Article ID: CBB001214222

Savage Numbers and the Evolution of Civilization in Victorian Prehistory (2014)


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.

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Authors & Contributors
Winston, Andrew S.
Imada, Adria
Yang, K. Wayne
Gere, Catherina
Smith, Andrea
Weizmann, Fredric
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Journal of the History of Biology
History of the Human Sciences
Huntington Library Quarterly
American Psychological Association
Presses Universitaires de France
Princeton University Press
New York University
University of California, San Diego
Science and race
Prehistory and primitive societies
Galton, Francis
Boas, Franz
Lubbock, John, 1st Baron Avebury
Clemens, Samuel Langhorne
Pitt-Rivers, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox
Prestwich, Joseph
United States
Great Britain
South Africa
Southern states (U.S.)
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
18th century
17th century
Kingdom of Italy (1861-1946)
Columbia University
American Museum of Natural History, New York

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