“Near Heidelberg, in Germany, somebody was once digging a pit when they came across a bone, deep down under the ground.”
At the age of 26, the Austrian art historian Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (1909–2001) was unemployed and without prospects after a doctorate. That’s when he wrote A Little History of the World (1935) – a sweeping account of the past – from the Cavemen to the First World War – for children. This book, written like a story in a conversational tone, turned out to be very popular and was translated into several languages – but was rendered into English only in 2005.
According to Leonie Gombrich, Gombrich’s grandchild, the inspiration for the project came from the scholar’s correspondence with a little girl during the final stages of his doctoral thesis. She wanted to know what kept him so busy – this made him explain academic writing in words and ways that could make sense to her.
Here is a short extract from the second chapter “The Greatest Inventors of All Time” of A Little History of the World that well demonstrates Gombrich’s style:
Near Heidelberg, in Germany, somebody was once digging a pit when they came across a bone, deep down under the ground. It was a human bone. A jawbone. But no human beings today have jaws like this one. It was so massive and strong, and had such powerful teeth! Whoever owned it must have been able to bite really hard. And must have lived a long time ago for the bone to be buried so deep.
On another occasion, but still in Germany – in the Neander valley – a human skull was found. And this was also immensely interesting because nobody alive today has a skull like this one either. Instead of a forehead like ours it just had two thick ridges above the eyebrows….the people who examined the skull concluded that once upon a time there were people who weren’t very good at thinking. but who were better at biting than we are today.
Later, Gombrich explains the tension between “history“ and “prehistory” – that exists till today:
But all these “about”s, with no names and no dates…this isn’t ‘history!’ you say, and you are right. It comes before history. That is why we call it ‘prehistory‘, because we only have a rough idea of when it all happened. But we still know something about the people whom we call prehistoric. At the time when real history begins – … – people already had all the things we have today: clothes, houses and tools, ploughs to plough with, grains to make bread with, cows for milking, sheep for shearing, dogs for hunting and for company, bows and arrows for shooting and helmets and shields for protection. Yet with all of these things there must have been a first time. Someone must have made the discovery. Isn’t it an amazing thought that, one day, a prehistoric man – or a woman – must have realised that meat from wild animals was easier to chew if it was first held over a fire and roasted?
To learn more about this classic check out this Educator’s Guide from Yale University Press.
Featured Image: Pixabay
Preview A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich.