Exploring the Past: on Methods and Concepts
DE VRIES, MARCHANT AND DE GREEF
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
We are changing Earth more rapidly than we are understanding it.
Vitousek et al. in Science 277 (1997)
Our perception of the past has changed enormously over the course of time. Early travellers–geographers avant la lettre– have contributed to our knowledge by giving descriptions and conceptualizing what they encountered (Lacoste 1996). Much of this knowledge disappeared for long periods. With the 'Golden Age' discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries and, in its wake, the reinterpretation or outright rejection of religious dogmas–for instance, the claim that the Earth was created in the year 4004 BC–Europe ushered herself, and the world, into the 'scientification' of the past. This process of making empirical observations, interpretations and experiments, i.e. the scientific method, led to the mechanization, then historization of the 'European' worldview, as expounded in Chapter 1. It has led to more efficient use of and increased control over the environment in the form of technology. It has also been applied to understanding and reconstructing the puzzle of our own past. The old sciences–history and geography regained new vigour, new branches of science emerged–archaeology, palaeo-ecology and palaeo-climatology.
Using available methods and inference techniques, one can attempt to reconstruct 'scientific facts' about the past from what remains of it in the present. In this chapter, we