This is a great cartoon by Randall Munroe that makes a very important point very effectively. Spread it around, love it, learn from it.
Here is an excellent video walkthrough of the cartoon, discussing its value as a communication tool.
But do ignore the details of the prehistory because the cartoonist has fallen into the same trap so many others have, well meaning in intention but simply a) not an expert on key things and b) unaware of the real consequences of getting certain things wrong.
When we represent prehistory, we represent humanity both past and present. It is not difficult to do so in a way that leads to serious and meaningful, even impactful, misconceptions.
So, here, I’m going to complain not just about this cartoon, but about the general phenomenon of people who are not paleontologists or archaeologists (or some other appropriate expert) using human prehistory to make a point, but at the same time, throwing accuracy about that prehistory under the bus.
Right way, I want to point out the consequences: Westerners, for sure, but this is more widespread than that, tend to have a view of humans that involve concepts of civilized and primitive, and hierarchical concepts mixed with evolutionary ones. And there are other problems in the conceptualization of prehistory and the diversity of humanity. These problems make it very easy to maintain a racist perspective despite overwhelming evidence against the validity of biological race. These problems make it very easy to lessen the pain and suffering of certain people, which, often, we are busy causing in our own self interest. These problems in conceptualizing the nature of humanity across time and space lead to all sorts of misunderstandings with all sort of consequences including, but not limited to, simply getting it all wrong.
XKCD is a comic written in and fully appreciated by the context of modern skepticism and science cheerleading. Let us please not throw the important social and natural sciences of archaeology, prehistory, paleoanthropology, etc. under the bus in service of making a point in some other area of study. A smart man whom I respect quipped, “but this comic is not about archaeology.” My answer to that: This comic makes one point about climate change and dozens of points about archaeology. It is about archaeology.
Why this is a great cartoon.
Look at the cartoon. Go from top to bottom.
It tells us that over a very long period of time, as humans did all sorts of different things, and conditions on the earth changed dramatically, the global surface temperature a) remained within a fairly narrow range and b) didn’t vary that quickly even when it did vary.
Then, all of the sudden, temperatures shoot way up and are expected to shoot way up even more. Holy crap. Point well made.
The climate change science is not bad but a bit off. The baseline of temperatures (pre industrial) vs. now should be somewhat different in relation to the current temperature. If you take the last few thousand years as basline, which is the proper thing to do, we are closer to 1.5, and not 1.0, degrees C above it. But that may be a nitpick since the time scale of this cartoon is larger. But, once you get past that level of time scale, the question of baseline becomes untethered from pragmatics and you can justify anything.
Also, there are probably times in the past, within the time range of this cartoon, where more abrupt and dramatic climate change did indeed occur. And, at those times, major effects happens with humans.
This is where not getting the archaeology right causes the cartoon to both miss some key points and become inadvertantly somewhat less than straight forward.
Here’s the thing. Climate change can have a very negative effect on humans. How do we know? Because it apparently has happened over and over again. For example (and there are many examples), within the time range of this graphic, climate changed caused a significant increase in aridity in a huge area of southern Africa. The place was pretty well populated by hunter-gatherers before that, and after that, and for thousands of years, no one could live there. Climate change had made the region uninhabitable for humans.
Similarly, climate change probably caused depopulations, evacuations, and migrations in many other parts of the world at several points in time represented here.
Critics from the denier side of things would point out that climate change has always caused problems, so this new change is no big deal, and XKCD ignore this. But the cartoon, had it mentioned more of these earlier changes, would instead represent a different fact: Natural variation in climate can be catastrophic to humans. The level of change happening now, and expected in the near future, still caused by humans, is much larger than what happened during this time period, or faster. So look out!!!
But that’s not the point I want to make.
Simple facts and big concepts
NOTE: Since I wrote this post, at least one change was made in the original carton, pertaining to the flooding of the scablands in Washington State. Perhaps other changes will be made over time!
There are a number of simple facts that the time line either gets wrong or represents in a way that we would not like for a basic intro class in archaeology or paleontology. Some of these facts were pointed out to me by John McKay or Helga Ingeborg Vierich. This is not comprehensive, but gets the point across:
- Impressive prehsitoric art appears on the cartoon at 15K. Art and adornmnent appear well before the time line begins, and jot just in Europe. The super impressive cave wall art dates well before the time line, and somewhat less impressive works occur very much earlier. This is a decades old conception overturned many years ago.
- The Clovis First model of the peopling of the Americas is on its last legs and should not be used as assumed knowledge.
- The Missoula mega-flods affected eastern Washington, not Oregon.
- The glaciers weren’t just in New York and Boston, they covered many other places. If the idea is to connect glacial geography to people’s lives, references to other areas might be helpful.
- Wrangle Island is not tiny. He may have confused Wrangle Island with Ts. Paul in the Privilovs.
- Abu Hureyra is one of several sites with early year round settlement. More important may be the more southerly Natufian, where foraging peoples, for a very long time, took up permanent settlement, and the first commensal organisms (which would become very important to humans, like plague carrying rats and domestic dogs, etc.) came on the scene.
- Agriculture has multiple origins, but a single origin is implied here.
- The origin of copper metal working happens in multiple places (two with smelting in the old world, plus it was worked in the new world).
- Similarly, other metal working has multiple origins.
- People will fight about the date for “proto-indo-european” languages or even is fuch a proto-thing existed or could be dates. The majority of historical linguists don’t accept this at all. But if that is right or not, again, Indo-European languages are not particularly important in overall human history. The cartoon centralizes a relatively rare language group and ignores thousands of other language groups, as though the mostly post hoc Western lineage of human civilization is assumed to be the most important.
- “Permanent settlement in the fertile crescent” is out of the blue, and contradicted earlier on the time line. Permanent settlements in the region predate this by 6,000 years.
- All of the early steps in civilization rising are focused on a very limited area, represent only a small (and very Western oriented) portion of civilization, ignoring most of human prehistory, and privilege “civilization” over what the fast majority of people were doing at the time.
- Same problem with writing. Writing was invented many times over many areas, but it looks here like it may have a single origin, the origin that is part of the Western Civilization story.
- Missed opportunity: “Invasion of the sea peoples” may very well have been an example of climate change messing up a population and causing a mass migration.
- For later civilizations, I appreciate the reference to the New World. But again, it is only part of the story, mentioning a small part of the record. Isn’t it a much more interesting story to note that between 10K and 2K (or so) dozens of independent highly organized hierarchical societies, often referred to as “this or that civilization” arose all over the world, while at the same time, the vast majority of people lived off the land as foragers?
- The Industrial Revolution starts in the 18th, not 19th,century, in Europe.
Larger scale things you might learn from this graphic that are wrong.
That agriculture was invented once, as part of Western Civilization, and the same for metal working, marginalizes the new world, many regions of Asia, many regions of Africa. These are misconceptions that those of us who teach intro to world prehistory or similar courses have to spend a large amount of our time refuting.
The idea seems to be represented that humans made the transition from hunter-gatherers at one point in time and thereafter were mostly agriculturalists. The opposite is true. Most humans were living in small groups as hunter gatherers for the entire time represented by this cartoon, except at the end. Half the humans or more at the time of Christ, for example. It is likely that in many regions, at various points in time, an early stab at horticulture was abandoned, and people returned to agriculture.
Is this important?
Well, getting facts right is important. In the case of prehistory, this mainly means not overstating the facts. One might argue that in a simplified version of reality (like in a cartoon) it is ok to overstate things as facts where we really don’t know. No, it isn’t. There are ways to speak briefly, and in an interesting way, of a past that we understand more vaguely than some DK book for five year olds. So let’s do that.
The oversimplification of prehistory contributes to the co-opting of intelligence, innovation, rights over various things like landscapes and cultural phenomena, by the dominant cultures who have condensed the relevant prehistories to centralize and privilege themselves. The prehistory presented here mostly privilages what we sometimes refer to as “Western Civilization” with its middle eastern roots and its simple, linear, one way, always improving, progressive history. A very inaccurate history.
As Helga Vierlich wrote on my Facebook timeline, “In short, this reflects a preoccupation with “progress” whereas what it really shows is a progressive ecosystem and social clusterfuck that brings us to the present situation – characterized by continuing destruction of the last ecologically sustainable (“indigenous”) economies… and also characterized by deforestation, massive climate change, pollution, ecosystem distraction, soil erosion, and species extinction.”
So, in making a point about self destruction by the human species, due to anthropogenic climate change, the oversimplification misses key points in that actual process.
But it is still a good cartoon.
I would like people who pass this cartoon around to make a brief statement, like, “I hear the prehistory is oversimplified a bit, but this makes a great point about climate change” or words to that effect. Many will argue that this statement is not enough. But I’m not a big fan of sacrificing the really cool for the sake of the perfectly pedantical. Usually.