The Story of Man Part 1




CARROLL & GRAF                       2007




This is the story of how human beings spread around the world from their original home in Africa, and of the adventures and misadventures that the human race has experienced since then. It is also the story of some of the ideas that have governed people’s lives, especially ideas about religion, about politics and about the workings of the natural world.

  • The only kind of history that is of any use is the kind that tries to explain, not only what happened, but how things happened and why things happened in the way they did.
  • But every such explanation is inevitably coloured by the background, and prejudices, of the person doing the explaining – and this book is no exception.
  • The history of humanity has been shaped by two enormous changes. The first was the emergence of settled agriculture in several parts of the world in the period we know as the Neolithic.
  • The second was the Industrial Revolution that occurred in Europe in, and around, the 18th century.
  • While giving precedence to these two transformations of the material basis of human existence, I have been able to find room for a host of other fascinating stories.

It is possible that we are close to another great transformation of human fortunes. The runaway growth of human population and industrialization during the last half century, with its implication for climate change and environmental pollution, raises the spectre of a possible collapse of civilization before some parts of the world have even begun to feel its benefits. Strictly speaking, this is the subject matter of futurology, not history. But it would be an incomplete account of the human journey that ignored such implications, and I have tried to do justice to this hugely important and very contentious topic in the final chapter.

Chapter 1: African Origins

Chapter 2: The Peopling of the Earth

 Chapter 3: Putting Down Roots

Chapter 4: The World in 4000 BC

By 4000 BC, settled agriculture was an established way of life throughout the entire length of the Fertile Crescent, in the Nile Valley, and across wide areas of central and northern China. The most significant consequence of this was a speeding-up of the rate of cultural change. To understand why this occurred, we need to think in terms of networks. ‘Networking’ sounds like a modern invention, but it is older than the first human settlements. Networking is what hunter-gatherers did 20,000 years ago, when they traded tools and information with people they met on their travels. But the number of such transactions increased when people began to live in villages only a few miles apart. When bright people could discuss ideas daily, the rate of innovation increased. When travelers met up two or three times a month, rather than two or three times a year, the rate of spread of new techniques rocketed. Whereas the way of life of scattered food gatherers might remain essentially unaltered for hundreds, or even thousands of years, these farming communities were caught up in a process of continual change. It must have been somewhere about this time that old people could first be overheard saying, ‘I remember when none of this was fields.’

  • They did this against a background of climate change that was continually opening up new areas for settlement. In the older centers of population, it was not only the number and density of villages that increased; so did their average size.
  • As they grew, the character of the largest of them altered. They became small towns: centers of trade, gossip and amusement, housing the world’s first market traders and door-to-door salesmen.
  • The informality of village life could no longer cope effectively with all that needed to be done. Organization became essential. Projects like the building of town walls called for planning and leadership.
  • Tasks such as tool making, fishing and cereal growing could be performed much more effectively if they were left to specialists working full-time at one trade.
  • It was with the development of the first towns that three notable features of our modern world – bureaucracy, occupational specialization and a boss class – appeared.
  • Depending on the environment, a hunting and gathering band of two dozen people needed a territory of anything up to 30 square miles to ensure a reliable supply of food; a farming family of the same size could get by on 50 acres.

In the short-term it must have seemed all gain but these benefits had a fearsome downside, one that would not be revealed until the process had gone too far to be reversed. Close proximity to animals meant close acquaintance with their parasites, and the diseases those parasites carried. Some of these diseases were transferable to humans. So long a people lived in scattered villages, the danger was slight. Any outbreak of disease was likely to peter out, from lack of new people to infect, before it could do much damage. But when people, and their beasts, began to live in towns, and towns began to multiply, conditions were created in which diseases could spread quickly, creating havoc in populations that had not yet acquired immunity.

  • The densest concentration of villages and towns in 4000 BC was in the Fertile Crescent.
  • From southern Palestine, through Anatolia, to the Persian Gulf, hundreds of large villages and small towns dotted the landscape.
  • Among the crops the people of this region had added to their creature comforts were domesticated varieties of two plants that grew wild there: the vine and the date palm.
  • The date palm was a cornucopia of useful products, including fresh and dried fruit, timber for making furniture and leaves for basket making.
  • The date palms also provided the material for making rafts. These river-valley people were unacquainted with the horse, and we have no evidence that they possessed carts.
  • In the absence of wheeled vehicles, and the roads that went with them, rafts were an essential form of transport for both people and materials.
  • This dependence on water transport was a key factor governing the location of many of the first towns.
  • In terms of technology, this was the age of stone. Obsidian, a black volcanic glass that could be worked to produce a fiercely sharp edge, was particularly prized, and it was traded over hundreds of miles from its source on the shores of Lake Van, on the border of present-day Turkey and Iran.
  • The lives of these town dwellers of 6000 years ago were lightened by music, song and dance. They had paintings and wood-carvings, textiles woven on the loom, jewellery and elegant hand-thrown pots.
  • These people of the Fertile Crescent had without doubt the most sophisticated culture of their day, but a plainer version of their way of life was followed right across Europe, from Spain to the Ukraine.
  • In 4000 BC, the culture of farming established on the European mainland had not yet found its way to the continent’s offshore islands.
  • Britain and Ireland had been cut off from the mainland by rising sea-levels since around 8000 BC.
  • A few thousand people maintained the hunting and gathering lifestyle their ancestors had brought with them before the seas had risen.

The farming practices of the Fertile Crescent had spread, not just north and west, but south and east as well. Prior to 5000 BC, the region that is now the Sahara had been a country of open savannah, interspersed with great lakes and teeming with wildlife, where a farming people cultivated cereals and herded wild cattle. The Nile valley, by contrast, had been a forested swamp. But rising temperatures, combined with reduced rainfall, had started a process of drying out. As the first patches of desert appeared, and the river valley became drier, the farmers and their families decamped. As they cleared the forest, they discovered that they had moved to land whose rich soil was annually refreshed by the river floods. Inspired by the example of their neighbours in Palestine, they had planted peas and beans, as well as wheat and barley. They had domesticated sheep, pigs, goats and cattle, and had become skilled at catching fish. In this rich new environment, and in their riverside villages and small towns they were now laying the foundations of a brilliant civilization.

  • In Japan, life revolved around fishing and hunting. The rise in sea-levels at the end of the Ice Age had isolated the country, and its inhabitants had developed an indigenous culture based on coastal life in small villages.
  • The seas that had cut them off from foreign ideas had in turn deprived their neighbours of awareness of their lifestyle, which included a culture of pottery-making far in advance of anything in mainland Asia.
  • One continent – Australia – was never to have an Agricultural Revolution. The rise in sea-levels had completely isolated it, and it would be thousands of years before the agricultural way of life would touch its inhabitants.
  • On a score of one to ten for the factors required for an Agricultural Revolution, the environment of most native Australians was close to one.

This whistle-stop tour has focused on two sharply contrasting kinds of existence: farming, and hunting, or hunting and gathering. But it would be a misleading history that concerned itself solely with these two. A third way of life has been followed by millions of people in the past, and is still widely practiced today. It is called nomadic pastoralism, and its practitioners have contributed to some of the most dramatic events in human history.

  • Pastoralists are livestock farmers who travel with their beasts. Nomads move their herds and flocks from place to place, to take advantage of seasonal grazing.
  • Their flocks and herds can be huge, and their own numbers can be correspondingly large.
  • Only in one part of the world, southern Russia, were there signs of a further revolution to come. They tamed the horse, and its enrolment in the list of mankind’s obedient servants was to have profound consequences.

Continued global warming had opened up new areas for colonization by plants and animals, including human animals. Settled agriculture enabled already occupied lands to support greatly increased numbers. Even the peoples who had not taken up farming had better tools and better weapons with which to harvest and hunt. As human beings improved their ability to exploit and control their environment, their numbers grew. In 6000 BC the population of the world had been about 10 million. By 4000 BC it had risen to around 30 million.

  • In 4000 BC, the world’s 30 million inhabitants probably spoke around 10,000 languages between them – about twice as many as exist today. This means that the average number of people speaking any one language was about 3000. It is a statistic that brings out with startling clarity the small size and local character of the social universe inhabitated by our ancestors of 6000 years ago.


Chapter 5: The Invention of the State

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