Why I’m Fascinated by Ancient History

How History and Speculative Fiction Intersect

I’m fascinated by ancient history—the archaic and classical Mediterranean, ancient Egypt, Sumeria and Mesopotamia. Mostly, though, I love studying paleoanthropology and archaeology—the Paleo- and Neolithic periods, the evolution of human kind and our spread across the face of the planet.

Recent history doesn’t particularly interest me. I understand the proximal importance of the Modern Era, the World Wars, the Cold War, etc., to the present day but it doesn’t capture my imagination. I look at the world during that time and I see something very much like the world I was born into. It’s too familiar to be fascinating.

I’m fascinated by ancient and prehistory because these eras are so vastly different from the world I live in. In a review I wrote of Madeline Miller’s novel, The Song of Achilles, I refer to the “alien-ness of Bronze Age Greece”. I read articles like this one about Kennewick Man and it’s shocking to realize just how little prehistoric life resembles my own. How vastly different it was than anything I’ve ever known.

Human behavioral modernity began approximately 50,000 years ago. Since that time, human beings have had the same essential neurological wiring. Kennewick Man, Bronze Age warriors, me—we all have the same potential for intelligence and curiosity, the same basic needs and fears and desires, the same yearning for beauty, the same need to express ourselves. We all have the same capacity for rationality and irrationality, for reason and emotion, the same ability to dream.

This fact suggests interesting questions:

  • How can we be the same in all the ways matter and yet create societies so varied?
  • Who were we when our world was so different?

When we compare ancient times and prehistoric societies with our present day, it helps us identify what aspects of our behaviors change and what aspects stay the same:

  • What’s truly essential and constant in human nature?
  • What of human nature is variable and circumstantial?
  • What are the boundaries of human being? How much variety and change can we handle and still be us?

At what point does human become human? At what point does human nature break? When must we adapt to such an extent that we become something else?

Just how adaptable are we? How much can human nature encompass?

These are the questions that enrapture me. These are the empty spaces in our historical record that beg to be filled in. These are the stories we don’t know.

Some months ago, I wrote an essay titled SF as Psychological Exploration. In it, I argue that speculative fiction allows us to imagine how we might behave and adapt to exist in circumstances radically different from our own. I conclude:

SF is one big thought experiment exploring the breadth and depth, the capacity and essence, the potential of human nature.

And all at once, it hit me:

My love of ancient history and my love of SF are the same love. My fascination with these two subjects that appear at first glance to have nothing to do with one another actually stem from the same root:

They both allow me to explore the true nature and limits of human being.

This same desire explains my interest in neuroscience and psychology, in art and storytelling, in music and language, in religion and philosophy. It all paints a picture of who we are, and who we’re not.

Proprioception is an individual’s sense of the boundaries of their own body, of where limbs and appendages are located relative to each other, of how it’s all moving.

What I seek is a complete proprioception of human nature.

Our future and the past that predates our written historical record are the great unknowns in the story of humanity. These are the empty spaces I want most to explore, to hear our echoes and see ourselves reflected in new and interesting ways.

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