Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity

I wrote Inscriptions of Nature because I felt the need to write a political history of deep time, geohistory, and nature. Deep history, that is the history of the evolution of the earth, is often represented as a purely natural phenomenon; of movements of tectonic plates, earthquakes, the formation of strata and fossils, and in terms of human genomics. This representation is derived entirely from European intellectual traditions from the eighteenth century, which traced the geohistory of the earth. While researching the book, I found the entrenchment of the geohistorical mode of thinking in the Indian subcontinent in both its contemporary politics and its intellectual traditions; for example, in modern Hindu antiquarianism, in debates of sacred geographies, conflicts around mining rights, and in questions of tribal aboriginality. I concluded that these historical processes could not be appreciated or discussed fully within either the naturalistic frame or the Eurocentric intellectual traditions. Therefore, I have tried to define an alternative frame of deep history in this book. The book sees the evolution of the naturalistic account of the history of the earth as a product of European colonialism. Deep history provided Western epistemology and European nations with deep access to people’s lives, their genealogies, and their natural resources. It is no coincidence that this deep knowledge of the earth evolved in the nineteenth century at the same time when vast natural resources particularly in the colonies were being encroached upon and exploited. It also overwrote, in the case of India, various medieval or early modern imaginations of antiquity. Inscriptions of Nature shows that deep history is complicit in the Western and colonial appropriation of global nature, time, myths, and commodities.

I have explained the process through the theme of naturalization. Here the book deviates from some of the central assumptions of the history of geology and deep time. Historians have explored what has been termed the historicization of nature or the earth. They have shown that with the invention of deep history, the earth appeared as a historical landscape; geologists studied the earth (the strata, fossils, craters, mountains) like a historical text to understand its past. This book shows that a parallel,  alternative process took place as well; that geology led to the naturalization of history as a result of which all forms of existing antiquarian imaginations were aligned to the history of nature and deep history became pervasive and dominant in Indian imaginations of past. To give an example, the book shows how the antiquity of medieval canal systems was gradually placed within the deep history of the earth, which transformed the canals into a prehistoric river system associated with modern politics of Hindu antiquarianism. Once entrenched into the deep history of the earth, the prehistoric river and its associated Hindu myths became foundational entities of Indian past and continue to inform its contentious present. This naturalization carries elements of the same biological determinism that has plagued the history of race, gender, citizenship, and nationalism. It fixes people, myths, and histories to domains that appear natural to them.

This book fills a significant gap in the scholarship of deep time. There are robust traditions of deep history in the Global South, with eclectic engagements with aboriginality, myths, and the deep histories of the earth. These have, however, remained outside mainstream histories of geology, which continue to focus on European or ‘northern’ frames. This book engages with these two discrete scholarships to write a layered and integrated ‘New Deep History’.
The book also engages critically with the literature on ‘Anthropocene’. It shows that the concept of Anthropocene is a product of nineteenth-century conflation of natural and historical imaginations within deep history. Similar to deep history, therefore, it appears as a holistic and comprehensive historical concept. The book shows that since the literature emphasises the need to align existing forms of political, cultural, and environmental histories to the geological frame, it presents the prospect of naturalising history all over again.

I hope that the lasting impact of the book will be the appreciation of the need to write de-naturalised histories of the environment, deep history, and geology. To give an example, the book shows that it is possible and important to write a de-naturalised history of Gondwanaland, which is often known as the ancient southern supercontinent. However, it is also a real place in Central India, and its prehistorical imagination gave rise to cultural and political sites in Australia and South Africa as well. In each of these regions, Gondwanaland is associated with questions of aboriginal rights, mining, and dispossession from land and of memory. A de-naturalised history of Gondwanaland reveals how deep history continually shapes politics across the Global South.

If there is one idea that people can take away from reading this book, I hope it would be that the history of nature is political and not natural.

Order Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity – published on October 13, 2020 – at the following link:

Pratik Chakrabarti is a chair in the history of science and medicine and director of the Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity, Materials and Medicine: Trade, Conquest and Therapeutics in the Eighteenth Century, and Bacteriology in British India: Laboratory Medicine and the Tropics.