6 Reasons to Teach Pre-History
First, teaching pre-history and contrasting the study of it with the study of history helps students understand what we mean when we say "history" verses other studies into the past. History is what mankind wrote about itself, whereas archaeology is what remains intentionally or unintentionally from humans of the past.
Second, 95 percent of human history occurred during what we call the hunter-gatherer period. Zooming out to examine history in this context gives us a humbling realization of how small we are and how limited our understanding of the past really is. One of the things we know about this period is that the small bands of people who traversed the earth were far more egalitarian than their “civilized” relatives because they had to be.
Third, one of the big themes in women's history is that in times of turmoil and challenge, women often assume leadership roles. To not teach women's historical patterns is to deny them equal education about their past and therefore rights to education.
Fourth, our progressive view of world history insists that their move toward agriculture was a revolution dragging them slowly into the future of mankind, a step closer toward industrialization, modernity, and success. One fact that was conveniently omitted from my history courses, was that historians generally agree that agriculture and thus all the rich benefits thereafter: consistent food supply, beer, the need for organized religion, and then writing was likely discovered by women. In a course where literally everything else seemed to have been invented by men, this should have been forefront.
Fifth, students need to understand the consequences agriculture had for human society. Historian Jared Diamond in his once controversial article, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” argued that the invention of agriculture had a horrible impact on human health and led to class differences and the rise of elites, along with sex discrimination. Farming women had more pregnancies, which had a negative impact on their health. Studies into pre-historic skeletons and mummies reveal that women were more likely to have suffered from infectious disease and using modern primitive societies as further evidence, women tend to do a disproportional amount of hard labor.
Some feminist historians go so far as to claim that in these hunter-gatherer societies gender relations were reversed. It was clear that their understanding of the biological world was primitive at best and the lesser evolved brains of our prehistoric ancestors did not lend to a deep understanding of cause and effect, which led to women augmenting a spiritual status as magical creatures that bring about life. This theory is defended through creation stories and prehistoric artifacts that survive and portray female pagan goddesses in all their sexualized glory.
But the evidence is not widely accepted, and historians, including female historians doubt this “revision” of history. In the following section we will explore this academic debate to more deeply understand the challenges of prehistory and also to see how the biases of our more egalitarian time can impact our reading of historical events. This debate would be a worthwhile learning experience in a world history classroom.
Sixth, because there is juicy historical debate... we should involve our students. How fun would that be to let students examine current scholarship and debate like historians on a topic that has meaningful implications for the world we continue to create and define.
Diamond, Jared. “The Worst Mistake in Human History.” Discover Magazine, 1987.
Miles, Rosalind. The Women’s History of the World. London, UK: Harper Collins Publishers, 1988.
Kelsie Eckert is the founder of The Remedial Herstory Project and host of the Remedial Herstory podcast. You can read more about her on the About page.
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The history curriculum in schools is insufficient in their representation of women’s contribution to past events. This blog aims to address that. While teachers want to include women’s history, they have not had access to the training, modeling, and resources to do it effectively. Women make up fifty percent of the global population, and yet are in a small fraction of events discussed in school. Women’s choices have been harrowing, infamous, and monumental, and yet their stories are so rarely associated with mainstream history. Ask your average high school graduate, or even college graduate, to name 20 significant men in history and the list flows easily. Ask that same person to name 20 women and the names drag, if they come at all. This case in point leaves us with conclusions like, “women did not do as much” or “women’s stories were not recorded.” These assertions justify our own indifference to the history of half the human race, and could not be further from the truth.