Archive for October 18th, 2010

Review: On deep history and the brain by Daniel Lord Smail

18 October 2010

By Juliana Adelman

When I was in college I took one class in paleoanthropology taught by Professor Richard Klein.  Klein was rather singular in appearance and, much more than my science professors, was exactly what I had imagined a university professor to look and speak like.  His subject was awe inspiring in its breadth and, in my mind, importance.  Listening to him talk about extinct hominid (hominin) lineages felt as weighty to me as an inspired Sunday sermon might feel to others.  For reasons I cannot pinpoint at this remove, I did not pursue paleoanthropology beyond that single course though it has remained something that I am curious about.

Smail’s explanation for his interest in the deep past is personal.  His father, also a historian, taught a course on the ‘Natural History of Man’, which Smail emulated nearly thirty years later.  A historian of medieval Europe by trade, Smail ranges across tens of thousands of years in On deep history and argues for the continuity between prehistory and history and particularly between paleolithic and postlithic humans.  His reasons for suggesting this continuity are compelling and simple: written records do not define history, it is evident that ancient humans had forms of culture, any boundary we draw between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is arbitrarily imposed and finally that human culture has a real relationship with the human body.  It is this final suggestion, not original to Smail, that forms the basis of a new kind of history which he suggests can be applied to all periods: neurohistory.  Neurohistory examines the reciprocal relationships between the ‘brain-body system’ and culture. Read More