Who owns the past and whose version of history should prevail? The past year saw a widespread re-examination of long-established historical understandings, with historians themselves in some cases persecuted for their work.
Russian historians who have been resisting the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin and chronicling the Great Terror remain besieged. In July, one of their number, Stalin-era historian Yury Dmitriyev, was sentenced in Karelia to a three-and-half-year jail term, following his conviction on what supporters say are false and politically motivated sex-abuse charges.
In the United States and Britain, as well as in other European countries, controversy intensified over statues and other monuments lionizing some of the “great men” of the past – from Winston Churchill to slave-trading municipal benefactors, from Belgium’s colonialist King Leopold II to American Confederate generals.
All countries have conflicted stories. And that’s the case even when political partisanship isn’t involved. History remains neither static nor predictable, as 2020, the pandemic year, especially highlighted.
New discoveries, fresh ways of looking at the past and chronicling it, overcoming bias that skews and blocks out the stories of some groups of people, gathering the pieces of the broken mirror of the past, means historical truth inevitably changes as it is constantly reinterpreted and added to by each generation, historians say.
‘Feet of clay’
Shortly before his death in 2018, renowned American historian David Lowenthal noted in an essay titled “The Frailty of History,” “Historians ever stumble on feet of clay.”
But what can be found in the clay also can be revealing, as 2020 showed with a series of major archaeological discoveries that are adding to our understanding of our past and in some cases are challenging long-standing notions, including about ancient gender roles and the interaction between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
In November, archaeologists found the 9,000-year-old remains of a young woman in a burial pit high in the South American Andes. Twenty stone projectile points and blades were stacked by her side, suggesting she was a hunter.
At first, archaeologists assumed the body was that of a man, most likely a chief. But then they noticed the bones were light and slender. Forensic analysis confirmed the remains were indeed of a woman, upending established thinking about prehistoric gender roles and challenging the idea that men were almost exclusively the hunters, women, the gatherers.
Concerned the discovery would be dismissed as a one-off, archaeologists, led by Randy Haas of the University of California Davis, trawled through data on 107 other excavations in the Americas of burial sites older than 8,000 years. They found 10 additional women and 16 men also buried with hunting tools. This meta-analysis suggests “early big-game hunting was likely gender neutral,” he and his colleagues reported in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed open-scientific journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Neanderthals in Europe
The year also saw a major archaeological find in Portugal, where ancient stone blades and scrapers unearthed in a cave suggest that modern humans arrived in Iberia between 41,000 and 38,000 years ago, 5,000 years earlier than previously estimated. These hunter-gatherers lived a short walk from another cave, which appears to have been inhabited until 37,000 years ago by one of the last groups of Neanderthals in Europe.
“It is possible these groups lived alongside each other for centuries,” Jonathan Haws, an anthropologist at Louisville University, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The discovery is adding to mounting suggestions that the last surviving Neanderthals may have been slowly assimilated by Homo sapiens and cross-bred with them.
“If the two groups overlapped for some time in the highlands of Atlantic Portugal, they may have maintained contacts between each other and exchanged not only technology and tools, but also mates,” Nuno Bicho, an archeologist at Portugal’s Algarve University, said.
In Colombia, anthropologists led by Carlos Castaño-Uribe revealed details on their work, which has long been kept a carefully guarded secret. They have uncovered deep in the Colombian Amazon more than 75,000 cave and rock paintings – among the largest concentrations of rock art anywhere in the world. Some are 20,000 years old. Many others have yet to be dated, but they all predate the Mayan civilization and the Aztecs.
The scale of the find was held back in order to protect the art and the local ecosystem. Castaño-Uribe published a book in 2020 on the paintings, which detail hunts, battles, dances and rituals. They also display knowledge of plants and animals, pointing to a sophisticated appreciation of the local ecology. The rock art has been dubbed the "Sistine Chapel of the Ancients."
Last year also saw archaeologists and anthropologists using and refining advanced techniques to uncover the past. In Italy, Belgian and British researchers used radar to scan below the soil and map the entire ancient city of Falerii Novi, built around 241 BC 50 kilometers outside of Rome. Without using shovels or digging, they were able to identify an elaborate bath house and a large public monument.
By imaging the city through layers of dirt they were able to chart how Falerii Novi evolved and took shape from the time building commenced in 241 BC until it was abandoned in the early medieval period in 700 AD. The technique is likely to revolutionize the study of ancient settlements not only in Italy, but in other countries, according to the researchers.
Sweet potato connection
Archaeologists weren’t alone in unearthing new information about human history. In July, new genetic research suggested indigenous South Americans voyaged to islands in the South Pacific 300 years before the arrival of European colonists.
Scientists revealed they had examined DNA from 807 people from a dozen Polynesian islands and Pacific coastal Native American populations from Mexico to Chile. They found the Polynesians bore DNA indicative of interbreeding with South Americans.
For some time there has been debate about a possible ancient contact, stemming partly from the presence in Polynesia of the sweet potato, a staple food originating in South and Central America.