Why we Study Humanities
We study humanities for many reasons. Some of them might be to learn from our mistakes, realize we are part of a great thing, get ready for the important questions, propose alternatives to the challenges we face, and become the we want to be.
As we move further in this course, you will see that we have made many mistakes. We fought many wars that could have been avoided if we had thought about our conflicts further. The more we value and appreciate our humanity, the less likely we will hurt each other.
We have also hurt the environment. We are just realizing recently that we are part of the environment and that everything we do to it will haunt us back. We are now “thinking green” and trying to slow down the damage we caused to the planet. Hopefully, we still have a chance.
We formed ways of living that sometimes were not just. As we look at ourselves, we realize we need to improve our methods of organizing in societies, in the ways we worship, and in the ways we govern.
But we should also study humanities to see how we are part of a great thing. We are seekers and explorers. We won’t stand in front of a mystery without trying to conquer it. We have created science, medicine, art, philosophy, literature. Many of these creations have turned our lives around. Humans can abstract to create and imagine pushing the boundaries constantly by asking brave questions. We are also good.
At the speed we are going, there is a need for most of us to engage in high-level thinking. Progress is good if most people’s lives improve with it. Are we heading in that direction? Humanities allow us to explore that question. As we face those questions, we might come up with answers that will help us avoid falling back into solving our problems through force and violence. We might prevent a new war.
The environments in which we find ourselves as time passes are different. Development and change occur as we live. The challenges we have today might be others tomorrow. But the constant element is us, the human element.
You and I have been on earth in this shape and form () for 200,000 to 150,000 years. When you look at the time the planet has been in existence, which is around 4 billion years, we just showed up. We must look at our development as humans keeping in mind that everything around us plants, other animals, and even the environment has been evolving just like us. But in this first module, our focus will be on human beings within that scheme of things.
For some of us, this might be a controversial issue. And although in academia, we don’t shy away from challenging questions, the questions we will face in this first part do not necessarily challenge our faith or beliefs. If we are believers, there might even be space for God in the theory of evolution.
First, we need to keep in mind what prehistory is. In short, it is what we tell about the events that happened before written records. Human beings started putting in writing their experience around seven . But a lot was going on before we started recording our daily events. So, when we talk about prehistory, we talk about events with no written record. We try to understand these events by studying the evidence we find on the ground through archeology and other sciences.
Africa was the birthplace of humanity. “The oldest known stone tool a knife blade that is probably 2.6 million years old was found in Africa (Spielvogel, 1997).” After human beings evolved in Africa, we became nomads. We walked north through thousands of years and slowly habituated what we call Asia and Europe. We were hunter-gatherers. Since we ate the animals that lived where we lived, when those animals were killed, we had to keep going. Thus, we were also nomads.
Around ten thousand years ago, we started planting seeds in the ground, and we realized we could stay in one place and live off what we domesticated. Scientists call this the agricultural revolution.
Now we had plants and domesticated animals. We settled. As we settled, we started growing as a group. We became larger groups that shared one space. With this comes the need to arrange our contributions to the whole in creative ways to provide for all the members of the tribe or clan. Now we enter civilization, and with civilization come many other elements that would take us further toward progress and development.
In a large group of people, we need organization, order, rules, laws. There comes the need to extend knowledge to the growing generations, so we create a system of perpetuating our customs and beliefs through education. We need to interpret the mysteries that surround us, what happens when we die, why there is a drought and many other questions answered by wise men, interpreters of mystery, priests, and religious men. We create myths to explain the unexplainable, and we create stories to share our ideas. In short, we create culture. “What human beings have always shown is a cumulative capacity such as no other species has ever shown to create change (Roberts, 1993).”
It had to be an incredible moment. Suddenly we learned to manipulate fire. Fire meant having power. Fire gave us a better brain, a different body, light, protection, and heat. As we learned to manipulate fire, we started using it for cooking our food. That became more time for us to do other things. In this respect, we can say that the fire extended the day for us. Not only that, but eating cooked meat changed the physiology of the brain, which opened new possibilities for the human.
We could get more out of the food that was cooked. It was healthier. Our bodies improved, and we became more efficient in everything else we had to do to survive.
Inside our caves, we could have light. Light meant sitting together to share stories. Even today, many of us enjoy sitting around the fire to tell stories. But light also meant using our creativity to tell stories in cave walls. We witness this if we look at the Altamira Caves in Spain or the Lascaux Cave in France.
Manipulation of fire also meant protection against beasts. We are the animal that was able to use fire against the other animals. The human being was not strong like the lion or as fast, but the lion feared the human with fire. Suddenly we have a powerful weapon that helps us level the fields where we lack physical strength. We could even hunt at night with a fire in our hands.
Fire also meant staying in one place without having to travel because of the cold season. Human beings learned that fire could be used to provide heat. No matter how cold it could be outside, if we manipulated fire, we always had heat.
Civilization: Organization and Power
The manipulation of fire and the need to organize a larger group of people meant the development of civilization. A civilization is a group of people that organize themselves in certain ways to be more effective in finding ways to cooperate within the group.
Historians have identified certain characteristics of any civilization. Spielvogel (1997) lists the following: 1) an urban revolution, 2) religious structure, 3) political and military structures, 4) a social structure, 5) the development of writing, 6) new forms of significant artistic and intellectual activity, and 7) more complexity in a material sense: capital was accumulated, and metals smelted to produce a variety of material objects (Spielvogel, 1997).
When we talk about an urban revolution, we mean the building of structures, houses, buildings, and common spaces in which this specific civilization shares culture. All human needs must be addressed within that space, so we create a physical space of our own to cover those needs.
Religion is always present in one form or another in every culture known around the globe. There have always been mysteries and questions we do not know the answers to yet. There always have been interpreters of the phenomena we experience around us for those questions and mysteries. Before science, shamans, priests, and prophets helped us interpret these mysteries. As we form civilizations, these interpretations became what today we call religion.
Another need civilizations have is the political and military structures. As we grow into civilization we need to be better organized and prepared to defend ourselves, attack. Survive, govern effectively, and keep moving toward progress.
As a society structures itself, we start dividing ourselves into different classes. Some of these classes start acquiring some types of privileges over others. All societies have these class divisions, although some have questioned if they are necessary.
Another great thing we developed is some form of writing. We developed writing to keep track of our businesses. We realized that it was an effective system to preserve what memory could forget. Not only that, but we could convey messages, ideas, and information. Writing is one of the greatest creations of humanity.
As we grew into civilized living, we also developed creative ways to express ourselves artistically. Suddenly we have talented individuals creating forms of art that would entice members of society toward new ways of feeling and demonstrating our tastes and styles.
And finally, our surplus of material objects made us come up with a trade. We realized that we do not have to make everything we need or consume. Others are good at doing something we do not know how to do or lack the materials required for it. So, we came up with ways to exchange what we made.
Gowlett, J. A. J. (2016). The discovery of fire by humans: a long and convoluted process.Philosophical Transactions of the : Biological Sciences,371(1696), 20150164.https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0164
Hart, D., & Sussman, R. W. (2008).Man the hunted: Primates, predators, and human evolution(expanded edition) [E-book]. ProQuest