by Benjamin Diehl

Stefanos Geroulanos is the Director of the Remarque Institute and Professor of History at New York University. At the center of Geroulanos’s work has been an interest in how the concept of the human has been made and remade in the past few centuries. Benjamin Diehl spoke with Geroulanos about his most recent book, The Invention of Prehistory: Empire, Violence, and Our Obsession with Human Origins (Liveright, 2024), which continues this work by examining how seemingly innocuous concepts drawn from prehistory have been used for political ends, often with devastating results.

Benjamin Diehl: “Language does not belong to us.” This is the short yet provocative sentence which begins Chapter 6, “The Thin Veneer,” that I thought was a convenient description of your methodological approach throughout the book. So, let us start there: to what extent did this logic help frame the research, and why would you say prehistory is particularly well-suited to conceptual history?

Stefanos Geroulanos: From the moment I decided this would be a book, I planned it as a history of concepts, metaphors, and images: not a history of “what really happened” in early humanity, but of the language through which we understand ourselves while discussing that past. This gave some advantages to my way of doing conceptual history. I am not particularly keen on studying a foundational concept (Grundbegriff) or two; rather, I think one has to study instead a whole web of linked concepts, expressions, and other kinds of assumptions—to examine how they relate to one another, how they are woven together to make up thought. So, a lot of the research and writing meant studying concepts together, while isolating them enough to show their converging and diverging biographies—to show how they transformed over time, whether within specific fields, or by linking up with different concepts than they had done at earlier times.

The research itself was fairly traditional: personal and departmental archives, newspapers, museums, lots of digital searching, and then retrieving books to read. At first, it was simply about understanding authors and fields. I do not think the concepts framed the research except toward the end, when I was paying more attention to their public uses. By that point, it was all about synthesis and about deciding which concepts make it in and which remain on the sidelines. “Troglodyte,” for example, is barely discussed in the book: I did not have enough meaningful shifts in its history that would contribute to the web and to the broader story.

This focus on language was also important to me because it is very difficult to decide where to draw a dividing line between strict scientific work and the public life of the knowledge of the deep past. If we only study particular scientists or fields, do we adequately understand how they use and affect widely available concepts? Or how their knowledge is changed when it becomes public? And, conversely: if we study this at the level of popular science, do we not automatically advocate that with better data and more education, the problems will be fixed? My point was not to attack scientists or science—it was to examine how we discuss human nature through prehistory. I thought that from the perspective of the concepts I could reach the individual scientists whose work has been at stake as much as broader discourses of human nature.

BD: Part II appears fundamental in this regard, indeed the “concepts that tied it all together.” Each of the main concepts discussed here has a way of repeating itself, so we can come back to each, but the “disappearing native” stood out to me insofar as it slightly flipped the tables. A term developed to lament the loss of Indigenous culture and society ironically served to speed up their demise. How does this particular phrase emphasize the way concepts, as you describe it, “escape their human designs”?

SG: Yes, Part I is really about setting the terms, articulating the main concepts as they stood by the time of Darwin and Engels. Part II, which covers the 1830s to the early twentieth century, complicates and works with the concept web. Concepts like primitive communism, “the thin veneer of civilization,” the Neanderthal, the totemic meal, and of course the “disappearing native.”

Versions of that motif have existed for a lot longer; what interested me was its coincidence with evolutionism, which transformed it into a narrative of the supposedly natural way in which Indigenous Peoples were dying out “on their own,” without any connection to the brutal violence of colonialism. Darwin (and others) explained away the destruction of Aboriginal Tasmanians (and others) as simply an effect of natural selection. This logic buttressed the idea that extinct hominids were “primitive” in the same way as Indigenous peoples: that people distant in space or culture were the same as people distant in time. By the early twentieth century, the notion of the “disappearing native” had changed again to become an expression used by anthropologists signaling their sympathy for Native populations suffering from ongoing oppression. It was deployed to “salvage” and to defend these populations—but also to “manage” them, which meant to “civilize” (via education, for example, to erase their respective cultures) or to keep them outside civilization. This was one concept—but, as I just noted, it was explicitly linked to the extinction of other hominid species, notably Neanderthals or other ways of life. As Natives “disappeared,” the idea that “savagery” survived “beneath the thin veneer of civilization” also took off.

BD: Throughout the book, time is a key variable, especially the triad of past, present, and future—which emerge in your discussions of stadial theory. There is also the dynamic where prehistorians (and the like) continuously moved backwards, from the ancients, the Neanderthals, to the early hominids, to reach ever closer to the truth of human origins. In what ways is the calculation of time or the development of a particular linearity in the human timeline an important feature of the book?

SG: I love the time problem. I focus on the complexity of time as understood by scientists and the public, and in particular the way in which the temporalities they described sometimes clash. You mention two temporal structures: one is the stadial, tripartite approach. In it, different triads wove together time, culture, and space. These could be technological (Stone-Bronze-Iron Age), civilizational (savage-barbarian-civilized), and anthropological (animism-religion-science). That was a basic schema of positivist progress, and it worked because it made it easy to place other peoples—whether past or present—into boxes, and to develop theories about them. You also mention the desire to loop back to recover the purity of the “most ancient” and then loop forward and deploy it today or tomorrow. There were several others: Freud’s idea of a primal father, whose murder is replayed in the unconscious of each little Oedipus. The “ruins” model, where the body carries within biological leftovers of distant pasts. The way the human timeline and geography changed with new fossil discoveries. The linear representation of human temporality (for example in Rudolph Zallinger’s famous “March of Progress” image). The idea that tools altered the human skeleton—and thus that the species is in effect generated by the devices and traditions it exudes. This all is to speak in the most general sense, as some motifs involved considerable variations, and the temporalities they proposed often clashed.

In a project with Dan Edelstein and Natasha Wheatley, we named these competitions and conflicts between temporalities chronocenosis. I do not consistently foreground that subject here—as it is a trade book!—but you are right to note that I try to keep the discussion of temporal clashes going, to complicate theories of progress, and to ask about the role of time in the transformation of ideas of human nature.

Fig. 1: William K. Gregory, Frontispiece of Our Face From Fish to Man, 1929.

BD: Just as time features significantly, so does space. The book consistently treats such topics as birthplaces, migrations, invasions, tracing the ways prehistoric groups moved and settled. Of all the chapters, “The Hordes and the Flood” probably uses the most contemporary references in its opening, and the theme in general may perhaps most poignantly tie in discussions of race and empire. How do the locations of various discoveries or the linking of specific geographic spaces to certain peoples or species shape discussions of belonging, origins, conquests, and so on?

SG: Prehistory is an epistemology of the earth. Nothing in the sciences of prehistory would have happened without the geological revolution of the early 19th century—think of the discoveries of fossils and tools and, later, cave paintings. Such discoveries gave depth and breadth to the earth itself and infused it with new meanings. Tool cultures, for example, signaled human presence and complex social life. Europeans certainly encountered the past across jagged pathways and in often unexpected locations. “Java Man,” “Piltdown Man,” “Peking Man,” Olduvai, the “Cradle of Humanity”—these became place-names (in one case of a forgery), to paraphrase Proust, “within whose syllables had gradually accumulated all the longing inspired in me” by the humanities “for which they stood.” And Europeans were meticulous in tying people, movements, and power to geographic movement. They projected ancient Germans back into the “Indo-European Conquests” or “Migrations” back in the third millennium BCE, some pronouncing that the “motherland” was in Germany, others in Central Asia. This sounds like it is too recent, but for those who identified humanity with language, it was incredibly important—more important than biological origins. The biological cradle of humanity was a matter of considerable debate (see also Emily Kern’s JHI article and forthcoming book on the establishment of “Out of Africa”), and even now, while Africa is accepted as the origin, different genetic models propose different pathways for sapiens. Then there is the history of early settlements, agriculture, cities, and so on—the subject of, among others, Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. A lot was at stake in the anthropologists’ effort to find the most “uncivilized,” most “archaic” of Native peoples; this practice continued in all earnestness well into the 1970s. Europeans also imagined—and many still imagine—non-Europeans as a persistent subhuman, natural threat, such as a flood, ready to repeat the “barbarian invasions.” Such geographic imaginations may not be as consequential as that of modern cities and nations. Yet they define how we think of the earth and how we think of humanity, the role of individuals and groups, cultural differences, and power differentials between peoples.

Fig. 2: H. G. Wells’s version of the Barbarian Invasions map (1921).

BD: As the subtitle indicates, violence is fundamental to the book, but it plays a variety of roles. So, let us break that topic into two questions. The first has to do with violence as a qualifier of civilization. As you show clearly, early on, the violence of “savages” served as a key indicator of what made them closer to animals than to humans. Yet others have described more utopian images of the distant past in which pre-state humans lived in relative peace. How do you explain the role of violence as a key index for degrees of civilization across thinkers throughout the book? Second, violence throughout the period you examine actively refocuses the debate. World War One did much to bring forward the “thin veneer” concept, while aerial bombing seemed to at once be a threat to the user’s civility and the victim’s level of civilization (“Bomb Them Back to the Stone Age”). In what ways does the actual violence playing out in the “real world” provide moments for reflection on human nature? What role do these reflections play in normalizing that very violence?

SG: Violence figures in two main ways. First, the attribution of violence to an other, a “savage” other, whether in the deep past or in the present. By contrast with “civilized,” the term “primitive” fused past and present and gave the impression that if you can classify the “savage” of the past as violent, the one of the present would be so as well. Second, the disavowal of violence—especially in the theme of the “disappearance of the native” (chapter 7)—thanks to which violence unleashed on Indigenous people could be explained away on the basis of their own supposed violence. This was less jarring to me in the nineteenth century than it was in the postwar period. The post-WWII “killer ape” theory—which postulates that our australopithecine ancestors were especially gruesome killers—was meant to support a theory that violence is innate to humans (all the way to the Holocaust and Hiroshima). In this regard, both Nadine Weidman and Erika L. Milam have written really important books. But in almost the same breath its promoters used it to target Black Africans fighting for decolonization. By the 1970s, the divide was hardening between those who imagined hominids and early humans as violent and those who saw them as only incidentally violent. This continues all the way to the present: Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond celebrate a straight progress toward peace, while James Scott, David Graeber, and David Wengrow (as well as various anarcho-primitivists) see early humanity as worthy of celebration. Once again, we are talking about ourselves: whether aggression is innate, whether it can be expunged, whether violence is really a property of the State. It’s easier to do all this by way of this loop to humanity’s beginning.

You raise an additional question, about bombing. That chapter is among the most important in the book, even if it often has little to do with “prehistory” at the explicit level: it shows how new conceptions of culture and technology enabled colonial and former-colonial powers to persist in establishing civilizational hierarchies, all the while claiming the universalism of civilization. As bombing became more devastating, “degrees of civilization,” as you put it, became the name for legitimate violence. One bombs infrastructure, not equal human beings. To this day, there is a direct feedback loop between bombing people and claiming them to be animals, terrorists, outside of humanity—and then still claiming one was not bombing people in the first place but unfortunately some of them just happened to die.

Is this a reflection on human nature? Legitimation discourses work not by enabling such reflections but by guiding them away from unpleasant subjects. The language about bombing and “primitiveness” is a language that has coexisted fully with languages of peacefulness, universalism, and care for the downtrodden. Normalization is one way to put it; another would be that liberal morality treats some of these languages as important while ignoring others.

Fig. 3: Jules Verne’s Robur the Conqueror bombards the “savages” from his airship (1886).

BD: Technology is one theme that takes center stage in the last part of the book, if not earlier, in somewhat surprising ways. I mean, who could have guessed a book on prehistory would feature discussion of cybernetics? An essential figure in this is André Leroi-Gourhan, who you describe as “largely unknown in English” yet “possibly the Darwin of the Twentieth Century.” It seems to me he might be one of the heroes in a story which is quite critical altogether. What do you regard as Leroi-Gourhan’s fundamental contribution to prehistory, and what important contextual precedents help explain how he developed his novel account?

SG: Very briefly: Leroi-Gourhan’s key intellectual moves concerned toolmaking, and they offered a way out of the “big brain” and “killer apes” theories that predecessors and contemporaries believed drove evolution. Following Kenneth Oakley, Sherwood Washburn, and Louis Leakey, he thought that tools were distinctly human and an essential, if external, part of the skeleton. To all of them, tools had contributed, little by little, to vertical posture, to rebalancing the head (and hence to changing the brain), and to the “shortening” of the face. Their use, Leroi-Gourhan argued, had greatly contributed to the “liberation of the hand” from locomotion, which is to say that it had transformed the body over millions of years. Leroi-Gourhan, formerly Marcel Mauss’s student, tried to develop an elaborate theory where tools were the hinge between nature/biology and culture. For him, this meant: (1) that complex tools required “operational sequences” involving as much biodynamic gestures as culturally-specific knowledge, which then set in motion entire traditions for making tools, which is to say cultural continuities; (2) that culture is not simply something developed intellectually, but, by way of endless feedback loops, an “exteriorization of memory” into objects, traditions, cities, societies; and (3) that humanity was merely a station in an open-ended path through which life and technics developed uncontrollably—and at the same time, humanity had a “human economy” specific to it, which devoured everything, with tremendous ecological consequences.

This was one of the few theories that I studied that did not propose a “human nature” to be celebrated and adored, but that understood “the human” to be dynamic and highly dependent on its products and implements. Jacques Derrida (in Of Grammatology) and Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari (in Anti-Oedipus) treated Leroi-Gourhan as foundational but somewhat worried about his conservatism and (however skeptical) technocratic sensibilities. I want to be clear that I do not mean “twentieth-century Darwin” uncritically; others have offered strong criticisms—intellectual historian Jacob Collins, for example, in The Anthropological Turn; indirectly, Donna Haraway via her criticisms of Washburn—and especially the anthropologist Margaret Conkey, who objected to his structuralist understanding of the cave paintings (as I discuss in that separate chapter). Still, I think his vision played a bigger and more meaningful role than we accord it: Leroi-Gourhan’s magnum opus Gesture and Speech is, on its own, unwieldy; Nathan Schlanger is about to publish a useful intellectual biography in English translation.

Fig. 4: André Leroi-Gourhan, “The Liberation of the Hand” (1956).

BD: Another hero in this story would be Juliet Mitchell, whom you reference as a major inspiration for the book. This appears in the chapter on patriarchy, which contains echoes from previous chapters on primitive communism and Freud. Those explorations have similar ambitions: they aim at exploring certain efforts to locate in the distant past either a more economically egalitarian society or a less patriarchal one, and thereby justify a celebration of prehistoric society. How would you describe Mitchell’s response to these efforts and how might this relate more largely to your challenge throughout the book regarding the instrumentalization of prehistory?

SG: In the book, I ally Mitchell with Margaret Conkey, whom I just mentioned. Both responded to the strengthening of patriarchal impulses in the postwar period (in Mitchell’s case in psychoanalysis, in Conkey’s in anthropology). Mitchell famously demanded that feminists see Freud as a diagnosis and not a prescription of patriarchy: an easy overturning of masculinist theories would not lead to a gender utopia. More examination was needed. Conkey urged that the stronger feminist impulse was not simply to reject the (wrong as well as wrongheaded) “Man the Hunter / Woman the Gatherer” screenplay invented by Washburn and others, but to further demand that gender in prehistory be rethought through and through on the basis of actual evidence and without presuppositions.

These critical stances are essential to my own: (1) we need to recognize that we live and speak in a world where prehistory theories carry considerable weight on our conception of the human; (2) this does not mean we should simply ignore these theories, or reject them, but rather that we need to very carefully consider, using both scientific tools and humanist ones, their claims on humanity—their insistence that they control and explain “who we are;” and (3) that we take this insistence seriously, and ask ourselves how we could and should think and live differently.

Fig. 5: Illustration by Ib Ohlsson for Newsweek magazine (1988). Features Lucy and the Mitochondrial Eve, and it replaces males with skulls.

BD: Finally, with some time between the book’s release and now, it seems that what pushback you have received generally revolves around an insistence that our distant past is helpful or useful and that human beings are inherently connected by shared humanity or origin story. I ask this since much of the book does aim at re-ordering “our obsession with human origins.” How would you respond to these critiques? What examples from the book itself may offer a response?

SG: For the most part, objections have a “stay in your lane quality” grounded on the idea that Science is now so much better than it used to be. That we have learned infinitely more in the last two decades about our origins and how they determine us. I do think that scientists are doing far more complex and “better” work than even recently. But this argument repeats the problem through a strained, credulous liberal insistence on what is publicly presented as Science. My role as a historian and epistemologist is not to offer elegiac celebration; it is to ask after assumptions, to doubt promises, to provide context for pretenses to perfect knowledge. It is also to emphasize that ideology and myth cannot simply be let to pass. Are the hard sciences magically exempt from the complexities of speech and conceptualization that the rest of the world lives with? So, whoever wants to hang their hat on archaeogenetics, for example, might note that it competes with other sciences and is not fully congruent with archaeological data or anthropological studies. (This is normal in scientific work—but it should not simply privilege deterministic results in archaeogenetics.) Or they might recall that it, too, has political uses and implications. They might consider, to stick with this case, that it is a science that is quite convenient to 23&me data miningand to extreme-right-wing ideologies of “ethnopluralism.” That it invites you in with “you are simply learning about real genetic origins” and then is available to those who claim “we are not really racists, we merely prioritize people living among their own, because together they can make their own proper ethnic culture.” If you think that this is a better politics, and if you think that small-sample genetic elements from a hundred thousand years ago explain the complexity of human society today, you are welcome to hang your hat on that illusion. But—once our genetic data is constantly used for political purposes and to regulate life—do not be surprised if others say you contributed.

To me, the problem remains: whatever the genetic basis of our shared humanity—and it is indeed helpful for confirming in public that we are one humanity—this genetic basis is not congruent with the complex life of early human societies, where the evidence available is of a very different kind, and it is not congruent with the complexity of modern life. We cannot look to genetics for our shared humanity: even if we leave aside the contributions of other sciences like economics, sociology, and so on, this is an ethically brittle and politically very dangerous commitment. Even after a century of intense globalization, we know how families, societies, social infrastructures, and beliefs differ immensely. If you now want to take one of those, yours, use it to interpret worlds from which only some genetic traces survive, to claim you know enough about faces, emotional expressions, social arrangements, kinship structures, social hierarchies, ideas, beliefs, terrors, and so on, and then declare that to be the basis of humanity now, there is little I can do to dissuade you.

To understand who we are, we need to de-dramatize the distant past, study it without drawing grand conclusions, respect science as a human effort but also not to expect it to solve all problems, and look at the societies we live in—the worlds we make and fail to make. Other than some critical resources and more illusions, the deep past offers us very little on these questions.

Benjamin Diehl is a PhD Candidate in Modern European History at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. His dissertation is an intellectual biography of psychologist, biologist, and propagandist Sergei Chakhotin. His primary interests center on the political applications of scientific ideals, the relationship between mass media and democracy, and the real or imagined technocratic state.

Edited by Jonas Knatz

Featured Image: “The Neanderthal Man” as desperate caveman, in Harper’s Weekly (1873).