Posted by: kshayes513 | February 13, 2013

What Do You Really Know About History?

The best panel I attended at Arisia this year was a fascinating, smack-on-the-head reminder that most of us – including this History major – don’t know nearly as much about history as we think we do. That panel’s topic was the invisibility of people of color in genre historical fiction, despite their presence in the real historical settings; and I’ll give it a full writeup soon. Today, I’m thinking about other recent archaeological news that should shake up our preconceptions about history.

First, the sensational confirmation that the bones under the Leicester car park are indeed those of Richard III “beyond a reasonable doubt” (in the words of the press release). Just the idea that someone has found and positively identified the bones of a king whose body has been lost for over 500 years is so extraordinary that, as fiction, it would seriously strain belief.  As fact, it’s the archaeological find of the century.

Beyond that, though, Richard’s resurrection is challenging the popular image of him as Shakespeare’s charismatic, murderous hunchback. That history, of course, was written by his enemies, and historians have been revising it for centuries, even while the Bard’s portrayal prevails in myth. With the extremely public return of England’s last Plantagenet King, historians who think he got an especially bad rap have an unprecedented chance to change his public image to something nearer to what is known.

And what is known, among other things, is that Richard was a highly regarded, even a beloved ruler of the North of England while his brother was King. So highly regarded indeed, that five centuries after his death, the City of York still loves him enough to want him back, and put in a challenge to the plan to lay him to rest in Leicester Cathedral.

There’s another well known historical archetype who virtually always gets a bad rap in the public image, and that’s the “caveman” – the Stone Age human. In popular culture,  cavemen wear raw furs tied on with leather thongs, drag cavewomen around by the hair, and use wooden clubs and rocks as tools and weapons. Stone Age peoples who survived into the Age of Exploration were almost universally regarded by “civilized” peoples as “primitives,” “heathens,” and especially  “savages.” Those perceptions were considered ample justification for conquest, enslavement and genocide.

Now the BBC has mounted an exhibition of some of the oldest human art from Europe, which makes the “clubs and rocks” stereotype seem profoundly ignorant.

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins’ review of this exhibit makes a compelling argument to ban “caveman” and “primitive” from our cultural vocabulary. Here’s an excerpt:

“The ice age was three, four, even five times earlier [than Stonehenge and the Pyramids]. Its artefacts were made by humans now known to have shared Europe with surviving Neanderthals. Their hunter-gatherer lives were technologically primitive, with fire but no metal and only animal skins to keep the cold at bay. Once it was thought that the pre-frontal cortex of their brain was unformed for social organisation.

“This show gives the lie to that. We enter a world of painters and sculptors who must have produced many such objects in complex communities able to support such workers. They fashioned their tools, mixed their paints, sculpted their reliefs, erected their scaffolds for cave murals, much as they might today. “

Notice that even as he discusses paleolithic social sophistication, Jenkins can’t quite free himself from the “primitive” stereotype. He dismisses paleolithic clothing as “animal skins,” which is not even factually true, as many Ice Age peoples used plant fibers as well. The phrase itself suggests those movie caveman scraps of leather, rather than the reality of complex, finely crafted garments like those of Otzi the Iceman, or the elaborate beadwork of many indigenous African and American peoples.

When even a scholarly reviewer gets caught by a historical misconception, it’s a warning that all of us should be checking our history carefully. If you’re building a world modeled on a historical society, or setting your story somewhere in the past, don’t just assume you know about cavemen or medieval kings, or whether people of color lived in Roman Britain (They did.  North Africa was part of the Empire, remember?)  The more important a piece of history is to your story, the more carefully you should be checking to make sure you’ve got it right.


  1. So true! And thanks for standing up for all of our ancestors. One of my favorite assumptions is that when Svante Paabo announced that all humans except Subsaharan Africans have Neanderthal DNA and it came from Neanderthal males passed on to Early Modern Human females, even scientists assumed it was rape.

  2. That’s a fascinating point about King Richard. There are projects going to get history correct in text books in countries around the world which, as we know, tend to bias things nationalistically. About the cavemen, a local grocer here in Michigan is reminding people interested in the “paleo diet” that cave people didn’t eat GMOs so he’s labeling all the food in his store where they are found. Finally, I did a little twist in an invented history novel by making the enslaved peoples very tall abinos, and everyone else in the novel brown. Fun!

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