Studying History: How Can We Know Something Happened?

by | May 28, 2021

​As a student, you may wonder how it’s possible to determine what actually happened in the past. How do we speak with any kind of certainty about the existence of historical figures or the occurrence of historical events?

Indeed, in a world where there are so many challenges to historical facts and accounts, how can students (and teachers) speak confidently about things that happened that they weren’t there to witness firsthand?

The good news is that historians, as a community of experts, have labored for centuries to develop a framework for agreeing about what really happened in the past. As we put together our World Civilizations I course that launched this Spring, we realized that there is a lot of work that goes into explaining and understanding the evidence that historians consider when making determinations about historical events and people.

How Do Historians Decide What Really Happened?

Historians appeal to many different kinds of evidence to establish the existence of people, places, and events in the past.

Obviously, the best kind of evidence is primary, presented in the form of physical evidence or products. Physical evidence might include photographs or primary documents. Historians also examine products that can be traced with relative certainty to a specific person or place. This can include buildings, diaries, or literary writing.

Another type of evidence is considered secondary, the kind that does not come directly from a person or place. Secondary sources provide information about those people and places, such as references to, quotes from, or discussions about them. This type of historical evidence is the most abundant source for people, places, and events from a time before the invention of photography. When it comes to these sources, reputable historians look for certain conditions to be met before they can state with confidence that a person or place existed, or that an event took place.

Here is a list of what historians look for with regard to this kind of written and indirect evidence:

  • They prefer to have access to many written sources.
  • They prefer for those sources to have been written as close as possible to the date in which a person lived or an event occurred.
  • They prefer sources that are extensive in scope, provide lengthy descriptions and narrative details of a place, event, or person’s life.
  • They prioritize sources that are disinterested in the subject or have no obvious personal interest or stake in telling about it.
  • They look for sources that corroborate or are corroborated by other sources.

How Do Historians Deal with Prehistory?

Prehistory deals with people, places, and events that existed before there were written records, which began sometime after 5000 BCE. Without written records and texts, how can we know what people and places were like and what major events shaped their existence?

Much of what we know about prehistoric human development comes through the work of archeologists. They are able to amass a great deal of physical evidence by excavating ancient sites. From this evidence, in the form of fossils and artifacts, archeologists can draw rational conclusions about early communities and the people that belonged to them.

When it comes to establishing dates for prehistoric fossils and artifacts, archeologists use both stratigraphic dating and carbon dating. Stratigraphic dating is used for structures, fossils, and artifacts that have been buried. Archeologists can establish the date of their find by identifying the age of the layer of rock in which the fossils and artifacts are buried. Carbon dating is used to determine the age of fossils (organic matter) based on the relative proportions of the carbon isotopes they contain.

Archeologists and historians of antiquity are able to use their tools and extensive knowledge to provide evidence-informed and often detail-rich reconstructions of human societies and events in the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. However, we should keep in mind that these reconstructions are always a work in progress. They represent experts’ best understanding to date of what happened in a distant age based on the physical data that is currently available.

The Impermanence of History

While historians work to get as much information from as many different sources as possible, they don’t always get a complete picture. So as new evidence arises, or as new theories come to light, it’s possible that historians come to a different conclusion on events that happened hundreds if not millions of years ago.

Studying history should be an ongoing process, like rereading a favorite book and finding something new each time. It’s important to be open to those new angles and ideas, even when you think you know everything there is to know about an event or a person. As the National Council on Public History says on their website, “Good historical thinking seldom provides easy answers or lessons. But it can help to clarify what’s at stake, what has shaped present-day realities, and who has been involved in (or excluded from) particular struggles and changes.”

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