Monday, June 17, 2013

What makes some forms of historical evidence more reliable than others?

Where was the founder of Buddhism, Gautam Buddha, born? Nepalese people consider that Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal and he later went to the present day India for meditation. However, Indians claim that Buddha was born in India and that Lumbini lies in India as well. Who is to be trusted? The answer is we cannot trust anyone, but examine the historical evidences again to find out the truth behind this. This is an example of how historical evidences are sometimes unreliable to draw conclusion right away.

History is the study of our past events and activities, and the aim of history is always to seek truth behind an underlying event or condition. However, to assess whether something is true or not we need to rely on the evidences and the traces left by such events. The evidences to the event in question can appear in various forms such as physical, mediated, hearsay, mythology, and so on. Similarly they could be either documented or not by the contemporary historians. However, because of our difference in perception and other factors, we find some forms of evidences more reliable than others.

Physical evidences like the landscapes, architectures, sculptures, and such are concrete in nature. Such forms of evidences can be easily perceived and understood. For example, if we see a Buddhist monastery whose name is based upon the name of a king, we are convinced that the monastery was built by that particular king or was made in the memory of that person. After analyzing other evidences such as the history of rulers, inscriptions, and any other documented piece of information, we can confidently deduce what might have happened during that particular time, in relation to building that structure. In other words, such evidences which are physical and can be easily perceived are considered more reliable.

Some evidences can be cross checked and confirmed by consulting multiple sources. For example, a myth about a place can be studied once again by collecting all the pieces of information related to that myth. For example, the place where the mythical event is supposed to have taken place can be visited and it can be examined to see if there are any traces of such event. For example, we can try to find out the reality behind the “War of Troy”. We can go to the place where it occurred and examine the place carefully. Such evidences whose traces can be sought, examined, and verified are more reliable than those which cannot be verified.

Hearsay is probably the least reliable form of historical evidence. If there is no basis to verify the claims, we can be certain that it is false. Because everyone perceives differently, the story changes significantly as it passes from one generation to another. Therefore, we can never assess the authenticity of such evidence and such evidences are highly unreliable.

New developments in the science and technology sector have enabled us to re-examine the evidences and work out the reality. Radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology are such techniques which help us to estimate the time of the occurrence of certain events. This has been very useful in archeology to find the age of the remains from those times by examining the wood and other organic remains.

History is generally written by “winners”. Therefore, there are chances of manipulating the information to make them fascinating and noble, so as to create a good image as well as become or remain popular in the history. Therefore, any such written records which are unverifiable and contain room for questions are less reliable. It would be wise to doubt them and seek further evidences by conducting more research than to blindly rely on such descriptions.

Similarly, history is distorted to serve political interests. For instance, Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) used to control the writings of the history and influence them in its favour. It made the history vague and complex apart from unrealistic. There are many other examples when history seems to have been manipulated to justify political ideologies, especially the autocratic ones.

In short, history can be fabricated and manipulated to serve the either political, or religious, or patriotic ends. Therefore, all forms of historical evidences are not reliable. Those evidences which can be verified by using references to the evidences are more reliable than those which lack references. Similarly, physical evidences are more reliable as they provide us with a lot of information regarding the historical events. Moreover, the history with multiple evidences such as written records, cultural presence and other evidences is easy to validate and thus such evidences are more reliable.

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