By definition, what we call “history” begins with the written record of the course of humanity. Before recorded language, there is only prehistory. We can still tell a lot about the story of our civilization from this period by looking at the tools and artifacts used by our forebears long, long ago. Stone hand axes, for example, or clay pottery. A bronze plow or a limestone figurine.
But what if—bear with me, what if—we were living in some kind of prehistory right now?
This is the thought experiment. Imagine a bleak future in which all written record of the human journey up to the present were wiped out. Or if it did remain in some form, it would be unintelligible to some future culture, which had no knowledge of any of the world’s current languages.
You can easily imagine the movie script. In some post-apocalyptic world, civilization as we know it has been obliterated, buried under millennia of sand and dust. And then, after humanity has reestablished itself and built a new, independent tradition of science, art and philosophy, some archeologist stumbles upon an artifact from the distant past.
From 2018, say. A USB charging cable, perhaps. An espresso machine. Or a pair of five-finder running shoes. Miraculously preserved under layers of rubble
What would such a future archeologist be able to tell about us—about our lives, our culture, our minds? Quite a lot, I imagine.
Three Avenues of Inquiry
First of all, they would be able to glean insights from the way in which the object was manufactured.
- The copper wiring inside the smartphone cable, for example, would be a hint that we knew something about electricity.
- The complexity of the espresso machine might suggest that we had the capability to make other such intricate machines.
- And the manufacturing evident in the shoes may hint at our capabilities of combining very different materials in a single, unified end product.
Secondly, the design and stylingwould also provide clues as to the provenance and purpose of the item.
- If the USB cable featured some kind of branding, it would hint that a larger organization was responsible for its creation, that the organization must have created many other similar products, and that that organization wanted to be recognized as such.
- The espresso maker’s ornate design and flashy details would suggest that this was more than simply a functional tool, that it conveyed a status of sorts, that it was as much an object of beauty as of performance.
- And the running shoes’ flashy color scheme would likewise suggest that these items were more than simply functional; they were clearly a way for someone to express their individual style or character.
Finally, guessing at the reason whythe item was made in the first place would also yield insights into the larger societal structure that produced it.
- The clearly mass-produced phone cable hints at a world where electrically powered appliances were commonplace, and in which a source of electricity was easy to reach. Which, in turn, implies a society in which such a power source was protected and maintained in a structural way, possibly by a centralized government.
- Once the espresso machine had been identified as a way to produce a beverage (or possibly mix ingredients for some medicinal purpose?), it may suggest that any culture that leaves such operations—which could, after all, be performed by hand as well—to an intricate and doubtless expensive apparatus must enjoy a tremendous surplus of both wealth and labor.
- And the five-finger running shoes would hint at a social structure that valued health and physical fitness. More specifically, it may also suggest that prioritizing health was not just a private and sensible choice, but that it also served a social function as a public platform for decorative (and perhaps sexual?) display.
More to Come?
These are just some random examples, but it’s mind game I like to play. It reminds me that the world we live in, the material everyday, is imbued with history and humanity.
I’m thinking of setting up a series of such explorations, stepping into the shoes of an imaginary far-future archeologist who encounters a lost item from our own daily lives. It could be a fascinating way of making the invisible visible, and the quotidian extraordinary again.
What do you think—would this be an interesting avenue of exploration? Let me know which items you’d like our time-traveling scientist to look at!
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Top image credit: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Egyptian Chess Players (1879) (source)