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Rise of Prehistory

Science Of Prehistory, Evolutionary Contributions, New World Discoveries, Archaeology And Related Fields, Bibliography

Historians have long distinguished between matters recent or of record and antiquities, which surpassed memory if not understanding, and which Thucydides (d. c. 401 B.C.E.) called "archaeology." The pre-history of "prehistory" itself includes the collection of curiosities, remains, and relics underlying the emergent disciplines of mythology, philology, ethnography, and anthropology. The practice of prehistory was also apparent in the tradition of Eusebian world history (which was based on the model of Eusebius's universal chronicle) and was set within the biblical framework until it was secularized in eighteenth-century conjectural history and shifted to the larger arena of natural history, as in the work of Johann Gottfried von Herder, Johannes von Müller, and C. A. Walkenaer. The pursuit of prehistory was especially evident in the work of Enlightenment philologists and mythologists such as Thomas Blackwell, C. G. Heyne, Georg Friedrich Creuzer, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, and Karl Otfried Müller. As Heyne wrote, "In interpreting myth we must transport ourselves back into the manner of thought and expression which belonged to that remote period" (Müller, p. 256).

A major arena for the pursuit of prehistory ante literam was the study of cultural history (Kulturgeschichte), especially in the work of authors like Herder, Gustav Klemm, Friedrich Hellwald, and Gustav Kolb. It was in the later nineteenth century, however, that such efforts produced the modern discipline of "prehistory," a neologism self-consciously coined by Daniel Wilson in 1851. "Prehistory" (Vorgeschichte; préhistoire; preistoria) drew especially on two new disciplines with old names—that is, "anthropology" (the philosophical study of human nature) and "archaeology" (Thucydidean prehistory). Monuments, memorials, and material objects offered historians access to a deeper past than afforded by written records, private or public. Graves, sepulchral urns, runes, and stone implements uncovered beginning in the seventeenth century threw light on the life (as well as death) and migrations of "barbarian" peoples, while fossil remains forced Christian scholars to confront, and finally to acknowledge, the notion of a humanity older than Adam.

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