Peak Document and the Future of Historical Research John R. McNeill, Georgetown University
Among the ongoing revolutions in historical research is the flood of new information about the past that comes not from written documents but from the natural sciences, especially genetics. What might this mean for the profession of history, our training and hiring practices? How might it affect our research and interpretations of the past? Which fields of history will be most and least affected? I argue for a cautious embrace of the new data about the past coming from genetics and other fields such as paleopathology, paleoclimatology, and historical linguistics, offering a few examples of the promise and perils presented by the work of our natural science colleagues. With each passing year, the proportion of our knowledge of the past that derives from the kinds of documents we have learned to read and interpret will shrink, and the proportion that derives from what to most of us are unfamiliar sciences will mount. This has implications. First, the deeper past is probably going to make a comeback. The last century or two are the best documented and will likely be least affected by the flood. The intellectual excitement will collect in the study of earlier centuries where the written documents are fewer and the relative significance of information in other formats is greater. Second, the ways in which we train historians will need to change. A possible, partial guide to our future as historians is the experience of precolonial Africanists, who are accustomed to research without written documents.