Teaching Interpretations in Ancient History

What is historical interpretation?

Historians interpret the past, as do films, art, and novels. Many times, this happens decades and even centuries after the historical event.

We can use interpretations of the past directly with students to help them understand why and how these were constructed, and what interpretations can and cannot tell us about the ancient past.

Below is an example of one such historical interpretation with advice on how to teach it in your classroom.

The 'Original Affluent Society'

An example of an interpretation of ancient history is Marshall Sahlins' 1966 argument that foragers (hunter-gatherers) were the 'original affluent society'. 

What did Sahlins mean when he said hunter-gatherers were the 'original affluent society? Why is this interpretation meaningful?

Farmers vs foragers

To truly understand Sahlins' argument, we have to know a lot of historical context.

First, we have to know that all humans were foragers until the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago which led to the first civilisations. 

We also have to know that Sahlins was writing during a time (the 1960s) when many experts believed that agricultural societies were more evolved and sophisticated compared to forager societies. There was a belief that foragers led savage, difficult lives. 

But new evidence had emerged by this time which was starting to challenge these assumptions. The evidence showed that foragers had more varied diets, were less susceptible to disease and famine, and likely had far more leisure time compared to farmers.

Sahlins' argument was an interpretation of this new evidence. He was arguing for experts (including historians) to reexamine the consequences of the agricultural revolution and the benefits of forager lifestyles. 

How to teach this interpretation

Teaching 'the original affluent society' interpretation works well to complement teaching on Deep Time Australia.

To this day, there are still arguments about whether the first Australians were foragers or farmers, and whether farming is more sophisticated than foraging.

The 'affluent society' argument introduces students to the fact that these kinds of arguments have been going on for decades around the world and have impacted the way Westerners analyse the lives of First Nations Australians.

To teach this interpretation, develop students' knowledge about the history first:
  • Introduce the term 'forager' 
  • Describe the agricultural revolution and how it changed the way people lived
  • Explain how our current society evolved from civilisations that all came out of the agricultural revolution
  • Share examples of how historians used to have quite negative interpretations of forager societies
  • Analyse the evidence about forager lifestyle, nutrition, and wellbeing that changed historical interpretations of forager societies

After students have deep knowledge of the history, they will be ready to analyse Sahlins' interpretation of the evidence. 

Framework: Analysing an interpretation
Based on the excellent framework in UK Historical Association

You can use a framework like the one above to organise questions for students about the interpretation they are going to analyse. 

If they have developed enough prior knowledge of the history, they will have an easier time answering each of the questions.

Model how to answer the framework questions one-by-one after giving students some independent thinking time for each question.  You may also have students work together to get support from others.

You may use a protocol like this for each question:
  1.  Give students 2-3 minutes to think through an answer on their own (or in small groups) 
  2. Ask 1-2 students to share their thoughts with the whole class
  3. Explain what a ‘correct’ answer might include, or what an ‘incorrect’ answer might be
  4. Move onto the next question
Consolidate the lesson by summarising the answer to the question: Why are ancient foragers called ‘the original affluent society’?

Lead students in a discussion to consider how the 'affluent society' interpretation might relate to views of indigenous societies, how we use historical evidence, and/or what they already know about early First Nations Australians. 

The above content is part of Lesson 6 of our Ancient Australia unit.

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