Friday, November 05, 2010

History's Bones

This week in World History we discussed the great debate over how people came into the Pacific thousand of years ago. Since so much of modern knowledge is based on European ideas, there was a consensus for a very long time that the only way in which the islands in the Pacific could have been peopled was through constant and regular, accidents and drift voyages. Since, so much of Europe was based on its ties to the land and the earth, and so much of discursive ascension of Europe, its elevation above the world was tied to the way it conquered the Ocean, it was inconceivable that people before Magellan, Columbus, De Gama and others could have braved the unknown and rather frightening ocean. Ko'lo'lo'na yanggen ti manaotao Uropa siha. Especially if they weren't Europeans.
Since by the time Europeans came into the Pacific, there had been people living there for thousands of years, they could not have beaten the Europeans to them by using their own skills. Remember, people still cling to the phrasing of what people such as Magellan and Columbus did as "discoveries" despite the fact that they were several thousand years late in finding whatever it is they are celebrated as stumbling upon. If you ever wonder why, despite the world being globalized and human rights coming into existence and all these other things which appear to level or flatten the world and demote the privileges that Europe used to insist it deserve, Europe and the West continue to dominate things even at the most minute and private levels, notice how that phrasing is still embedded in the way people talk. Even though people know that they didn't discover anything, they still attribute to them that status of naming, dominating, creating something with their mere presence. Even though Europe is not the world, people still give them the world, still give them that ability to make the world and make its history.

So for the longest time, the Pacific was populated before Europeans arrived because random groups of people in tiny canoes off the coast of Asia and Australia, got caught in huge storms and were dragged out hundreds or thousands of miles into the Pacific, and ended up drifting onto island paradises.

Today, however, thankfully this notion has largely been debunked as being racist and simply incorrect. In the case of Guam for instance, the closest Asian land is still two thousand miles West and so it is extremely unlikely that a storm could have tossed any vessel that far. Furthermore, what we now know is that the wind and water currents West of Guam all push West and not East, which means that the chances of something drifting from Asia to Guam are almost impossible.

So we can conclude for the most part, that people came into the Pacific, in places such as Guam intentionally. They might to seek out and explore new lands. Within the islands in the Pacific, drift voyages and accidental discoveries are possible, but not in the case of Guam. So we can assume then, that the first people to settle Guam from Asia, were skillful navigators. They knew what they were doing, they knew how to handle sailing against the wind and current into a completely new ocean. It might have taken several voyages for them to make it to Guam, but we can assume that eventually they did.

The fact that these ancestors of the Chamorro people could undertake such a huge voyage is one of the great feats of humanity. From what little we do know about the world thousands of years ago we can assume this point.

But, as I told my students, one of the problems of history is that we can always, only know so much. The closer we get to the present moment, the more we think we can know everything, but the further away we get, the less we can and do know. The more clear it becomes that our knowledge of things is taking raw information and transforming it into the best possible guesses that we can make.

So for instance, one of the questions which we cannot truly answer is why those peope left Asia to come out in to the Pacific? We can make guesses about macro-regional pressures, such as competition for resources, overpopulation. That sounds malate', it sounds correct. It is also one of the few answers which you can base on what you find left in the dirt when you dig it up. It is an answer which you can base on the archeological record. But even if you do guess this, it is naturally hollow, empty. It doesn't live and breathe. These are literally the bones of humanity, the guts, the blood, i mengmong i korason i estorian todu i taotaogues, manaigue. They are all absent, they cannot be assumed given anything we can find through linguistic, anthropological or archeological analysis.

For example, what if the first people to travel from Asia to Guam, left not because of overpopulation or regional pressures, but simply to start a new life? What if, a leader of a village had a vision and sent a voyage East based on that village. What is two brothers had a fight and one of them and his family were banished and decided to travel as far away as they could and took the long and perilous voyage East until they found Guam. Or what if, it took many voyages to get out to Guam? What if someone spent their whole life trying to find land by heading East into the wind? What if, we traveled as far as he could but each time ran out of food and water, or a storm drove him back, and then what if, on his last voyage they at last found land, and the navigator, now an old man, dies upon reaching that land and is buried there by his crew?

We don't know and we can't know. But the thing about humans, is that those bones of history cannot be enough. If you've ever wondered why so many people's understanding or knowledge of history isn't very accurate, alot of it has to do with this gap, between what we can know and the way that sometimes it isn't very appealing, interesting or enough to sustain much. Historical movies have more of an impact on people than the disseminating of history, because a historical movie, like historical fiction, takes the bones of history and tries to give them extra life. It grafts onto them, some romance, some sex, some drama, some comedy, all of the things which we may not know for certain from history, but want to see in it, because it is one, the way in which we think real life is, and it is the way in which we are entertained, and we tend to remember better those things which find a way to combine, truth, grandness, fiction and entertainment.

The writer A.S. Byatt said that "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of History," and this is precisely the point I'm trying to make. That the point where history or academic knowledge ends, the creative begins, and it is not simply out of playfulness, but out of necessity.

I can see this in my classes. If you are already well versed in subject or a topic, abstraction is easy to consume and swallow. The bare bones of something are easy to accept because they are simply catalogued along with everything else somewhere in teh back of your mind. So for instance, one of the first lectures I conducted in my world history class, was on the humans "before history" begins. Cro-Magnon men and so on. For me, lecturing on the initial development of the first humans was very interesting. For instance, when we look at the early graves of humans and what they would bury people with, you can make guesses about what their ideas of the afterlife might have been like or what sort of deities they make have had. For my students, the lecture was extremely abstract and very boring. They all knew what a caveman was, but it wasn't something integrated into their mind in such a way, that if I spoke out it in very broad abstract terms, they could follow me easily or even care.

So after that first poor experience I decided to write me lectures to focus more on stories which spoke to the times and the events covered and not stay too long at the broad abstract level. For the times of cave-men and the first hunter gatherers it was difficult, but as we moved into Greeks, Persian, Romans and Chinese it got easier. So to talk about Chinese Legalism, I tried to focus on telling stories about the virtues of Daoism and Confucianism and then contrast them with the horrible punishments that people such as Shang Yang passed in order to dominate people and expand the power of the state. In order to talk about the mindset of the Romans, their culture and their power, I used the example of Hannibal Barca and how he manipulated Romans and tactically defeated them at almost every turn, but could not overcome them. My students respond better when I convert the history we cover into a series of inspirational, funny, and just plain sad stories. When you come at it that direction, the bare bones take on some life, they get some meat on them, and sorry to take this metaphor too far, but they make history something which students who otherwise would care nothing for history, something which they might actually want to consume.

1 comment:

ñalang said...

check out wade davis' "the wayfinders." there's a chapter on oceanic migrations that's specifically about their intentionality. could be a really great text to get your students critiquing and/or comprehending.

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