Savage numbers and the evolution of civilization in Victorian prehistory

Michael Barany

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

This paper identifies ‘savage numbers’ – number-like or number-replacing concepts and practices attributed to peoples viewed as civilizationally inferior – as a crucial and hitherto unrecognized body of evidence in the first two decades of the Victorian science of prehistory. It traces the changing and often ambivalent status of savage numbers in the period after the 1858–1859 ‘time revolution’ in the human sciences by following successive reappropriations of an iconic 1853 story from Francis Galton's African travels. In response to a fundamental lack of physical evidence concerning prehistoric men, savage numbers offered a readily available body of data that helped scholars envisage great extremes of civilizational lowliness in a way that was at once analysable and comparable, and anecdotes like Galton's made those data vivid and compelling. Moreover, they provided a simple and direct means of conceiving of the progressive scale of civilizational development, uniting societies and races past and present, at the heart of Victorian scientific racism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-255
Number of pages17
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science
Volume47
Issue number2
Early online date9 Aug 2013
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2014

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