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When did history begin, according to the most accepted view among Western historians'? (credible sources would be appreciated)

I vaguely remember from my Marxist-oriented history courses in high school that history began when the first form of government arose. Is that the case for Western historians? If not, when? Around the time the first anatomically modern humans arose? The date of the earliest written records?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Pieter Geerkens, Jos, José Carlos Santos, pnuts, LangLangC Jan 25 at 12:21

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Why "written records"? Those cave paintings hold much information - surely they are relevant... – Solar Mike Jan 25 at 5:27
  • @SolarMike I've seen that idea floating around while Googling this. If it's the view, then you can probably say cavemen were prehistoric. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Jan 25 at 6:34
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    @Close-voters: I don't think this is primarily opinion based. It's a complicated terminology issue that is dependent on context, but there's fairly clear definitions for most of the various types of "history". – Semaphore Jan 25 at 12:23
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    @Semaphore If you're confident enough for a friendly edit in the direction of OP wishes and intentions to get this going again, I'm easily excited. – LangLangC Jan 25 at 13:01
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    This question would benefit from preliminary research. Please don't respond in comments - comments raise questions, and the question should be edited to respond to comments. Everything you need to know to answer the question should be in the question. If the question is edited to include the comments and shows some preliminary research, I'll reverse my downvote and recommend a re-open. – Mark C. Wallace Jan 25 at 16:02
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It depends on which history you mean.

As an academic discipline, "history" is usually taken to mean the human past, and thus began with humans. This could be the emergence of homo sapiens (300,000 BP), or stone-tool wielding homoninds (3.3 million BP), or even further back, the evolutionary divergence of humans from chimpanzees.

Specifically, history in the sense of "recorded history", began by definition with the first written records - this is also the traditional domain of historians, and what hence what history usually means when not otherwise qualified. What occurred before that is held to be "prehistory", for which archaeologists are our main source. Finally, the often chaotic transition from prehistory to (recorded) history can be termed "protohistory".

All three terms describe a part of (human) history, and is often referred to simply as "history" in common parlance (though this is especially so for recorded history). It doesn't help that the lines between the three can be very blurred, as you can see from the Chinese example. Moreover, although writing developed as early as 3,000 B.C., it took thousands of years to spread to all regions. Thus, the delineation between (recorded) history and prehistory differs by location.

Beyond human history, there's a variety of other meanings. For geologists, geological history began when the Earth formed 4.5 billions years ago.. Similarly, to astrophysicists cosmological history dates back to the Big Bang as pnuts mentioned (or possibly even before per @DevSolar).

None of this is particularly "western", though - the Chinese for instance also makes the history/prehistory distinction, although their terms for it are "credible history" and "dubious period" respectively.

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    Well, some astrophysicists are actually even interested in what was before the Big Bang, it's just that the archaeological base is rather slim. ;-) – DevSolar Jan 25 at 9:04
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    Also expected: when our history began, and what we consider it to encompass? – LangLangC Jan 25 at 12:58
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History is referred to the first written records know until now, which are the Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets, around 3300 and 3100 BCE.

There are many other ancient writings, but these cuneiform tablets are the oldest ones proven that are coherent, dated (from their authors) and recorded actual events.

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The discipline of history begins with the changes in western writing about the past that we associate with Ranke and his contemporaries. These changes broadly moved the proper subject of historical discourse to be the explanation of the past as it was. Prior to the changes associated with Ranke, writers used the past to exemplify moral tales. Additionally as the standards of discourse were moralising, the documentary record of the past was discounted in favour of moralising: people made up edifying stuff before Ranke. After Ranke making stuff up, or even not reading widely enough, could end a career.

The discipline of history, which originated as a “western” writing style considers history to be the analysis of the documentary records of the past (with rules about how analysis is conducted). As the subject of history is the documentary record of the past, history in a “western” sense begins with the beginning of the documentary record of the past: chiefly the written record but also high quality oral transmissions.

Western cultural traditions allow for a plurality of opinions. They also support “authority” particularly in self-reinforcing academic traditions. While some religious or cultural traditions in western culture claim history is other than what historians say it is, historians currently monopolise research funding in widely recognised universities.

For example, some people in western society consider “history” to be whatever the King James Version of the bible says. While Western societies allow these people to hold these beliefs, they’re not imprisoned, the esteemed knowledge systems of Western culture dismiss this belief. “History” as if it were biblical literalism is consigned to under recognised theology faculty in under recognised privately funded religious universities. (The scholarly discipline of theology is considered to be a valid scholarly discipline. It makes text dependent claims on appropriate behaviours and God’s intervention into the world. Scholarly convention generally considers that theological claims about God’s texts regarding past occurrences are a different form of knowledge to “history,” replete with scholar approved caveats and explanations. Correspondingly KJV supremacy has vanishingly little acceptance in this community. One could suggest that theologians are paid to exegete and that literalism “destroys their trade,” in comparing dubiously sourced documents. But the scholarly discipline prefers a more document analysis focused behaviour.)

Returning to history, and pseudo-history, for example, some people in western cultures consider real knowledge about the past as only being capable of being produced by groups of working class people working together. Sometimes this is accepted by western knowledge systems where the work meets the standards of the scholarly discipline, Wendy Lowenstein’s oral histories for example. However, the internally focused rantings of minor Marxist sects who honour the leader’s moral judgements above the documents are rejected by the western scholarly community. History as “praxic co-learning” has been confined to Marxist parties, at the point where this interfaces with scholarly history only those worker’s and people’s histories which conform to scholarly standards have been accepted by the scholarly community. The rest has been confined to propaganda pamphlets and the back pages of orthotrot newspapers.

The most accepted scholarly view is the above. The most accepted view is your local nationalist bastardisation of “1066 and all that”. Aussie Aussie Aussie. Oik oik oik.

  • You got me following you to a certain degree, up to the third-to-last paragraph, at which point you utterly lost me. What? – DevSolar Jan 25 at 11:52
  • I think this answer answers a different question from the one that was asked, possibly confused by the different possible uses of the word 'history'. – Timothy Jan 25 at 17:36
  • No. “History,” in western cultures is resolved by a conflict between arguments from authority and arguments from popular knowledges. Just answering “writing,” is insufficient because it doesn’t demonstrate its working. It is only because of the Rankean discipline of history that history as the human past gains meaning in western cultures. And the manner in which this discipline has hegemonised publishing and funding is essential to when “history” began. “The beginning of human history,” is inseparable from the meaning system which claims a start: there is no objective start, it’s subjective – Samuel Russell Jan 25 at 22:42
  • This is a actually a nice read, including the last two sentences, which clear up a lot of fluff. But this essay style I had to read twice and still miss sources and refs to go from here. Tim's comment should be reflected in making this alternate reading and mixing of concepts explicit, as I was on first pass inclined to upvote the comment instead. I also disagree on the actual topoi & loci and reach of biblical literalism. Whether this overall level is appropriate in relation to the level expressed in the Q is another matter of opinion. Might need an introductory chapter/course :) – LangLangC Jan 26 at 1:10
  • @LangLangC My claims regarding literalism was only in relation to the discipline of history. The fresh claims above regarding theology as in comparison to the plethora of equally and simultaneously valid modes of reading—and again in relation to the scholarly discipline of theology which is broader than any sect or belief. I’ll digest further and re-edit in response to your comment. – Samuel Russell Jan 26 at 1:43

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