‘Baked tnto the Frameworks’: Archeologist Reveals ‘3 Pervasive Myths’ That Blind Us to the Past

By Gary M. Feinman, an archaeologist and the MacArthur curator of Anthropology, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Cross-posted from Alternet.

The New Gilded Age, wars along the Russian border, a global pandemic, battles for women’s rights, even the Titanic: history does rhyme with the present. Yet as former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once observed: “If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history.”

That’s something we can realistically change. And if we do, we’ll have an easier time addressing the macro and multiple challenges humanity faces, and finding the pathways to necessary compromises and alliances with people across all borders.

But our blinders and misconceptions about the past constrain the knowledge that we have to plan for a better future. Societies don’t get much out of living memory because the longer-term ramifications from recent decisions generally remain unsettled, and most of the big problems we face are the cumulative products of decades or centuries of the wrong approach to humanity’s histories and transitions. To leverage and learn from humanity’s history regarding what fostered sustainability in the past, we need to know the outcomes.

The good news is that through concerted research in history and archaeology, we now know a great deal more about the different paths that people have taken and their outcomes than we did just fifty years back. Long-term perspectives on cities, states, and empires are now much fuller and more regionally diverse than was known decades ago. Synthetic, comparative analyses have been undertaken. We now know what worked and what did not.

To draw better inferences and learn from past human histories, it is necessary to challenge three pervasive myths, which fundamentally shape not just what we think about the past, but why so many see history as irrelevant when it comes to guiding the present and shaping the future. Each myth is pervasive and entrenched as the ideas and presumptions behind them were born and entangled with the roots of the Western tradition of social sciences, baked into the frameworks through which researchers traditionally study the past.

The first myth supposes that humans in their natural state are nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed, only tamed by the power and coercion of the state. Clearly, humans do have the capacity for great selfishness, but as a species, we also are better cooperators with non-kin than any other animal. This seeming paradox is explicable if we recognize that people are not by nature either uniformly cunning or cuddly, but rather humans, past and present, are capable of both cooperation and selfishness depending on context. Our nature is not one-dimensional. Cooperative behavior is situational; we engage when an individual’s wants dovetail with their larger social network. Lack of alignment short-circuits cooperation whether the network is large or small.

The first supposition or myth undergirds a broadly held second one—that large premodern societies were universally coercive or despotic in organization. Autocratic governance kept the ever-selfish in line, the argument goes. Ancient Athens and republican Rome generally have been categorically distinguished as the unexplained exception to this presumed premodern path, which came to an end just a few centuries ago when ideas from the Classical era were rediscovered, giving rise to The Enlightenment, when Europeans adopted reason, science, democracy, and more.

The latter scenario became the mid-twentieth-century justification for the third myth, the walling off of modernity from the deeper past. Only after the Enlightenment with rational thought could people organize themselves democratically, in forms of governance where voice, power, and resources were not monopolized by a few.

These three myths underlie the severing of deep history, especially non-Western pasts, from the present. Often in the absence of robust historical information, contemporary observations of non-Western peoples were categorically slotted into imagined pasts that led stage-by-stage to modernist Western presents and futures.

Progressive visions of human history spurred research in history, archaeology, and related disciplines. What we have learned over recent decades does not conform with those starting myths and expectations. Change was not linear, nor was it uniform from region to region. Likewise, premodern governance was not consistently despotic, especially in the Indigenous Americas. Yet in every global region, how people governed themselves shifted over time.

When it comes to the past, we also know the outcomes. And, in the region where I study, prehispanic Mesoamerica, cities that were governed more collectively with less concentrated power tended to persist as central places longer than those urban settlements that were ruled more autocratically. A similar pattern, albeit less definitive, was also found for a global sample of states and empires. More in-depth study is necessary, but these historical patterns seem worth investigating in other regions and probing further where they have been documented. The role and success of governance and institutions in facing and meeting the challenges of the past unlock a treasure trove of information that just may guide us toward better futures.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. JohnnyGL

    “And, in the region where I study, prehispanic Mesoamerica, cities that were governed more collectively with less concentrated power tended to persist as central places longer than those urban settlements that were ruled more autocratically.”

    — I recall reading some evidence of this in the early attempts at colonialism in the Americas, too, from Charles Mann’s 1493. The English initially tried to re-create their class system from Europe and granted big chunks of land to create Gentry. That meant being correspondingly as rough on their lower class colonists as the Spanish were, but those lower classes tended to wander off and go native, or just went home. The would-be aristocrats suffered from a lack of people to boss around!

    The resulting failures meant the English had to try a new approach. They divvied up the land into smaller parcels, resulting in more distributed wealth and land ownership structures. The proximity of Native American cultures continued to have an influence on the evolving colonial societies and Mann argues that proximity also shaped the thinking of the Founding Fathers in the US and influenced their aspirations for what society should look like.

    1. ISL

      sure we know more now than we knew 50 years ago, but I recall a very interesting book I read when young (around 50 years ago), Indian Givers,


      which more or less outlined many of these things we supposedly did not know fifty years ago (but did), and now know (but ignore). Actually, I think spin and narrative have only increased our inability to adjust the convenient (for the leaders) current world view.

    2. hunkerdown

      That’s the myth; in fact, the Europeans were not the real thinkers here and the indigenous were not merely children playing at statecraft. By the time of the American Revolution many indigenous thinkers had traveled to Europe and in fact developed a sophisticated body of critique against European society, including their frequently indulged zeal for corporal punishment. The Enlightenment could be construed as a reaction to the indigenous critique, in a sense. _The Dawn of Everything_, ch. 2, “Wicked Liberty: The indigenous critique and the myth of progress”:

      In the years between 1703 and 1751, as we’ve seen, the indigenous American critique of European society had an enormous impact on European thought. What began as widespread expressions of outrage and distaste by Americans (when first exposed to European mores) eventually evolved, through a thousand conversations, conducted in dozens of languages from Portuguese to Russian, into an argument about the nature of authority, decency, social responsibility and, above all, freedom. As it became clear to French observers that most indigenous Americans saw individual autonomy and freedom of action as consummate values – organizing their own lives in such a way as to minimize any possibility of one human being becoming subordinated to the will of another, and hence viewing French society as essentially one of fractious slaves – they reacted in a variety of different ways.

      Proximity? How white of Mann.

      1. Kouros

        I was just thinking that this short article represents quite a condensed summary of “The Dawn of Evrything”….

    3. Bruno

      “The proximity of Native American cultures…also shaped the thinking of the Founding Fathers in the US and influenced their aspirations for what society should look like.”

      This is, of course, quite true. But its significance is quite contrary to what is intended. That “thinking” is epitomised by the single reference Jefferson included to Native American cultures: “merciless savages.” The britannic colonial separatists, in their “Declaration” and “Constitution,” treated the american nations not as neighboring polities, but merely as objects of conquest, expulsion, and eventual extermination. Such were our “Framers” and “Founders.”

      1. Kouros

        Merciless savages because they defended their lands and didn’t fall in awe at the superiority of the English colonists. Similar language is used nowadays. See for example “the aggressive actions of China and Russia…”

    4. Jessica

      I would like to tweak this a little and argue that indigenous societies shaped the thinking of the small farmers and workers who pushed the Founding Fathers farther than they themselves would have wanted to go in changing society during the push for independence and that the constitution was to a considerable degree a counter-attack by the Founding Fathers against the resulting “excessive democracy”.

      1. Kouros

        Quite true:

        On the morning of May 29, 1787, in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia, opened the meeting that would become known as the Constitutional Convention by identifying the underlying cause of various problems that the delegates of thirteen states had assembled to solve. “Our chief danger,” Randolph declared, “arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions.” None of the separate states’ constitutions, he said, had established “sufficient checks against the democracy.”


        1. some guy

          Yes, there was an Articles of Confederation United States before there was a United States Constitution United States.

          The Articles of Confederation period should be studied more and understood better. One buzzphrase still surviving from the A of C time is ” the Spirit of ’76”. I suspect that ” excess of democracy” and a rolling tendency towards land reform and other things was a part of that spirit, which the Constitutional Convention’s Constitution was designed to contain and repress and roll back.

  2. Lex

    Thanks for posting this. I want to go a step further than the author in regards to the Enlightenment, because it’s fundamentally problematic to how human society has developed since then as well as how we look back on the past with so much disdain. Essentially all Enlightenment thought begins from the axiom that humans are rational animals, but no one has ever bothered to prove that axiom. Now clearly, humans are very capable of rational thought but that’s not what the Enlightenment posits, rather it rests on the idea that humans are fundamentally rational. And here problems arise because it is from this that we argue selfishness as a rational act and hence natural.

    But humans are not fundamentally or intrinsically rational. It could probably be well argued that we have to exert a great deal of effort to develop rational behavior and even more to implement it consistently. Or we need to invent all sorts of quasi-religious myths to rationalize our lack of reason. Like the “selfish gene” concept. So love and marriage for love which is obviously irrational behavior experiences transfiguration into the rational behavior of a gene that wants to self-replicate.

    I suspect that pre-modern societies were better integrated in many ways because they didn’t require every behavior to be construed as rational in order to maintain the tenets of a poorly argued philosophy.

    1. hk

      I think one major issue with the Enlightenment “rationality” is that it is premised on extreme individualism–that people are obsessed with finding what’s best for him/herself in a rather myopic sense. “Tribalism,” defined broadly, is almost exactly the opposite of this: even if belonging to and acting in service of a tribe may be, in the long term, good for its members individually, it lies far enough down the road that it cannot act as the near term (ie. myopic) driving concern. And tribalism in some form (that may extend to non-tribal members like neighbors and even strangers–people who are not members of the “enemy tribe”) has always been the main cohesive force in virtually every human society. It does get harrowing trying to wade through tortured “rationalist” explanations of “tribal” behavior.

  3. paul m whalen

    A Chronicle of Mass Extinction Foretold….. the only question is will it be quickly with nukes or a rapidly accelerated multidecade climate catastrophe….
    “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”
    —J. K. Galbraith
    “Again and again it has been shown that society’s attachment to its familiar and long-since-forfeited life is so rigid as to nullify the genuinely human application of intellect, forethought, even in dire peril. So that in this society the picture of imbecility is complete: uncertainty, indeed perversion of vital instincts and impotence, indeed decay of the intellect.”
    -Walter Benjamin

  4. John R Moffett

    All 3 myths are a projection by TPTB. Less organized human societies, like Native Americans, had more equal and just social systems than modern capitalism does. It is powerful, centralized government working at the behest of the wealthy that more often becomes despotic, especially when embedded in a greed-drenched capitalist system that must exploit workers. Taking the greed-factor away would greatly reduce the harm done, but how do you do that is a purely capitalist system?

    1. ISL

      ummm, Native Americans also were more equal than anything in (pre-capitalism) Europe.

      Moreover, greed is not modern – aristocracy is famous for greediness (divine rights) – or even solely human. My dog likes to collect the neighbor’s dog’s toys (which I return).

      You can’t eliminate greed; though it can be de-prioritized – e.g., tax on financial transactions, progressive tax rates, ESG requirements, prioritizing long term over short term investments, etc. Of course the powers that be are very happy with things as they are and so positive change only occurs at the margins, if at all.

  5. Palm & Needle

    The point about human nature is fundamental, and should be wielded like a club to repeatedly beat over the head everyone who brings out the “human nature” argument to justify capitalism.

    Human nature has a dialectical relationship with human context; as the context is changed, different facets of nature are revealed.

  6. ambrit

    “Only after the Enlightenment with rational thought could people organize themselves democratically, in forms of governance where voice, power, and resources were not monopolized by a few.”
    I’d argue that what we consider “The Enlightenment” was nowhere as far reaching nor as influential as ‘modern’ thinkers imagine.
    Looking around us today, I will assert that the goals of the Enlightenment are still elusive. Fools still run our politics and resources are still mismanaged for selfish ends. Rather than view ‘The Enlightenment’ as a historical fact, I find it more useful to view it as a useful target to aim at.
    For every Giordano Bruno we have a Niccolo Machiavelli.
    For every Stephen Hawking we have a Henry Kissinger.
    Stay safe. [Despite my cynicism, do not give up. The Existentialist concept of “Struggle” is still valid.]

    1. Kouros

      I think that a closer reading of “The Prince” would disabuse anyone to think that Machiavelli really deserves the bad rep he is getting…

      1. Bruno

        “a closer reading of “The Prince” would disabuse anyone to think that Machiavelli really deserves the bad rep he is getting”

        Truth-telling always gets a bad rap, from the very moment it’s told.

  7. The Rev Kev

    I note that at the same time we are learning how to understand history better, that in modern education that it is being de-emphasized. I have always maintained that the study of history is vital as it gives context to the times that we live in, whatever century that may be. Of course need it be said that if people do not know their history, that they find that they can be controlled more easily as they do not have a history to compare any changes being made and where that may lead to.

    1. hk

      I think one important loss to history is how it got mixed up with the “right answer” mentality in a highly perverse way. The ultimate insight from studying history (as opposed to the “history”) is that, epistemologically, our understanding and knowledge of what actually took place in the past is limited and wrapped in uncertainty, and that different people will extrapolate the known facts in the directions that fit their biases and agendas, even if they are not engaged in overt lies. It is in understanding how the knowns and uncertains of the past are interpreted that we can place the past in perspective, or so I think anyways.

      One problem is that we, in public discourse, have always tended to think one version of history is necessarily “right” and popularize “historical myths” in service of present day aims and interests. It’s always been true, I suppose, but one problem that’s been an issue recently is that various revisionist histories are being installed as the new “officially correct” histories in place of the stodgy old myths that they had challenged in the past. But can history be “taught” any better? Evaluating perspectives knowing that they are all “wrong” to various degrees and depend on evidence with varying degrees of veracity and certainty seems awfully heavy demands–this is, in some sense, why good historians have always been rare and took second fiddle in public view to the makers of popular myths.

  8. Susan the other

    The maintenance of our existence requires a certain level of harmony. Civilization itself is like an electron growing in energy and spinning at increasing frequencies to stay in its orbit. Until it can’t. The thing about human harmony is that, for some mysterious reason, it evaporates. The harmonics required to glue 8 billion people together is a real symphony. Requiring lotsa practice.

    1. Kouros

      This is why some like crystals and low temperatures and would really like to have similar powers with the “White Walkers” but on the living…

  9. Trainer

    “The first myth supposes that humans in their natural state are nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed, only tamed by the power and coercion of the state.”

    This idea was popularized by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book “Leviathan”. Hobbes described this nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed state as “the natural condition of mankind”. But interestingly he also wrote this about it:

    “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man”

    This is interesting because Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the English Civil War, when Parliamentarians were trying to wrest control from Royalists and the King of England. Hobbes was a Royalists that supported the monarchy during this period, and also was a tutor to the Prince of Wales (Charles II – who later restored the monarchy) while he was writing this book.

    So this is an idea that was put forward in a big way by a monarchist near the end of a war that was trying to overthrow the monarchy (Charles I was executed shortly before the book was published).

    One could argue that Hobbes contrived this idea to discourage his countrymen from permanently getting rid of their monarchy, because if they did the unbearable consequence in this lawless “natural condition of mankind” would result.

  10. vao

    Yet as former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once observed: “If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history.”

    Since this is about history, it would be high time to return to the original aphorism by Friedrich Hegel, and stop attributing it, in its various modified forms, to Churchill, Tutu, or some NYT columnist:

    Wir lernen aus der Geschichte, dass wir überhaupt nichts lernen.

    I.e. “We learn from history that we learn nothing whatsoever.”

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