A Silent World

Ancient Europe from the Beginnings of Agriculture to Classical Antiquity

by Stuart Piggott
Aldine, 243 pp., $7.50

I wish I knew who invented the word “preliteracy” to indicate the illiteracy of certain extinct or living cultures. The word is not to be found even in the 1959 edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. In American dictionaries it has made its appearance only in recent years. Neither “preliterate” nor “preliteracy” are registered in the 1942 Chicago Dictionary of American English. The 1949 edition of the Funk and Wagnall New Standard Dictionary lists “preliterate” only. In the end I found both “preliterate” and “preliteracy” in the 1961 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. What makes me curious about this word is that, though apparently of very recent origin, it reflects the attitudes of prehistorians and anthropologists of several decades ago. Preliteracy points to literacy as the next step in human evolution. Professor Leslie A. White was correct in substance—even if slightly anachronistic in form—when in his 1964 Presidential Address to the American Anthropological Association he declared: “The cultural anthropologists of the latter part of the nineteenth and of the early part of the twentieth centuries…conceived of their task as the study of preliterate cultures, both for the living and the extinct or prehistoric.”

True enough, in the latter part of the nineteenth century illiteracy was still illiteracy—not preliteracy—and implied some inferiority not only for those who lived in it but also for those who studied it. To quote the author whom Professor L. A. White has recently reedited with such loving care: “Without literary records neither history nor civilization can properly be said to exist” (L. H. Morgan, Ancient Society, ed. White, p. 34). But the notion of a uniform evolution of human society seemed to provide two means of ensuring the correct interpretation of material remains of past cultures when written records were lacking. Any literary civilization was supposed to have preserved clearly recognizable survivals of its illiterate antecedents. Furthermore, the study of living illiterate societies was assumed to provide sound comparative material for the interpretation of beliefs and institutions of extinct societies in the same stage of evolution. The prehistorian, in his study of the illiterate societies of the past, relied on the cooperation both of the historian of literate societies and of the social anthropologist.

THERE IS NO NEED to emphasize the fact that both elements of this faith in the uniformity of human evolution have been shaken in recent years. We no longer have safe criteria for separating what is “primitive” from what is “civilized” in literate societies. Even less do we find sufficient uniformity in contemporary preliterate cultures for them to be an indisputable model for preliterate cultures of the past. As a consequence the prehistorian finds himself much more isolated than he used to be from ordinary historians and social anthropologists. The absence of written records weighs heavily against him when he tries to establish the social institutions or the religious beliefs of the people he studies. Even in economic history the gap between the …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.