How Old is History

The Pantheon, the world’s oldest building still in use, depending on your definition of “building” and “use.”
It was finished around 126 CE during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian, seen here (noseless) in his most famous statue, which, by the way, was recently discovered to be a forgery.

Hadrian’s head was put on someone else’s body 1700 years after his death. Right, so the Pantheon was originally a temple to the Roman gods, but it became a Christian church in 609, and it still is one. For almost 1900 years, people have been coming to this place to worship— so long that the gods have changed. When the Pantheon was built, there was no English language. Romans didn’t eat pizza because tomatoes wouldn’t come to Italy for another 1500 years.

If you wanted to get from Rome to Florence and you were phenomenally wealthy, it would take four days by carriage, at a cost of 350 denarii, approximately equal to a year’s wages for a laborer.

Today, it takes about three hours by car, or three and a half if you want to avoid the tolls. In short, human life was very different 1900 years ago, and yet… This is the Lascaux cave in southwestern France, which was discovered— or rediscovered—in 1940 by four teenagers and a dog named Robot.

The cave is famous for its nearly two thousand prehistoric wall paintings, including extraordinary depictions of animals, some of them now extinct, as well as this famous person with a bird head. Now there’s a lot we don’t know about these paintings at Lascaux. We don’t know, for instance, how many generations painted there. But we do know, from carbon dating and other dating methods, that the paintings are mostly between fifteen and twenty thousand years old.

350 kilometers away, a group of cave experts found another cave full of extraordinary paintings in 1996. This one came to be known as the Chauvet cave, and in many ways, these paintings are even more sophisticated than the ones from Lascaux.

There’s more action in them, like animals locking horns, or drawn so as to intimate motion, and the Chauvet paintings are also arguably more detailed. But, the Chauvet paintings are much older than the Lascaux paintings. Like, much, much older.

Most of these paintings were made between thirty-seven and thirty-three thousand years ago, although a few were created during the second period of activity thirty-one to twenty-eight thousand years ago. That means the historical distance between Chauvet and Lascaux is approximately equal to the historical distance between Lascaux and NOW, and even more remarkably, the paintings in the Chauvet cave were created across thousands of years, meaning that that cave was almost certainly in use by the same community for longer than the Pantheon has been in use by us.

We like to think that history moves in a line from naive art to sophisticated art; from short, disease-ridden human lives too long and healthy ones;
from poverty to abundance; from ignorance to knowledge. But the idea that history means progress is very new. Like almost all of the 250,000-year history of humans looks more like a sine curve than an ascending line. And whatever progress we’ve made toward justice or equality or shared prosperity is fragile because it’s new.

It’s easy to forget that because the new is all around us— from the broadband Internet to Italian tomatoes to even the Pantheon. but all of that occurred in the last one percent of human history, which is maybe a reminder that what a lot of what we think of as inevitable or natural about humanness really isn’t. Inequality of wealth isn’t natural, nor is anthropogenic climate change or political polarization.

On the other hand, literacy also isn’t natural, nor is freedom of speech, nor is it natural for Rome to be three hours from Florence. These conditions result from the choices we’ve made collectively. Every day, we’re choosing what to value, what to worship, what to paint, and through the haze of history, the humans of the future will know us by the choices that we are making together right now.