Few people have been challenged to answer the question of what exactly history is. While most of us probably familiarize ourselves with history in terms of academia and knowledge, we rarely stop to think or consider what is it that makes the study of history just that and not some scientific understanding of social evolution. To understand this broad conceptualization of history, one must consider at what point history could have said to have ‘started’. One might suggest the early beginnings of literature, our first attempts to express the social experience. Another might suggest the earliest attempts at codifying law, the earliest point of a written social order. Human beings are unique to other animals in that they have this history; a social explanation of the evolution of society over time. The same cannot be said of birds, or fish. Yes we know the history of fish and various members of the animal kingdom, but through the lens of science and biology. The most accurate possible description of the beginnings of our history must rest with the distinguishing of humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom.
How does one do this? Where does one begin? There are many points in both scientific and social evolution which could be said to define humanity’s separation-from and supremacy-of the animal kingdom. There is however only one primary facet of humanity which distinguishes us from all other forms of life on this planet: Humanity has achieved the ability and means to physically produce conditions for its continued survival. Marx pointed this out when he stated that “[humans] begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.” This view extends slightly from the materialist conception of history held by Greek philosopher Epicurus: The ability of mankind to reproduce, at length, a replication of tools and means of survival is the main definition of what makes us social beings living within a civilization. What then, is the material make-up of history?
History is the explanation of the social process over time; beginning and ending with a series of transformations in the means by which humanity is able to produce its means of subsistence. The periods which are most distinguishable in human history are periods of productive capability, defined primarily by the mechanisms and processes by which subsistence is manifested. We presently understand them as periods, or epochs; separated by time frame and categorized by national or ethnic origin: Ancient (Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, African), Western (Greek, Roman, Spanish, English, Germanic, French), Eastern (Slavic, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern), and Contemporary (American, Modern Western Civilization, Modern Eastern Civilization). Try as one may however, a historian cannot avoid the inherent shifts in productive modes occurring between these natural epochs throughout the past; Hunter/Gather, Horticulture, Slave Driven, Feudal, and Capital. As we presently understand history, production modes overlap across epochs, but still create defining characteristics for each period. Each epoch is primarily differentiated from each other by these modes because of the relationship by which they place the individuals to one another.
Consider for a moment, what is it that separates Ancient Egypt from Contemporary America in terms of history? Yes, location. Yes, time lapsed by the planet around our only Star. But most importantly, the most visually obvious social difference is the relationships by which individuals share with each other. In Contemporary America, an individual’s existence is defined mostly by his/her relationship to the totality of other Americans. In Ancient Egypt, an individual’s existence was defined mostly by his/her relationship to the Pharaoh, or Emperor. Because of these relationship differences created by more numerous social divisions, individuals in Contemporary America are capable of producing and creating material objects with each other at not only a faster pace but with more creativity. Simultaneously however, Contemporary America as it presently exists could not be without the preceding society which existed before it; thus making Ancient Egypt just as integral to the social system of Contemporary America as it is to the social systems of the rest of history.
To fully understand what history is, we must attempt to understand what separates the social experience of humanity from the biological evolution of life on the planet. As already stated Marx, among other philosophers, pointed directly to the distinction of humanity’s ability to manifest means of producing and reproducing means of sustainability which in turn allows the society to grow. The most popular phrase people know of history is that those who fail to learn their history are doomed to repeat it. To fully understand this cliché however, one must fully understand what it is that has made and what it is that has defined history.