Societies are making greater demands than ever on
history, but urgent as they might be, these demands by various groups are not altogether
straightforward. Some societies look to historians to define their identity, to buttress
the development of their specific characteristics or even to present and analyse the past
as confirming a founding myth. Conversely, other societies, influenced both by the Annales
school of historiography and by the geographical, chronological and thematic
enlargement of history, aspire to the building of bridges, the ending of self-isolation
and the smoothing out of the lack of continuity that is characteristic of the short term.
In 1946 those attending the meeting of the first
Preparatory Commission of UNESCO agreed that it was part of fundamental mission of the
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to lay the foundations
for a collective memory of humanity and of all its parts, spread all over the world and
expressing themselves in every civilization. The International Scientific Commission came
into being four years later with the apparently gigantic task drafting a History of the
Scientific and Cultural Development of Mankind. Publication of the six volumes began
in 1963, marking the successful conclusion of an international endeavour without parallel,
but not without risks. Success with general public was immediate and lasting,
notwithstanding the reservations expressed by the critics, who often found certain choices
disconcerting but were not consistent in the choices and interpretations they proposed as
For its time - not the time of its publication
but that of long preparation - the first edition of the History of the Scientific and
Cultural Development of Mankind must be seen a daring achievement, having a number of
faults inherent in the very nature of historical knowledge but opening up avenues and
encouraging further progress along them.
In 1978, the General Conference of UNESCO decided
to embark on a new and completely revised edition of the History of the Scientific and
Cultural Development of Mankind because it realized that the considerable development
of historiography, the improvement of what are called its auxiliary sciences and its
growing links with the social sciences had combined with an extraordinary acceleration of
day-to-day history. What it did not know, however, was that the pace of this acceleration
would continue to increase until it brought profound changes to the face of the world.
It scarcely needs saying that the task laid upon
the International Scientific Commission, under the chairmanship of the late Paulo de
Berrędo Carneiro and then of my eminent predecessor, Professor Charles Morazé, was both
enormous and difficult.
First of all, international teams had to be
formed, as balanced as possible, and co-operation and dialogue organized between the
different views of the major collective stages in the lives of people, but without
disregarding the cultural identity of human groups.
Next, attention had to be given to changes in
chronological scale by attempting a scientific reconstruction of the successive stages of
the peopling of our planet, including the spread of animal populations. This was the goal
pursued and largely attained by the authors of the present volume.
Lastly, steps had to be taken to ensure that
traditional methods of historical research, based on written sources, were used side by
side with new critical methods adapted to the use of oral sources and contributions from
archaeology, in Africa for the most part.
To quote what Professor Jean Devisse said at a
symposium in Nice in 1986 on 'Being a historian today': 'If we accept that the history of
other people has something to teach us, there can be no infallible model, no immutable
methodological certainty: listening to each other can lead to a genuine universal
Although historians must be guided by a desire
for intellectual honesty, they depend on their own views of things, with the result that
history is the science most vulnerable to ideologies. The fall of the Berlin Wall a few
weeks after I assumed office symbolized the end of a particularly burdensome ideological
division. It certainly makes the work of the International Scientific Commission easier
whenever it has to come to grips with the past-present dialectic from which history cannot
In a way, the impact of ideologies
will also be lessened by the fact that the Chief Editors of each
volume have sought the invaluable co-operation not only of experienced
historians but also of renowned specialists in disciplines such
as law, art, philosophy, literature, oral traditions, the natural
sciences, medicine, anthropology, mathematics and economics. In
any event, this interdisciplinary, which helps dissipate error,
is undoubtedly one of the major improvements of this second edition
of the History of Humanity, Scientific and Cultural Development
of Mankind over the previous edition.
Another problem faced was that of periodization.
It was out of the question systematically to adopt the periodization long in use in
European history, that is Antiquity, the Middle Ages, modern times, because it is now
being extensively called into question and also, above all, because it would have led to a
Eurocentric view of world history, a view whose absurdity is now quite obvious. The seven
volumes are thus arranged in the following chronological order:
Volume I: Prehistory and the beginnings of civilization
Volume II: From the third millennium to the seventh century BC
Volume III: From the seventh century BC to
the seventh century AD
Volume IV: From the seventh to the sixteenth century
Volume V: From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century
Volume VI: The nineteenth century
Volume VII: The twentieth century.
It must be stated at once that this somewhat
surgical distribution is in no way absolute or binding. It will in no way prevent the
overlapping that there must be at the turn of each century if breaks in continuity and the
resulting errors of perspective are to be avoided. Indeed, it bas been said that we are
already in the twenty-first century!
In his preface, Professor Charles Morazé has
clearly described and explained the structure of each of the volumes, with a thematic
chapter, a regional chapter and annexes. This structure, too, may be modified so as not to
upset the complementarity of the pieces of a mosaic that must retain its significance.
When the International
Scientific Commission, the Chief Editors of the volumes and the very large
number of contributors have completed their work - and this will be in the near future -
they will be able to adopt as their motto the frequently quoted saying of the philosopher
We do not study history to get rid of it but to
save from nothingness all the past which, without history, would vanish into the void. We
study history so that what, without it, would not even be the past any more, may be reborn
to life in this unique present outside which nothing exists.
This present will be all the more unique because
history will have shown itself to be not an instrument for legitimizing exacerbated forms
of nationalism, but an instrument, ever more effective because ever more perfectible, for
ensuring mutual respect, solidarity and the scientific and cultural interdependence of