Editor Charlotte Sleigh writes:
Jessica Ratcliff kicks off the autumn for us – perhaps an Indian summer? – in her exploration of how and why a semi-autonomous princely state such as Travancore engaged the scientific community in Europe in the nineteenth century. The article focuses in particular on the work of turning observation data into a published report and on how that labour was distributed between the Indian subcontinent and Europe.
Following this, we have Janis Antonovics and Jacobus Kritzinger’s ground-breaking translation of the Linnaean dissertation, ‘The Invisible World’, submitted by Johannes Roos in 1769. As their discussion notes, the dissertation highlights Linnaeus’s little-known conviction that infectious diseases could be transmitted by living organisms, too small to be seen
A special section on Palaeonarratives and Palaeopractices follows, edited by Amanda Rees. This takes us from the early nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, as the authors of these papers investigate how human prehistory was conceptualised, investigated and communicated during this period. While continuing to emphasise the importance of categories like race and narrative in the understanding of how this field was framed, they also return practice to centre-stage – how did methodologies relate to conceptual frameworks? How were both communicated to the broad and disparate audiences eager to learn more about the ‘not quite human’ and ‘how humans came to be’?
Goodrum’s fascinating analysis shows how early nineteenth century notions of race and migration framed the first encounters with fossil human remains, providing an absorbing account of how these traces were understood in racial, rather than evolutionary terms by European scholars. Madison focuses tightly on the encounter in the 1850s with the first Neandertal fossils, showing how the understanding of these bones as both human and not human depended both on the tests that were brought to bear and on the nature of the access that researchers had to the bones themselves: what would have happened if Lyell had brought back casts of the post-cranial material to England, rather than just the skull? Rees takes up Goodrum’s racial/evolutionary story in England from the early to the mid twentieth century, demonstrating how different disciplinary practices were brought to bear on the ever-increasing amount of fossil material available, and analysing the different stories that were told about them to both expert and lay audiences. Hochadel turns away from England to Spain, and shows how the discoveries at the site of Atapuerca were understood in post-Franco culture: in particular, he discusses the efforts made by scientists at the site to communicate and popularise their work through both fact and fiction.
For a long time it was customary for scholars of prehistory to describe their field as ‘under-examined’: specific parts of it may still be, but as this special section shows, it’s now clear that the history of prehistory has a significant role to play in the history of science.