From: AzTeC SW Archaeology SIG
To: "'Matthias Giessler'"
Subject: "Pre Historic"
Date: Mon, 04 Aug 1997 18:46:36 -0700
From: Suzanne Jamison
Do you think anthropologists and archaeologists would be receptive to
considering dropping the term "prehistoric?"
Why is the term "prehistoric" used when referring to human cultures and
societies when what is actually meant is pre-European contact? When
applied to human activity, the term pre-historic has a connotation akin to
"barbarian" or "savage." When applied to advanced cultures and
civilizations such as those found in the Southwest in the 1500s, it is
Prior to European contact, people had plenty of stories (his-stories and
her-stories), probably more than they do now since the Europeans were
responsible for the decimation of whole cultures. As far as I can find
out, the term pre-historic does not refer to a specific date. It is also
insulting to indigenous people as a term refering to their ancestors.
His-story is exactly that: The stories told by the ones who were left and
had access to the power structure. Fortunately many contemporary
professionals are looking for other voices not heard in the official
Is anyone on the SWA list interested in this idea and making an effort to
change the terminology?
Suzanne Jamison, firstname.lastname@example.org
[ Hmmm... If we play with words, then... Shouldn't we call ourselves
indigenous if we were born on this continent? Shouldn't we discontinue the
term 'Indian' or even the term 'Paleo-Indian' knowing full well that many
of the big game hunters weren't from India, and, weren't at all elderly at
the time they were hunting?. Shouldn't we be dis-satisfied with the term
When archaeologists apply to human activity the term pre-historic, do they
really connote "barbarian" or "savage?" When they apply it to advanced
cultures and civilizations such as those found in the Southwest in the
1500s, are they pejorative?
For that matter, when you note the 1500s are times of 'advanced cultures'
are you not expressing a prejudice against 200s, 800s or 900s ?
Would a rose by any othe name smell so sweet? -- SASIG Ed. ]
From: Alan Shalette
pre-his-to-ry (pree his'tuh ree, -his'tree) n. pl. <-ries>
1. human history in the period before recorded events, known mainly
through archaeological discoveries, study, research, etc.
pre-his-tor-ic (pree hi str'ik, -stor'-, pree i-) also
1. of or pertaining to the time prior to recorded history.
This term is a universal - its proper use not proprietary to
archaeologists and archaeology. It's neither demeaning nor accusative,
so let's not demagogue a perfectly descriptive term. All our ancestors
were, at some time prehistoric. I take no personal offense at the term
being applied to mine.
From: Ellie McDowell Loudan
"Prehistoric" seems to be one of the terms used by different people for
different reasons. In classes when I use it, always the term is
defined, almost in a protesting way, as "a time before there happen to
be written records [we are able to find and/or understand] by or about
particular groups of people--a time specific to a group, in many cases."
Even so, there seem to be problems with the term that crop up each
semester and especially with some of the Native American [here we go
again--students >from a particular nation usually want to be known as
members of that nation and call themselves "Indians" when talking to
"outsiders." You're quite right. Almost any identifying term we use can
be misused or misunderstood. There was a period of time when it was
"good" to use the term "ethnic group" to refer to segments of human
populations identifying themselves by particular membership categories.
Now that one seems to be in disfavor. Some of the label transformations
tell "historic stories"--We used to call one of our courses New World
Prehistory; next, it became American Indian Archeology; now, just as
unsatisfactory, it is called Native American Archeology. Historians in
our school tend to include a tiny segment of intensely compacted
sentences for anything before the times of their concentration, as
"before history." Some do use the term "prehistory," but seem to imply
that there is no RECORD at all--one wonders where archeology goes if
that is the case.
From: Lynne Sebastian
In reference to Suzanne Jamison's suggestion that we
stop using the term "prehistoric" to refer to pre-European Contact
archaeology because the term is "perjoritive" and "has a connotation
akin to 'barbarian' or 'savage.'" Nonsense. The term has nothing to do
with the presence or absence of "his-stories" and "her-stories" or good
table manners; it has to do with the presence or absence of written
records. Archaeology conducted in the absence of such records is a
different discipline with somewhat different goals, techniques,
problems, and emphases than archaeology conducted on the remains of
societies that _did_ leave such records. I doubt very much that any of
us who identify ourselves as archaeologists specializing in prehistoric
archaeology are so deluded or bigoted that we believe intelligent
knowledge of the past began magically in 1520 or whenever Europeans
arrived in our area of specialization. The term "prehistoric
archaeology" does not connote the study of imbecilic cavemen any more
than the term "Classical archaeology" connotes the study of folks with
great "savoir faire" and a fondness for Beethoven.
From: Cathy Spude
Ordinarilly I don't like to open my mouth (or tap the keyboard) about
issues that show up on these bulletin boards, because inevitably
whatever I say will get attacked by someone who doesn't know me and
doesn't care if they hurt my feelings (one of the down sides of these
bulletin boards!). However, I can't resist commenting on Suzanne
Jamison's question about dropping the term "prehistoric." Preferring to
work on "historical" archeological sites, I took an excellent seminar
from Gordon Hewes at the University of Colorado-Boulder in the late
1980s while I was working on my PhD there. Gordon was a student of
Kroeber's, and has compiled everything there is to know about what was
going in the world in the 6th century AD. The seminar was about
"civilizations." I realized before I took the course, and even more so
afterwards, that the common understanding of the word "civilization" is
so ambiguous and hard to grab hold of that it can mean just about
anything anyone who is using it wants it to mean. Ms. Jamison must have
a different concept than do I. And I believe therein may lie the crux of
her suggestion. I understand "civilizations" to have a number of common
characteristics, one of the primary ones being the possession of a
written language. "History," according to the dictionary, and to any
historian you ask, requires the written recordation of events, etc. Last
time I looked, before the Spanish showed up the Southwest, the Puebloan
peoples did not have a written language. They may well have been a part
of the ecumen of Mexico and Peru, but it could be argued that that does
not necessarilly mean they were "civilized," any more than Russians, who
were part of the Greek-Roman ecumen of the first century AD were
"civilized." They just didn't happen to have a way to write down
anything in their own languages. Furthermore, it does not appear that
the Mexicans or Peruvians were doing much writing about the Puebloans,
or if they did, those writings did not survive the Inquisition. It is
indeed unfortunate that we 20th century scholars are letting Victorian
applications of words get in the way of our semantics. There should be
nothing racially demeaning about the use of a word such as "civilized"
or "uncivilized," "prehistoric" or "historic" (I'm not even going to
touch "her-story"). Perhaps Ms. Jamesin would reply that it is those
very sexist and racist overtones or implications that she, and many
others are seeking to overcome by changing our
language. To me, it might be just as easy (!) to change our common
"understanding" of the words "civilization" and "history" than to dump
them entirely and invent new words. I hope I have not done to Suzanne
what I feared would happen to me if I replied in an public format such
as this. If so, I deeply apologize.
The term "Historic" is just like Quaternary in Geology in that it refers
to a defined period of time (though somewhat variable from place to
place) when written records appeared. Though the exact date of written
records pertaining to a particular area will change with increasing
historical research, I believe that this is still a workable concept.
The absence of decipherable written records from most native american
cultures in North America must place them in the Pre Historic period of
time as we know it now. In the discipline of history (one of the
parents of anthropology-hence, archaeology) the term historic is loosely
thrown around with the term "era". This should be avoided if we are to
have credibility with our fellow scientists in geology. An era is a
"geologic-time unit next in order of magnitude below an eon and
consisting of two or more periods....e.g. Mesozoic Era" (AGI Glossary
1972:237) In anthropology we have a similar problem with the term
"Recent" which I propose be in line with the Federal definition of 50
years from the present. We will all have have to watch the dates of
reports now as soon all of us might all become Register Eligible as time
passes. This is not a trivial debate and the time may well be at hand
for proposing revisions to the time-nomenclature within North American
anthropology. Should we be more "in-line" with History or Geology?
From: Anita Cohen-Williams
Pre Historic refers to the time before written documents (yes, I know
about the Mayan glyphs, etc., but I think it is referring to paper
material). Historic archaeology is post-Columbian period. Using the term
"pre" and "post" "Columbian" probably denigrates other people as well. I
think (IMHO) that we should stick with current technology and stay away
From: Martin McAllister
The responses I have seen so far concerning the "prehistory" issue all
refer to the advent of "written" history as the marker between the
prehistoric and historic periods. This overlooks oral history, a very
powerful means of passing information through time which all cultures
utilize. I can understand why Native Americans are offended when we
refer to the pre-contact period as prehistoric when, in reality, they
had strong oral history traditions. As long as we are addressing semantic
issues, I will raise one other. I often see both types of archaeological
resource crime referred to here as "vandalism." Vandalism is defined as,
"malicious or ignorant destruction or public or private property" (Webster).
It does not mean theft of public or private property. When refering to
archaeological resource crime which involves theft of property we should
use the terms "theft" or "looting" so the public understands that we are
talking about the illegal taking of public or private property.
(Webster's synonym for the verb "loot" is "steal".) I have heard a few
vandalism experts use the term "tactical vandalism" to mean taking
something incidental to an act of vandalism, but I don't think they would
use this term to describe intentional acts of theft such as the looting
From: Miranda Warburton
Well, to be slightly contrary and perhaps provide an alternative opinion
to those stated, I will very briefly jump into the fray. First of all,
we all are aware of the power of language when we hear something that
appears to be demeaning to us or our family, but we often ignore that power
when we are called to task by others for terms that we believe to be perfectly
innocuous. So, prehistory. As an employee of the Navajo Nation for the
past 10 years, I have been asked this question many times, "Why must we
use the term prehistory? we find it insulting." etc., etc. My response
has always been like that of others who answered, all it means is before
written records. I have, however, been giving the idea of prehistory and
all its subtexts quite amount of thought lately. I think that the point
so many of us are missing, is that it is a perceived insult to imply that
there was no native "history" in the broader sense of the word prior to
Euro-american presence. Native peoples generally feel that they have a
history, that they know their history, and that Euro-american writing or
interpretation of the past, should not diminish Native knowledge of the
past. I think that while we, as professional archaeologists or
historians, may be very comfortable with our use of the word history, the
broader connotations with our general public may be overlooked. The
impression that we convey, intentionally or not - in the classroom, in
newspapers, in syntheses for the lay public - is that there was no Native
"history" prior to Euro-american presence in the New World (and elsewhere)
and that oral tradition or "oral history" can not properly be considered a
record of the past. The implication is that the written word is more correct,
is "real history", and thus is more powerful. I have heard people say that
when they are trying to teach their children traditional history, the children
dismiss it out of hand because they have learned in school that it is not real
history. Thus, in the broader cultural view, we need to increase our
awareness as a profession, that the power of the language we use, may be
inadvertantly contributing to cultural dissolution, precisely the
opposite of what our anthropological goals really are.
Navajo Nation Archaeology Department,
From: Lynne Sebastian
Martin McAllister and Miranda Warburton make good points when they remind
us that when we use the word "prehistoric" as a short-hand for
"archaeology of societies that did not produce written records," we
should be wary of the incorrect (and silly) implication that people who
do not have a written history do not have ANY history. Of course they
do, and the efficacy of oral tradition as a means of encoding and
carrying forward information about the past can be very impressive.
Oral traditions and written history are very different media of
information transmission, however. Herodotus says the same thing now that
he said in the 5th century B.C. (vagaries of Greek translation not
withstanding); most anthropologists can offer cogent evidence of the
mutability of oral traditions. Oral traditions can be used (and should
be used to a greater extent) to inform our understanding of the
"prehistoric" archaeological record, but they cannot be used in the same
way or to the same extent that written records are used to inform our
understanding of "historic" archaeological records.
From: Maurice Brill
The word "historia" itself in its original meaning connoted "edifying
stories about our forefathers and their times" and was always contrasted
with "Annals" which were yearly accounts of the happenings in a society
year by year. The latter tends to be recorded fact. Certainly, the Native
Americans handed down legends or stories about their past for the
edification and strengthening of their cultures. They explained themselves
to themselves through their oral histories. Most of these "histories"
helped them understand how they fitted into their natural environment.
When the Spaniards came to America, they recorded their experiences and
kept accurate accounts of the happenings in their communities. For
historians, this IS history. Everything before is "Pre-history". Can the
Navajos tell us anything on how they got from Alaska to Arizona ?
From: Bill Lipe
It has always seemed odd to me that archaeologists, who attempt to write
about the human story of all time periods on the basis of what they have
learned from the archaeological record, have so readily accepted a label
"prehistory" that defines the kind of history they write as prior to and
hence outside of "real history" or "fully formed" history, or whatever kind
of history it is that is supposed to follow the "pre" kind. I suppose the
confusion comes from the dual meanings of some of these terms. "History"
refers both to the discipline of documentary history (as in "Department of
History) and to the total past actuality that is a source of information or
inspiration for anybody who is concerned with studying or referring to the
past. (I think Walt Taylor did a much more elegant analysis of all of
this in "A Study of Archeology", but I don't have time right now to look up
those passages, so I will just plunge ahead). In any case, in western
Europe and America the practice developed of using the term "history", at
least in certain contexts, to refer only to that recent part of past human
life for which written records exist and which therefore can be studied by
documentary historians. That meant that some other term needed to be
invented for referring to the rest of the story of human life, the study of
which was largely outside the discipline of documentary history. Hence
"prehistory." It is common, however, in many contexts, for W. Europeans
and Americans to use the more general reference and speak about the total
past as "history"
without breaking it down into the late (literate=real history) and early
(nonliterate=prehistory) part. Why can't we just seize on and promote the
more general use of the term "history" and quit using "prehistory," which
has as many pejorative implications for the use of archaeological evidence
as it does for the use of oral transmission evidence. If we want to
qualify the term temporally, we can talk about "early history" and "recent
history", or use descriptive labels for actual historical periods, for that
matter. To me, "pre-European history" as a temporal qualifier in North
America does not have the same kinds of problems as "pre-history." In the
former application, the "pre" clearly refers to time or at least a dated
event, while in the latter, the "pre" also implies a quality of being
unformed, preliminary, or not quite the real thing. It would be better of
course, just to talk about time per se, as in "pre-A.D. 1500". Etc. etc.
If, on the other hand, we want to emphasize the source of the evidence, we
can talk about "documentary history," "archaeological history," and "oral
history." In summary, it seems to me that sticking to the general,
inclusive use of the term "history" would allow us just to sidestep using
"prehistory" at all, while relying on other terms and meanings that are
already in common and/or archaeological use if we wanted to be more
specific about what kind of history we are talking about. Notice that I
have not brought up the practice of labelling certain kinds of archaeology
as "historical archaeology." I'm not sure whether the solution I've
suggested for the "prehistory" problem would have implications for the use
of "historical archaeology."
From: Dave Phillips
In response to Susan: "History" actually derives from a feminine vowel in
latin, so why the 'his-story' put-down? And in archaeological usage, the
line between "prehistory" and "history" is simple -- it's the line between
an understanding of cultural developments without written records, and an
understanding of development with written records. So why the fuss? I do
agree that history has often (usually?) been used to place one set of
values above another -- as in New Mexico, where the Reconquest of 1693 is the
historical high point for many Hispanics, but the Revolt of 1680 (ended by
the reconquista) is the high point for many Pueblo Indians. The real
lesson to be learned, I think, is to be conscious of how history can become
a way of forcing one culture's values on another culture -- and of forcing
one person's values on another person. I happen to feel that this posting
is an attempt to force one person's interpretation of 'history' on me, and
is therefore part of the problem, not part of the solution!
From: Alan Shalette
With a slip of his etymology, my respected friend, Dave Phillips wrote:
"History" actually derives from a feminine vowel in latin, so why the
'his-story' put-down? And in archaeological usage, the line between
"prehistory" and "history" is simple -- it's the line between an
understanding of cultural developments without written records, and an
understanding of development with written records."
I'd like to reprise my earlier contribution on this thread with the
following, expanded gleanings from my library, and some personal
observations. In the following paragraphs, I quote without proper accent
marks and letter forms. Also excuse the undefined abbreviations - many
abbreviations refer to languages - e.g. ME standing for Middle English,
Gr for Greek, L for Latin, F for French, and so on. Further, e-mail is
not the most efficient way to communicate this material. In fact, I had
to omit several references quoted with Greek characters. And, I suppose
the italics I used will be lost.
history [entered English lang. in 15th cent.] Etymolgically, history
denotes simply 'knowledge'; its much more specific modern meaning is
decidedly a secondary development. Its story begins with Greek hstor
'learned man,' a descendant of Indo-European *wid- 'know, see,' which
also produced English wit and Latin videre 'see.' From histor was
derived historia 'knowledge obtained by enquiry,' hence 'written account
of one's enquiries, narrative, history.' English acquired it via Latin
historia, and at first used it for 'fictional narrative' as well as
'account of actual events in the past' (a sense now restricted to story,
essentially the same word but acquired via Anglo-Norman).
Ayto, John: Dictionary of Word Origins.
New York: Little Brown (1990)
history; historian, historiated, historic (extn historical), whence
historicity; historiographer; prehistoric, prehistory; -- story, with
1. History anglicizes L historia, adopted from Gr, where it derives
(abstract suffix -ia) from the adj histor, knowing, hence erudite,
itself an agent (-or) from eidenai (for *weidenai), to know, r eid-: IE
r, *weid-, connoting vision, which subserves knowledge: cf Gr eidos,
form (IE etymon *weides), akin to Skt vedas-, knowledge, aspect, and E
wit: Gr history, therefore, is for *wistor.
2. L-from-Gr historia becomes OF-MF estoire, whence MF-F histoire,
whence MF-F historien, whence E historian; the derivative MF adj
historique (LL historicus, Gr historikos, from historia) contributes to
E historic; L historia has derivative LL historiare, to record in
history, with pp historiatus, whence the adj historiate, now usu in pp
form historiated; the rare E historial, historical, derives from LL
historialis (historia + -alis, E -al).
3. E prehistory and prehistorical owe something to F prehistoire and
prehsitorique: F pre-, L prae-, before.
4. Story, (orig) history, a history, hence any narrative, whether true
or fictional, derives from ME storie, prob aphetic and metathetic for
OF-MF estoire (as in para 2), but perh direct from LL-ML storia,
existing from C5 A.D. onwards and deriving aphetically from L historia.
Partridge, Eric: Origins, A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern
New York: Greenwich House (1983).
weid-. To see. ... II. Zero-grade form *wid- 1. Germanic *wid- in: a.
Old English wit, witt, knowledge, intelligence: WIT; b. Old English wita
genitive plural witena) wise man, councilor: WITENAGEMOT. 2. Germanic
*witan in Old English witan, to know: WIT, UNWITTING. 3. Suffixed from
*wid-to- in Germanic *wissaz, known, in Old English gewis, gewiss,
certain, sure: IWIS. 4. Form *wid-e- (with participle form *weid-to-) in
Latin videre (past
participle visus) to see, look: VIDE, VIEW, VISA, VISAGE, VISION, VISTA,
VOYEUR, ADVICE, (ADVISE), BELVEDERE, CLAIRVOYANCE, ENVY, EVIDENT,
INTERVIEW, PREVISE, PROVIDE, REVIEW, SUPERVISE, SURVEY.
5. Suffixed form *wid-es-ya in Greek idea, appearance, form idea: IDEA,
IDEO-. 6. Suffixed form *wid-tor- in Greek histor, wise, learned,
learned man: HISTORY (STORY); POLYHISTOR. ... III. Suffixed o-grade
form *woid-o- in Sanskrit vedah, knowledge: VEDA; RIGVEGA.
Watkins, Calvert: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European
Roots. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company (1985).
Because the roots of "history" (hence, "prehistory") must be
considered consonant with the underpinnings of the Western Canon,
now in disfavor by "Sensitive New Age Guys," New Agers may
earnestly search for a better word because connotations such as
knowledge, wisdom idea, learned, vision, etc. may be insensitive and
threatening in certain contexts.
I'm struck however, by the New Agers' need for a larger appreciation of
the language as it exists, and as it has been developing for 1500 yrs -
and use it correctly.
Perhaps the most potent complaint is by those who feel that the term
"prehistoric" is pejorative. Again I (and others) say, the word is a
simple demarcation between history as understood from written records in
any cultural/societal context, vs. that which preceeded it. This is a
universal and entirely without prejudice - it applies to each and every
one of our ancestries.
I would agree that written/recorded history often carries the biases of
victors. Now, its interpretation carries the biases of reinterpretators
who have their new agendas.
Oral history no doubt, serves as a potent and rich cultural
Is it as useful a source of objective knowledge as are written records
(despite their own shortcomings)? Sometimes.
Does the archaeological record correlate well with oral traditions
related to prehistory? I think not.
Are the archaeological implications of oral histories clearcut and
useful for doing archaeology? Sometimes.
Does archaeology correlate well with written records predating Native
American oral traditions - i.e. their prehistoric times? Very often so.
(e.g., why else would Spanish, New World archives be considered a
valuable source for information about Native American protohistory [the
intersection of written and oral histories about Native Americans]? )
Are archaeological findings and knowledge objective? I think most
professional practitioners try to make it so (else, please give me
another definition of the purposes of the profession).
Whenever I peruse a bookstore section devoted to Native Americans, I'm
struck by the spiritual, New Age-like nature of the titles and subjects:
visions (not vision), spirit & spirits, allegories, and so on.
Prehistory and history are usually found elsewhere.
I think this market-driven organization reflects many of the public's
views about the essence of Native American cultures - i.e., they're New
Agers in Native clothing. It seems consistent with the respect demanded
by those burdened with the angst which spawned this discussion thread.
On the other hand, consider the adoption of Native American spirituality
and pseudo-ritual by New Age religous practitioners - which I understand
the Native Americans to whom the New Agers have hitched their stars,
view with alarm.
I conclude that complaints about the term "prehistoric" are rooted in
disrespect for attempts at objective learning and disrespect for the
incredible depth of human thinking and development underpinning a basic
human characteristic - to know. If there's a striving for better
comprehension of Native cultures on a plane other than plain, objective,
measureable, tested, corroborated fact, find a different term.
I don't understand why we need to eliminate the term "prehistoric" if
others such as "traditional lore, "oral history," "oral tradition," and
the like can be used to show proper respect for other sources of
pertinent information. I can understand how, in interviews with Native
Americans about their histories, interviewers can cast dark implications
on responses which aren't apparently substantiated by physical
manifestations - you can't prove or disprove beliefs.
More fundamentally, I can undertand how problems in use of the
term "prehistory" as defined earlier, are rooted in the conflict
between the basic human needs to believe and to know. Viz. the mongrel
'science' of creationism.
I accept the notion that in our society, and as a human right,
anyone is privileged and entitled to believe anything they like.
However, I just as strongly hold fast that, neither I, nor anyone
else is obligated to believe it. Show me the 'facts' and I may be
convinced. Tell me your beliefs, and I may or may not understand
since I may not share your cultural context.
I assume the work of archaeologists is, and should be driven by
the best, objective knowledge they can muster.
In any event, there's no excuse for ignorance (def: lack of knowledge or
learning - another term which is often taken wrongly) - or disrespect
for the rich, diverse, and deep underpinnings of our language - any more
than we should show disrespect for those of Native Americans.