History’s importance to human society cannot be underestimated. Although we can track social organisation to a time when people painted on the walls of Altamira between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, professional historians think of history as a story of the past 5,000 years. Whether this latter claim still holds true might be subject to debate. But our debt to some loose account of history is obvious. Sacred scriptures invoke historical narratives and myths recalling memories going back millennia to serve us with moral and other edificatory lessons. Great empires demonstrated their success, as history teaches us, through mind-boggling architectural feats, inventions and the production of art, music, and literary classics that leave us breathless just wondering about the talents, abilities, and endurance of the human race and our ability to transform our environment. 

We used to think that changing our environment by making it habitable was a good thing, but now we realise that our tampering is sending our planet on an irreversible course and increasingly unable to self-repair as it once did. Now we must help the planet to repair if we are interested in its and our survival. Yet, countless women and men left their traces on earth, for the benefit of posterity, or so we would like to think. Non-literate and literate societies left us legacies. We deem what we can glean from the traces left by our pre-hominid and hominid ancestors as pre-history. But when legions of palaeontologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, as well as palaeobotanists, and experts in palaeomedicine serve us with accounts of our ancestors literally from the ruins of history in National Geographic magazines and documentaries, we recognise ourselves or parts of ourselves in those accounts. We wonder why it is called ‘prehistory’ because we can relate to their history, or we see glimpses of ourselves in those accounts. 

Why History?

Why is history so important in the modern world? From 1350 onwards, first Europe and then gradually different parts of the world experienced the impact of modernity with all its benefits and distractions. As this modern momentum created different kinds of global changes from the age of discovery and imperialism, a change in the conception of religion occurred, especially religion and politics in Europe thanks to the Reformation. Gradually a different kind of self and personhood became the standard, at least in Europe, because that history and story is well-researched and much clearer to us. What happened in China, Africa, or in Muslim domains in Central Asia, Africa, South and East Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa to the idea of the individual is less clear, but we do have some glimpses and insights. But we do not have a thick archive to speak confidently of the trends and timelines.

History became important in Europe in the sense that the story of the European discovery of the new ‘man’ had to be told, shared with others, and on many occasions foisted on others with European expansion. This new dimension created a more self-conscious individual and society which was widely touted in education and contributed to European ascendancy. With it came the more self-conscious deployment of reason and the need to marginalise irrationality. History is also the preoccupation of the winners and conquerors of history.

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