Potential Prehistory

(The Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud posing for a photograph with Othniel Charles Marsh while holding a sacred pipe. Source: Image No. NPG.93.133, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)

This essay is from the larger Verso roundtable, "Unlearning Imperialism: Responses to Ariella Aïsha Azoulay's Potential History."

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What might a potential prehistory have looked like?

That is the question I kept asking as I read Ariella Azoulay’s provocative new book. If an alternative history provides resources to build a more just and sustainable future, how might we extend that insight into the deep past as well?

My question may strike some as absurd. Potential history is a political genre, and the past that it seeks to upend must be relevant to the present. Azoulay calls on us to do more than look back in despair. We must revisit the site of destruction, dig through the rubble, and locate an alternative past to repair the future. This begs the question: how far back should we go? What could the historian possibly find in the murky depths of prehistory, during a period before human beings even existed?

To begin formulating an answer to these questions, I want to examine the conceptual history of deep time. As an object of scientific knowledge, prehistory is a surprisingly recent invention, dating back to the 18th and early 19th century, when the new discipline of geology took form. Of course, human beings have always told stories to explain how the world and its many inhabitants came into being. In a sense, geology is just one more entry in this age-old narrative genre. But geological accounts of deep time also differ from other creation stories in some profound ways. For one, they wield immense epistemic power. They also aspire to universality. While it is true that the earth sciences now face increasingly well-funded skepticism and political opposition, geological accounts of prehistory retain enormous authority, and they are widely regarded as the one true creation story. In this respect, geology reflects the totalizing ambitions of science more broadly, which has an extensive track record of displacing other belief systems, ways of knowing, and cosmologies.

In part, my desire to locate an alternative prehistory therefore derives from a discomfort with the epistemic imperialism of geology. But my concerns extend beyond questions about epistemology. The science of geology is materially entangled with the history of settler colonialism as well. To cite just a single example, the United States Federal Government commissioned countless geological surveys during the nineteenth century. These led to the excavation of countless prehistoric dinosaurs and other vertebrate fossils that have attracted so much attention ever since. But their primary task was to document the location and abundance of valuable resources for economic extraction. Moreover, it was the insatiable hunger for these resources that motivated the United States to colonize the interior of the North American landmass and engage in violent conflict with Indigenous tribes who had lived there since time immemorial. Thus, in so far as geology played an indispensable role in spurring the extractive economy that motivated and underwrote what is often, euphemistically, and evasively described as “westward expansion,” it directly contributed to the dispossession and at times even extermination of countless Indigenous peoples.

Nor was the “purely” scientific research activities of paleontologists who worked for the US Geological Survey divorced from the dispossession of Native Americans. As Lawrence Bradley has shown, the so-called “discovery” of prehistoric monsters like dinosaurs by scientists at the end of the nineteenth century was part of the very same history. The Yale University paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, for example, relied extensively on the work of Lakota guides, who have long taken a keen interest in the gigantic bones of prehistoric creatures that litter their ancestral hunting grounds. Indeed, as Adrienne Mayor has documented, numerous Lakota creation narratives account for the existence of these impressive and strange-looking objects by citing a long-running conflict between two incomprehensibly powerful creatures. According to the Lakota medicine man Lame Deer, for example,

We believe that at the beginning of all things, when the earth was young, the thunderbirds were giants. They dug out the riverbeds so that the streams could flow. They ruled over the waters. They fought with unktegila, the great water monster. It had red hair all over, one eye, and one horn in the middle of its horsehead. It had a backbone like a saw. Those who saw it went blind for one day. On the next day they went witko, crazy, and on the third day they died. You can find the bones of unktegila in the Badlands mixed with the remains of petrified sea-shells and turtles. Whatever else you may think, you know that all this land around here was once a vast ocean, that everything started in the waters.

Lame deer continues,

When the thunder-beings lived on earth they had no wings, and it rained without thunder. When they died their spirits went up into the sky, into the clouds. They turned into winged creatures, the wakinyan. Their earthly bodies turned into stones, like those of the sea monsters unktegila. Their remains, too, are scattered throughout the Badlands.

To acknowledge the generosity of his Lakota guides, Marsh named a family of odd-toed ungulates from the Eocene epoch Brontotheriidae, which translates to “thunder beasts.” (He also named a long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur Brontosaurus.) This was far from typical, however. The openly dismissive attitude adopted by Marsh’s rival, Edward Drinker Cope, was far more customary among scientists at the time. In a letter that Cope wrote to his wife during the early 1890s, he recalled an “Indian legend,” which held that the fossilized bones he so coveted “belonged to evil monsters” who had been “slain by lightening.” In a telling aside, Cope added that his Indigenous informants “would not touch the bones for fear that a like fate would befall them. So they were fortunately preserved for the more intelligent white man who is not troubled by such superstitions.” Cope’s easy dismissal of Indigenous creation narratives as “legends” and “superstitions” suggests that, in addition to their land and their livelihood, Native American tribes were dispossessed of the deep past as well. To the extent that a scientific conception of prehistory has replaced indigenous cosmologies and earth histories, geology has perpetuated a kind of temporal dispossession as well.

I’d like to conclude, then, by returning to Azoulay’s provocation and re-articulating my initial question of what an alternative, less extractive vision of prehistory might have looked like. Following Zoe Todd, such an alternative must center the knowledge traditions of Indigenous people whose ancestral homelands were seized and expropriated by white settlers on behalf of the United States. My aim here is not born of a desire to free geological science from its imperial roots, nor to help it atone for the sins of its past. Rather, I wonder what kind of cosmology would have resulted from a more respectful exchange between scientists and Native Americans, one that is based on genuine reciprocity instead of extraction and dispossession?

As I begin contemplating an answer to these questions, I am especially drawn to the work of Kyle Whyte, a Potawatomi philosopher whose ideas about Indigenous epistemology have had an enormous impact on my own thinking about this topic. In particular, I want to engage with what Whyte has described as “spiraling time.” Whereas geologists such as Marsh and Cope embraced a teleological narrative of evolutionary progress, Whyte articulates a radically different temporal disposition. Crucially, Whyte’s concept of spiraling time produces a sense of temporal responsibility and reciprocity, creating the conditions for understanding the past, present, and future as inextricably interlinked. It is an “intergenerational time,” he explains, wherein the needs of one’s ancestors and descendants are equally present with the demands of the now. To inhabit spiraling time is to “consider ourselves as living alongside future and past relatives simultaneously as we walk through life.” Such experiences are often represented as “narratives of cyclicality” and “reversal” which “unfold through our interacting with, responding to and reflecting on the actual or potential actions and viewpoints of our ancestors and descendants.”

Whyte’s concept of “spiraling time” could not be further removed from linear account of prehistory embraced by modern geology. As the historian Martin Rudwick has shown, the geological concept of prehistory is fundamentally based on the once-revolutionary idea that human history and geological history take place on radically different time-scales. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, European naturalists such as James Hutton and Georges Cuvier theorized that our planet is almost unfathomably old, existing on a temporal register that is utterly alien to a comparatively short-lived species such as our own. Hence, the invention of deep time created a radical discontinuity between human history and earth history. As geologists came to regard our planet as dumbfoundingly old, they effectively cast human beings out of its history.

The temporal chasm opened by deep time created a moral caesura as well, marking an ethical rift that divorced geological events from human affairs. In a fascinating account, Lydia Barnett argues that “[o]nce the planet’s timescale deepened into the prehuman past, there was no longer a clearly defined role for humanity in earth’s history, either as agents of geological change or as the victims or beneficiaries of its aftermath.” In this way, the enlightenment science of modern geology “paved the way for Romantic conceptions of nature as wild, alien, and completely elusive of the human.” There is a deep irony here. While its inventors understood the immense scale of the prehistory as means to express awe for the tremendous power of nature, they inadvertently created the moral and epistemic foundations for its destruction and devastation as well. Surely the connection is more than coincidental. After all, precisely the same cultures that created the science of modern geology—as well as the extractive practices it was designed to advance—have historically done the most harm to the Earth’s planetary ecosystem.

Could a potential prehistory help to repair the rift that divides the time of our species from that of the earth? For it to do so, such a history must do more than imagine a non-linear temporal order. If we accept that human beings did not exist for the vast majority of earth history, then potential prehistory also requires forging inter-species relationships based upon mutual dependency, reciprocity, and care. As several Indigenous scholars, including Robin Wall Kimmerer, have pointed out, precisely these kinds of relationships are central to a wide range of Indigenous creation narratives. This includes the earth histories of the Lakota, which often feature complex social relationships among a wide range of creatures. For example, the Lakota historian James LaPointe explains how “Far back in the first sunrise of time, man conversed freely with the animals and the spirits.” But not all was well, for the “earth in its youth was impetuous, even violent.” So “the idea came to man that there must be a way to bring order to such a chaotic world,” which caused him to organize “a race of immense magnitude” that would “decide many things,” “sorting and separating the animals into their proper species by the smell of their bodies.” Once the contest began and the “endless stream of racing animals moved madly on” their stampeding hooves literally caused the ground underneath them to erode. “The path of the racers sank crazily under their combined weight” and a huge “bulge appeared, strangely raising out of the ground,” which is how the Black Hills were formed. “The Lakota say that even to this day the remains of this ancient race … are still visible, and there are many large bones still lying around along the historic track.”

It is hard to imagine how the deep past described by earth histories such as these could be more different from the ones produced by geologists such as Marsh. Whereas the story told by LaPointe envisions prehistory as a space suffused by deeply meaningful social relationships, the geological imagination is fueled by a desire to excise all that is human from the depths of time. In so doing, scientific accounts of earth history not only render our species a geological flash in the pan, they also claim for themselves the mantle of objectivity. In turn, this forestalls any real possibility of truly acknowledging geology’s own deeply troubled imperial history. Thus, I wonder if traveling back in time and doing the hard work of acknowledging all of the wreckage piled up at its feet would allow the science of geology to develop new kinds of relationships with other knowledge traditions? Further, might such relationships based on humility and a genuine desire for reciprocity help to create a foundation on which a more just and sustainable future can be built?

Lukas Rieppel is a historian of the life, earth, and environmental sciences, the history of museums, and the history of capitalism, focusing especially on nineteenth and early twentieth century North America. He recently published Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle, and is currently working on a number of projects, ranging from the role played by the earth sciences in the history of North American imperialism to the global history of the earth.