos Cover Image
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“[A]n incisive and captivating reassessment of prehistory . . . In lucid prose, Geroulanos unspools an enthralling and detailed history of the development of modern natural science. It’s a must-read.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“An astute, powerfully rendered history of humanity.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

An eminent historian tells the story of how we came to obsess over the origins of humanity—and how, for three centuries, ideas of prehistory have been used to justify devastating violence against others.

Books about the origins of humanity dominate bestseller lists, while national newspapers present breathless accounts of new archaeological findings and speculate about what those findings tell us about our earliest ancestors. We are obsessed with prehistory—and, in this respect, our current era is no different from any other in the last three hundred years. In this coruscating work, acclaimed historian Stefanos Geroulanos demonstrates how claims about the earliest humans not only shaped Western intellectual culture, but gave rise to our modern world.

The very idea that there was a human past before recorded history only emerged with the Enlightenment, when European thinkers began to reject faith-based notions of humanity and history in favor of supposedly more empirical ideas about the world. From the “state of nature” and Romantic notions of virtuous German barbarians to theories about Neanderthals, killer apes, and a matriarchal paradise where women ruled, Geroulanos captures the sheer variety and strangeness of the ideas that animated many of the major thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx. Yet as Geroulanos shows, such ideas became, for the most part, the ideological foundations of repressive regimes and globe-spanning empires. Deeming other peoples “savages” allowed for guilt-free violence against them; notions of “killer apes” who were our evolutionary predecessors made war seem natural. The emergence of modern science only accelerated the West’s imperialism. The Nazi obsession with race was rooted in archaeological claims about prehistoric IndoGermans; the idea that colonialized peoples could be “bombed back to the Stone Age” was made possible by the technology of flight and the anthropological idea that civilization advanced in stages.

As Geroulanos argues, accounts of prehistory tell us more about the moment when they are proposed than about the deep past—and if we hope to start improving our future, we would be better off setting aside the search for how it all started. A necessary, timely, indelible account of how the quest for understanding the origins of humanity became the handmaiden of war and empire, The Invention of Prehistory will forever change how we think about the deep past.

About the Author

Stefanos Geroulanos is the Director of the Remarque Institute and a Professor of History at New York University. The author of Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present and other books, he lives in New York, NY.

Praise For…

History may not be bunk, but prehistory is: So argues Stefanos Geroulanos in his spirited new book... The more you want to upend the status quo, the more likely you’ll be to venerate an idyllic past. The reverse is also true: The more you want to preserve the status quo, the more likely you’ll be to scorn the past as horrific — or, at least, unsustainable. Geroulanos traces the long history of Europeans depicting Indigenous and colonized peoples as ‘savage’ — thereby rationalizing every violent measure used against them, from brutality to annihilation.
— Jennifer Szalai - New York Times

The strength of Mr. Geroulanos’s book lies in its breadth. It ranges easily from the pseudoscience of Freud and Jung (for both of whom idiosyncratic notions of prehistory were important) to Nazi obsessions with origins, Unesco debates about racism and modern feminist strains of social theory. Mr. Geroulanos has a good ear for prose and a knack for defamiliarizing expressions that should seem stranger: His pages on the phrase ‘the thin veneer of civilization,’ for example, are extraordinary. The book is lavishly and thoughtfully supplied with illustrations that enrich the discussion. . . . The problem of prehistory remains enormous, indeed, and it is humbling to be reminded of its abuses. Mr. Geroulanos has done so vividly.
— Kyle Harper - Wall Street Journal

With careful attention to our collective accounting of our prehistoric roots, Geroulanous considers what is revealed about our present when we write about our past.
— The New Yorker

[O]riginal and exciting . . . dazzling . . . ends with an impassionate call for radical modesty. It is time for us to admit that we simply do not know the deep past and cannot comprehend the ‘ecstasies and feelings and terrors’ that our predecessors experienced. This recognition will then allow us to root advocacy for solidarity and equality on firmer grounds.
— Udi Greenberg - New Republic

Geroulanos has done a redoubtable job of showing the ways in which the study of the human past has been deformed by prejudice, mythmaking, and outright racism.
— Jacob Mikanowski - Chronicle of Higher Education

An incisive and captivating reassessment of prehistory . . . In lucid prose, Geroulanos unspools an enthralling and detailed history of the development of modern natural science. It’s a must-read.
— Publishers Weekly, starred review

Stunningly comprehensive... The author clearly shows how Eurocentric standards still prevail in how we organize history, and he concentrates much of his prodigious research on the power of language in determining our “epic myths”—e.g., the use of the term primitive in characterizing Indigenous peoples and thus justifying exploitation and extermination.... Consistently illuminating... Geroulanos effectively exposes how little separates modern humans from the idea of the 'barbarian.' An astute, powerfully rendered history of humanity.
— Kirkus Reviews, starred review

In this remarkable and enlivening study, Stefanos Geroulanos traces the development of our modern fascination with humanity’s deep past, and lays out that fascination’s deadly costs.
— Amia Srinivasan, author of The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Stefanos Geroulanos reveals how the quest for human origins emerged from the imperial mandate—to possess the earth and control its peoples. His subtle, passionate book steers us away from an unreal past and toward an equal, peaceful, and sustainable future for all.
— Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing

In a brilliant masterstroke, Stefanos Geroulanos turns the tables on those shining a lamp on human origins, documenting how they have always held up a mirror to themselves and their own times. . . . [T]his magnificent book reminds us that inquiry is always political—and that the continuing fashion of exploring the birth of civilization and the dawn of everything has the darkest roots.
— Samuel Moyn, author of Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War

The idea that some people have stayed behind in a savage state while others have ascended to civilization has caused and continues to cause immense suffering for those supposed to be human animals, bombed back to the Stone Age or otherwise disappeared from history. Covering an enormous territory from Rousseau to Wakanda, displaying a firework of erudition, written with verve, The Invention of Prehistory will be a milestone on the path to a less destructive relation to the deep past.

— Andreas Malm, author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Nimbly moving across a great expanse of space and time, The Invention of Prehistory dismantles our most widely accepted ideas about the origins of humanity. This is intellectual history as it should be written: serene in its mastery of intransigent material, yet endlessly provocative in argument, and ultimately fatal to long-cherished assumptions and prejudices.

— Pankaj Mishra, author of Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire
Product Details
ISBN: 9781324091455
ISBN-10: 1324091452
Publisher: Liveright
Publication Date: April 2nd, 2024
Pages: 512
Language: English