History of the World
- For the Mel Brooks movie of similar name see History of the World, Part I.
This article discusses the human history of the World. For a geological history of the world please see Geologic timescale, for a biological history please see history of life.
Homo sapiens first arose on the Earth between 400 and 250 thousand years ago during the Palaeolithic period. This occurred after a long period of evolution. Ancestors of humans, such as Homo erectus, had been using simple tools for many millennia, but as time progressed tools became far more refined and complex. At some point humans had begun using fire for heat and for cooking. Humans also developed language sometime during the Paleolithic, as well as a conceptual repertoire that included systematic burial of the dead and adornment of the living. During this period all humans lived as hunter-gatherers who were generally nomadic.
Modern humans spread rapidly over the globe from Africa and the frost-free zones of Europe and Asia. The rapid expansion of humankind to North America and Oceania took place at the climax of the Ice Age, when temperate regions of today were extremely inhospitable. Yet, humans had colonised nearly all the ice-free parts of the globe by the end of the Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago.
A major change, described by the great prehistorian Gordon Childe as a "revolution", occurred around the 9th millennium BC with the adoption of agriculture. Although research has tended to concentrate on the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East, archaeology in the Americas, East Asia and Southeast Asia indicates that agricultural systems using different crops and animals may well have developed at similarly early dates. As might be expected, agriculture was particularly important in areas which became the cradles of early civilisations, such as the Yellow River valley in China, the Nile in Egypt, and the Indus Valley. Some peoples, such as Aborigines of Australia and the Bushmen of southern Africa, did not use agriculture until relatively modern times.
Agriculture led to several major changes. It allowed far larger population densities. It also created, and allowed for, the storage of food surpluses that could support people not directly involved in food production. The development of agriculture allowed the creation of the first cities. The development of cities has led to what has been called civilisation. First in the Sumerian civlisation of lower Mesopotamia (3500 BC), then Egypt along the Nile (3000 BC), the Harappan of the Indus (2500 BC), there is evidence of elaborate cities with higher levels of social and economic complexity. These civilisations were so different from each other that they must almostly certainly be thought of as independent in origin. At this same time developments such as writing, currency, and extensive trade were introduced.
The 2nd millennium BC saw the emergence of complex state societies in Crete, mainland Greece and central Turkey. In China, proto-urban societies may have developed by 2500 BC, but the first dynasty to be identified by archaeology is that of the Shang. In the Americas, civilisations such as the Maya, the Moche and Nazca emerged in Mesoamerica and Peru at the end of the 1st millennium BC.
Bronze and Iron ages
The agricultural settlements had until this time been almost completely dependent on stone tools. In Eurasia, copper and bronze tools, decorations, and weapons began to become commonplace around 3000 BC. After bronze the Eastern Mediterranean region, Middle East and China saw the introduction of iron tools and weapons. Some areas of the world, including all of the Americas, never developed metal tools, however.
The diffusion of ironworking technology was at least partially responsible for the collapse of the Minoan, Mycenaean and Hittite civilisations around 1200 BC, as these advanced peoples lost their technological lead to their barbarian neigbours. These collapses inaugurated a period of confusion, after which two competing civilisations emerged in the west, the Greeks and Persians. Chinese civilisation too began to assume its familiar aspect during the 1st millennium BC. The Zhou Dynasty produced a vast peasant workforce as well as a nobility in charge of organising government and conducting the worship of its ancestors.
A noted cultural development was the introduction of philosophy and religion in both east and west. Over time a great variety of religions developed around the world with Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Zoroastrianism in Persia being some of the earliest major faiths. In the east, three schools of thoughts were to dominate Chinese thinking until the modern day. These were Daoism, Legalism and Confucianism. The Confucian tradition, which would attain predominance, looked not to the force of law, but to the power and example of tradition for political morality. In the west, the Greek philosophical tradition, represented by the works of Plato and Aristotle, were diffused throughout Europe and the Middle East by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon in the 4th century BC. At Alexandria, it mixed with Jewish culture to create the essential context for the appearance and early development of Christianity.
The Classical empires
By the last centuries BC the Mediterranean, the Ganges and the Yellow River became the seats of empires which future rulers would strive to imitate. In China the Qin and Han dynasties extended the rule of imperial government through political unity, improving communications and also notably the establishment of state monopolies by Emperor Wu. In India, the influence of the Guptas spread over much of the subcontinent via a network of tributaries and alliances. The ensuing stability contributed to herald the golden age of Hindu culture in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. In the west, the Romans began expanding their territory through conquest and colonisation from the beginning of the 5th century BC. By the reign of Augustus around the birth of Christ, Rome controlled all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean.
The great empires rested on the ability to exploit the process of military annexation and the formation of settlements to become agricultural centres. The relative peace they brought encouraged international trade and notably the growth of the Silk Road. They also faced common problems such as those associated with maintaining huge armies and the support of the bureaucracy. These costs fell most heavily on the peasantry, whilst land-owning magnates were increasingly able to evade centralised control. The pressure of barbarians on the frontiers hastened the process of internal dissolution. The Han empire fell into civil war in 220 whilst its Roman counterpart became increasingly decentralised and divided around the same time.
Age of Kingdoms
Throughout the temperate zones of Eurasia and North Africa large empires continued to rise and fall. While the Roman Empire collapsed it was replaced a few centuries later by a number of powerful Catholic states. In China dynasties would similarly rise and fall. The most remarkable, if short lived, of these was the Mongol Empire which seized almost all of Eurasia's landmass, missing only western Europe and Japan.
Islam, which began in Arabia in the 7th century AD, was also one of the most remarkable forces growing from only a few followers to become the basis of a series of large Empires in India, the Middle East, and North Africa.
This period was marked by slow, but steady, technological improvements with developments of extreme importance such as the stirrup and printing arriving every few centuries.
Vast societies also began to be built up in Central America at this time with the Inca in the Andes and the Aztecs in modern Mexico being the most notable.
Rise of Europe
Through a combination of factors the far western edge of the Eurasian land mass began to have a technological edge on the rest of the world by 1500, and over the next few centuries this process began to accelerate. Advancing seafaring technology allowed Christopher Columbus in 1492 to create a lasting link between the previously unconnected Americas and Eurasia. This had dramatic effects on both continents. The Europeans brought with them diseases the Americans had never before encountered, and over 90% of them were killed in a series of devastating epidemics. The Europeans also had horses, steel, and guns that allowed them to hold a decisive military advantage over the Americans.
The Aztec and Incan empires were destroyed, as were many of the cultures of North America. Gold and resources from the Americas began to be shipped to Europe, while at the same time large numbers of European colonists began to emigrate to the west.
The Portuguese and Spanish Empires were at first predominant, but soon the more northern French, English, and Dutch began to dominate the Atlantic. In a series of wars fought in the 17th and 18th centuries, culminating with the Napoleonic Wars Britain emerged as the most powerful nation in the world. It controlled an empire that spanned the globe.
While the Americas were the first areas to fall to the Europeans soon they also had a technological advantage over the people of Asia as well. In the 19th century Britain gained control of the Indian subcontinent, Egypt and Malaysia, the French took Indochina while the Dutch occupied Indonesia. The British also occupied several of the areas still populated by neolithic peoples including Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and as in the Americas large numbers of British colonists began to emigrate to these areas.
This era also saw the Industrial Revolution, a major transformation of the world’s economies. It began in Britain and used new modes of production such as the factory, mass production, and mechanisation to produce a wide array of materials faster and for less labour than previous methods. The world economy became based on coal. New methods of transport such as railways and steam ships made the world a smaller place.
Main article: The 20th century in review
The twentieth century saw the domination of the world by Europe wane, and the United States and the Soviet Union rise as superpowers. After 1990 the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States became what some have termed a hyperpower.
The century saw the rise of powerful ideologies. First with communism in the Soviet Union after 1917, which spread to Eastern Europe after 1945, and China in 1949, and scattered other nations in the Third World during the 1950s and 1960s. The 1920s saw militaristic fascist dictatorships gain control of Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain.
These transitions were evinced through wars of unparalleled scope and devastation. The First World War destroyed many of Europe's old monarchies, and weakened France and Britain. The Second World War saw most of the militaristic dictatorships in Europe destroyed and saw communism advance into Eastern Europe and Asia. This led to the Cold War, a forty-year stand-off between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and theirs. Human civilisation was put into jeopardy by the development of nuclear weapons. After out-spending the Soviet Union on weaponry, the US saw a collapse in the Soviet state, with fragmentation of the former republics, some re-joining Russia in a commonwealth, others reaching out toward Western Europe.
The same century saw vast progress in technology, and a large increase in life expectancy and standard of living for the majority of humanity. As the world economy switched from one based upon coal to one based on oil, new communications and transportation technologies continued to make the world more united. These developments produced their own concerns, however, such as environmental degradation.
- History of Africa, History of the Americas, History of Asia, History of Australia, History of East Asia, History of Eurasia, History of Europe, History of the Middle East, History of North America, History of South America, History of South Asia
- towards a science of the history of the world, August Ludwig Schloezer
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