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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Which History?

Neanderthals vs. Americans

The Science times arrived on Tuesday, and I eagerly turned to it to see if it had anything new about archaeology or anthropology, the subjects it covers that I find most interesting. There it was, an article on how a new technique has recovered Neanderthal DNA from bones once thought to be too contaminated by our DNA to be useful, and how this suggests the Neanderthals lived in a much larger area than once thought. It was interesting, but it got me thinking. Why is it that when we study the ancient origins of the human species — when we have so little evidence that everything is highly speculative — it gets press coverage. We rush to report this spect of Neanderthal DNA on the few bones they have studied, which might be really important. Yes, it might. As I said, I, too, rush to read articles on this kind of topic.

But let’s take a subject we all know well — the American Revolution. In Tom Bender’s last book, A Nation Among Nations — US history seen in an international perspective — he pointed out that if you look at how our first presidents responded to the Haitian Revolution, our image of them shifts around. John Adams, long seen as difficult and conservative, sent support to the rebels, which helped them to survive and win. Thomas Jefferson, long seen as the radical and supporter of the common man, was terrified of the revolution. His view, shared by other slaveholders, resulted in America not recognizing our neighbor, our fellow ex-colony which achieved its freedom, until 1862.

So in one case we have tiny fragments of evidence, which we quickly learn about. In other, a well documented story, in English, about our history, which can significantly change our past is known only by scholars. And here’s a second, related, point: we assume our picture of the ancient past will change, we expect to hear differing theories and interpretations. But we don’t expect our picture of the recent past — where we can forumulate ideas and actually look at a great deal of evidence — to change at all. That doesn’t make any sense. If there is one thing I hope to encourage here, it is an awareness that views of history, our history, change all of the time. They should, in fact that is a good part of what makes history so interesting. And while we must teach young people a backbone of facts and dates, it is just as crucial to inspire them to ask questions and test out new ideas. We can’t leave all of the fun to the scientists looking for DNA in bone fragments.