My experience as a white person living in Europe, is of prehistoric peoples being depicted as ignorant and superstitious. It’s there in pop culture, and it intersects with a similar treatment of the global majority. It’s a kind of infantilising, treating adult people from other cultures as though they have the same relationship with reality as a typical white toddler.
One of the things this misrepresentation does, is to enforce the idea that white colonial cultures are superior. I think it actually starts from the assumption of that superiority and then interprets what everyone else is doing in light of the idea that those cultures are inferior. There’s nothing evidence-based here. I’m going to talk about prehistory because it’s less loaded and, being pallid myself, I feel it’s more appropriate for me to speak about. I do think that how we imagine prehistory is profoundly related to modern colonialism and racism.
Pop culture representations of prehistoric people tend to focus on their being ignorant and superstitious. An obvious example is the way people in Clan of the Cave Bear don’t know where babies come from. There’s a tendency to imagine ancient people attributing everything around them to gods and spirits while having no idea of how anything works.
Interestingly we don’t make the same assumptions about animals, historical or contemporary. Whether their behaviour is attributed to instinct, experience, training or conditioning, we treat animal behaviour in the wild as being fairly logical and as making sense as a response to the environment. But overall we like to imagine our wild human ancestors as not being rational in the way that all other mammals are. We portray them as children, for the greater part. It also does a disservice to our own children, who, given half a chance will do their best to figure out how the world around them works and how best to interact with it. Children tend to be quiet scientific in their figuring out and will engage rationally with their experiences unless adults actively teach them not to.
To survive in the wilds as a human, you need a lot of skills. You need to be able to source things, make things, gather things and maybe hunt for food as well. You have to understand the weather, the seasons, the resources and threats around you. This calls for people who are highly skilled and knowledgeable and who interact with what’s around them in informed and logical ways.
The irrationality and childishness are in fact projections from the minds of contemporary adults. We believe some pretty irrational things these days – not just the gods we’ve invented, but market forces, countries, trickle down economics, the divine right of kings, capitalism… none of these things make a lot of sense when you consider the evidence for how they function. We accept childish tyrants who do little of value but who have inherited wealth and power and a belief they should lead us. We’re not a culture that invests much in evidence or reason most of the time.
Our ancestors must have known how to communicate and cooperate with each other far more effectively than we do. Useful skills would have been essential. Knowing how to suck up to power isn’t worth much when you live marginally. I think a lot of the time what we project onto prehistory says a lot more about us as people than it does about the past.