The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins by Stefanos Geroulanos - review by Darrin M McMahon

Darrin M McMahon

Planet of the Killer Apes

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

By

W W Norton 512pp £22.99
 

‘There’s something about caves,’ Stefanos Geroulanos observes towards the end of this deft and provocative book. They devour and block out the light, forcing us to listen, to see with our minds. Those musings serve as an introduction to a chapter on the modern discovery of prehistoric cave paintings in such places as Altamira and Lascaux. ‘To experience the caves’, Geroulanos writes, ‘is to situate them in a history of the imagination’, one that takes in the Odyssey, the Oresteia, Plato’s philosophy, the Bible, Nietzsche and, in our own day, a host of bestsellers. 

If to imagine is what we must do whenever we think about the past, we must do so especially hard when it comes to those who lived in times for which there are no written records. That is the territory into which The Invention of Prehistory ventures. The book is a study of the narcissistic fantasies that human beings have projected onto the deep past. Prehistory, Geroulanos says, and the ‘obsession’ with human origins that attends its study, has ‘never really been about the past’. It is about the concerns and needs of the present. In tracing the often-disturbing ways that prehistory has been put to work, he uncovers a brutal history of empire, violence and domination.

The book opens in the 18th century, when writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau fantasised about the state of nature and pondered the growth of humanity through successive stages of development, from barbarism to civilisation. These writers seeded a crucial connection, linking the world’s surviving indigenous peoples to humanity’s first born. Indigenous

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