I do an exercise on the first day of class where I ask my students: In what ways are humans like animals? I collect the responses: we talk about food and sex – these are particularly interesting topics because they illustrate the breadth of anthropology and all the different methods we can use.
Then I ask in what ways are humans unique from animals? I collect the responses: we talk about language and culture, which always have this symbolic element too. Therefore, humans are like animals in many ways but unlike other animals in our capacity for a sophisticated, symbolic culture.
A little too nice and tidy, I know. But one of the reasons why this and other bits of structured improv are so much fun is because it gets students talking. You never know what they’re going to say and, on occasion, one will say something provocative. Or brilliant, or they’ll get it all wrong but in a way that is fascinating. Or their questions make you ask questions.
So I was doing this routine last week and I asked the question: How are humans different from other animals? And one of my students says, “Humans have history.”
And I’m thinking, Europe and the People Without History. Humans and the animals without history?
As animals we share an evolutionary history – but only humans know that. Animals, I suppose “know” this in a ecological sense. But human beings can turn evolutionary history into narrative history.
Okay, so as humans we have a narrative history. Why would it matter that we have more than an autobiographical memory, but can share knowledge about past events and even tell tales about things that happened before our life times?
And this pun from the Eric Wolfe book was making me think: maybe there’s a relationship between those tales about things that happened before our life times and the way culture acts a mediator structuring the way humans interact with the natural environment. Or exploit the environment?
Unless… Could it be that animals do have a narrative history? We could look at this phenomenologically. Is there something uniquely human in the way we perceive the passing of time?
Would it come back to complex social relationships and kin groups? That being able to navigate a social past of debts and gifts, rights and obligations helped our ancestors secure the necessities of life and prosper.
This is just rambling. I know. But the evolutionary study of the origin of cooperation has done some real fascinating work on social behavior. Could we follow this line of thinking for other topics like the origin of the past?
Humans Have History and animals don’t. Try it! It’s fun!