Big History, Deep History and the Anthropocene

Historians are becoming more ambitious in the breadth and depth of their coverage. Is there a danger that this will reduce the role of humans to a bit part? Not necessarily, says Paul Dukes.

Man and beast: the pall of heavy industry hangs over Indian farmers using a traditional ploughMany historians, who grew up with the idea that their subject consists exclusively of the documentary record, have been surprised to learn that what we used to call pre-history should also be taken on board. Two concepts in particular have emerged: ‘Big History’ and ‘Deep History’, associated respectively with David Christian at Macquarie University in Australia and Daniel Lord Smail at Harvard. They both aim at the restoration and extension of grand narrative, albeit with different emphases: Christian on the cosmological; Smail on the anthropological. Thus, Big History begins with the Big Bang and the origins of human history appear after those of the earth and its early life forms. In contrast, Deep History concentrates first on our remote ancestors, subjecting them and then their descendants to, for example, genetic analysis. Approaching more recent times, Big History has much to say on the ‘Great Acceleration’ of the 20th century, the steep rise in population and production.

A third potential concept, the Anthropocene, was originally a geological hypothesis, now accepted by a growing number of historians, who would have difficulty in proposing their own term for the environmental process taking place from the end of the 18th century onwards. ‘Modernisation’, for example, seems an inadequate alternative and in any case it is impossible to imagine a conference of historians in which the term modernisation would be accepted, since many appear averse to any use of it, however defined. Perhaps, therefore, discussion will be best carried further forward under the general heading of the Anthropocene.

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