"The Farther Reaches of Human Time": Retrospect on Carl Sauer as Prehistorian

By Harris, David R. | The Geographical Review, October 2002 | Go to article overview
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"The Farther Reaches of Human Time": Retrospect on Carl Sauer as Prehistorian

Harris, David R., The Geographical Review

Looking back over the years since 1976, when John Leighly delivered the inaugural Carl O. Sauer Memorial Lecture, I am impressed by how widely my predecessors have ranged in time and space, as befits the celebration of a man whose scholarship was as broad and deep as Carl Sauer's. Some chose topics only tangentially linked to Sauer's own work, but most spoke about aspects of their research that were inspired, directly or indirectly, by his unique geographical and historical vision. On this occasion, I want to follow a somewhat different path by offering a critique of one part of that vision: Sauer's contributions to the study of prehistory. I count myself very fortunate to have been one of those who came directly under Mr. Sauer's influence (Figure 1). Encountering him, and others in the Berkeley Department of Geography in the mid-1950s, was for me a liberating and defining experience. Under Sauer's inspirational tutelage, and responding to the diverse talents of his remarkable departmental colleagues--Clarence Glacken, John Kesseli, John Leighly, Jim Parsons, and Erhard Rostlund--I discovered a new kind of geography, unrestricted in its exploration of time as well as space.

Since then I have strayed beyond the institutional bounds of geography into archaeology but, happily, have found the boundary between them to be a comfortably permeable one. In his well-known poem The Road Not Taken, the New England poet Robert Frost regretted, when faced by two roads diverging in a yellow wood, that he "could not travel both And be one traveller" (1955, 78). I have found the geographical and archaeological roads to be so intimately intertwined that it has been possible to make one journey along them, and for me, echoing Frost, "that has made all the difference? That journey started for me on the Berkeley campus, where the discovery of Sauer's kind of geography, intellectually unconfined by the conventional disciplinary boundaries of academia, came as a revelation, especially his bold explorations of the "farther reaches of human time." (1)

So for this lecture l have chosen to focus on two aspects of humanity's remote past that fascinated Sauer and have shaped our own world. They transformed mankind's relationship to the planet and can be seen in retrospect as major transitions on Homo sapiens' pathway to what Sauer characterized as "man's ecological dominance." (2) They are, first, the initial dispersal of humans, aided by fire, out of Africa and into Eurasia and, second, the origins and prehistoric spread of agriculture. Sauer made farsighted contributions to both topics, and my purpose is to comment on how our knowledge of each has changed since his time--for today they are subjects of much new research, and not a little controversy.

Before turning to the first topic, l want to draw attention to Sauer's attitude toward the interplay of human geography with prehistoric archaeology. This is most explicitly expressed in his presidential address to the Association of American Geographers in 1940, "Foreword to Historical Geography" (1941). There, in the section entitled "The Relevance of All Human Time," he points to archaeology's "specifically geographic dimension," commends geographers who have "concerned themselves with prehistoric settlements and culture," suggests that the remit of historical geographers is to study "human origins and changes throughout all human time" and concludes--with some asperity--"Let no one think, therefore, that we are in any sense off-side from the main theme [of human geography] if we work at the farthest reaches of time" (p. 13). He himself did just that, in a series of scholarly and speculative essays, most of which were published between 1944 and 1962 and provide the background to this lecture. (3)


From 1925, when Raymond Dart announced his discovery of the first fossil Australopithecine or "southern ape man," Sauer followed with keen interest the reports of further finds of hominid fossils in South Africa and subsequently East Africa, but he did not concern himself with the details of their classification.

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"The Farther Reaches of Human Time": Retrospect on Carl Sauer as Prehistorian


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