Via @williamjturkel comes news of the International Big History Association which is planning to hold its first conference in 2012 in Grand Valley, Michigan. Big History is a new term to me, though clearly it’s been around a while (PDF). The IBHA site defines it as “the attempt to understand, in a unified, interdisciplinary way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity”. This puzzles me. Humans occupy a fleeting small portion of the Cosmos’s past, so how do you pull this all together. David Christian made a presentation at TED.
Sadly my first reaction is that Big History takes a complex and majestic story and abridges it to the point of triviality. My first reaction to Smail’s Deep History wasn’t complimentary either. It’s not that there’s nothing to talk about but rather that combining the story of human action in the past with the biological foundation of human physiology is not new to archaeologists, particularly to Palaeolithic archaeologists. What won me over to Smail’s way of thinking is partly the reminder that Historians are not Archaeologists, and that this is novel to historians, and also Smail’s book On Deep History and the Brain. While cognitive science and neuroscience have an input in Palaeolithic archaeology, this influence seems to diminish as we get closer to an archaeology of the modern-day. There are some exceptions. Lambros Malafouris is exploring the possibility of a Neuroarchaeology of the Bronze Age. I’ve had a go at combining Extelligence and TXM to the classical period, but not with any success that I’d want to publish yet. I’d be delighted to see other examples in the comments, but I think the development of cognition is seen as an evolutionary problem in the palaeolithic more often than it’s seen as a continual learning problem in humans of all periods. It’s possible that Big History could provide a framework to pull similar work into more recent periods.
Continue reading Can archaeology make a small contribution to Big History?