When Did History Begin?

It’s interesting to notice that answers to many fundamental questions depend on how we define the related terms. For example, here’s a simple question –

When did history begin?

To answer this question, what we really need to do at first is to define the term history itself.

Let’s consider three definitions –

  1. We can say that history is the story of the whole universe. Then history begins at the big bang.
  2. We can say that history is the story of living things. Then it begins when the basic structure of life formed on our planet.
  3. We can say that history is the story of humans.

Let’s choose that third definition. Because indeed, when we hear the word history, we think about the story of humankind.

But here we meet a new problem. What does the word human mean?

It’s again a problem of definition. So, let’s consider three definitions –

  1. Humans are a unique species that have advanced linguistic capability. Here again, we have to define which level of language we should consider as advanced. Many animals have various level of vocal ability. We have to define when noises become speech.
  2. Human is the tool-maker. The problem with this definition is that many other animals do use tool-like things. How do we define tools?
  3. Humans have cultures. Though many animals (like ants) show complex behaviours which can be defined as cultures, only human culture is rapidly progressive. Unlike other living things (if we assume that they have cultures), human culture is not determined by genetic properties alone; it’s created by conscious choices.

Of course, the human culture is also limited by natural forces. But this limit is not very restrictive compared to other animals. That’s because human culture is not dependent on generics alone. A colony of ants, no matter how complex, is controlled by their genetic traits.   

So, let’s define culture as a behavioural pattern belonging to a group of animals, formed by elements of conscious choices, not just genetic properties.

According to this definition, only humans have culture.

Now, let’s return to our original question –

When did history begin?

According to the terms we have defined so far, history began with the beginning of human culture. History began when humans took the first step beyond the control of what is coded in their genes and started to dominate the environment with conscious choices.

In short, it’s a matter of definition.

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