World History in Three Pages

from Richard Ostrofsky of Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed) December, 2011 Roughly six million years ago, in the forests and plains of Africa, a hominid line leading to modern humans diverged from the line that led to modern chimpanzees. The latter remained wild animals. The former, (hominists, as we might call australopithecus and all those species evolving in the human direction) domesticated each other, came to depend upon collective mindset and decision-making (culture, in other words), and became specialists in mutual dependency. Among more familiar adaptations (bipedalism, loss of body hair, prolonged infancy and childhood, all-year-round sexual interest), these hominists evolved a subtler form of mimicry, learning to read the attention and intentions of their fellow creatures by following their eye movements. They evolved more conspicuous eyes, with pupils highlighted by coloured irises and then by whites to help each other do that. Where other great apes camouflage the direction of their gaze, we telegraph ours. Check out the phrase "Cooperative eye hypothesis" on Google, and see what you find. This novel style of copying – not just of overt behavior but of intention itself – made it possible to experiment with and teach the use and crafting of implements to extend the body's natural powers. It may have underpinned our developing faculties of symbolic representation – first as ritual and dance, and then through vocal modulation. By 2.6 million years ago (mya), a standardized technique was in general use to craft stone tools of a certain type in the region that is today Ethiopia. By 1.8 mya, the technique had been greatly refined and the resulting tools were much more versatile and precise. By 250 thousand years ago (kya), fire had been domesticated and was being used to cook food. All this time, hominist bodies were changing in the ways we associate with full humanity. The anatomy of the head shifted to balance comfortably on a biped's shoulders with less work by the neck muscles, brains grew larger, and physiques grew weaker and more vulnerable, as tools and weapons and clothing made brute force and fur less advantageous. By about 45 kya, to judge from the remains we find, the extant hominists (now just a single species) seem as fully human as we are – ornamenting their bodies (probably to mark tribal membership and status), burying their dead with rituals and grave-goods to appease their spirits and supply their needs in the after-life,

painting vivid pictures of animals on the walls of certain caves – deep underground, by torch light, with a purpose, probably religious, that we can only guess. And these are only the artifacts that have been preserved and found. We must presume that they exploited perishable materials with the same ingenuity. What we know for sure is that biological evolution was no longer their only means of adaptation. As cultural specialists, they could shape a tribe's collective mindset and behavior to flourish just about anywhere. Hominists migrated out of Africa and across the Eurasian steppe, about one million years ago, and colonization of Europe, Australia and the Americas followed: They were in Europe 500 kya; in Australia 42 kya; in Siberia 22 kya; in Alaska 14 kya; and at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, the horn of South America, only two thousand years after that. Hunting-and-gathering bands move around a lot. They have to follow the game, or the grains and nuts and berries; and they can't carry very much with them. Permanent settlement could become preferable to this nomadic lifestyle, but only when sufficient year-round foodstuffs and natural resources (especially reliable drinking water) were available near a given site. In a few places this was the case, and a depletion of natural foodstuffs made the more sedentary, labor intensive, protein-challenged lifestyle of agriculture worthwhile. There were alternatives – pastoralism and fishing; and the peoples who took these directions often traded with farmers, to the benefit of both parties. But, by land and sea, they also raided the sedentary farmers when they could, teaching their victims accordingly to arm and organize for warfare, cluster together, build defensive walls and store their grain in central, defensible locations. At first, these settlements were just villages; but in a few places they grew into substantial towns and then into true cities: centres of collective defense, administration, craft, trade and religious worship. One after another, the arts of civilization developed, but always with military security and power as their basis – as remains the case today. By 4000 BCE, this pattern was well established in 'Mesopotamia' – "the land between the rivers," known today as Iraq and Syria. Partly by diffusion but sometimes independently, there were similar developments along the Nile, in Persia (modern Iran), in India, and in China. A little later, there would be similar developments in the Americas. These citystates traded with one another, and the routes of trade had to be defended against bandits and pirates. They also competed and went to war with each other, with the most successful conquering their rivals and growing, if only temporarily, into empires. By the first millenium BCE, across Eurasia, the whole system had reached a sort of climax. In this period, known as 'the Axial Age,' religious leaders and (more secular-minded) philosophers came to worry and argue about the meaning of life and how it should be lived and governed. Confucius, Buddha, the authors of the

Upanishads, Lao Tzu, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Thucydides, Archimedes, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah all lived in this period. Jesus, Paul, Augustine and Mohammed lived just a little later. It was no longer enough just to placate the powers of Nature and get by from day to day. A search was on for meaning, transcendence, salvation (whatever exactly that meant) – and at least some men had the leisure, the brains and the language to think about such things and talk about them to others. The next 1500 years was a period of divergence, when the civilizations across Eurasia mostly went their separate ways – except for some longdistance trading, constant fighting, and a considerable diffusion of techniques and ideas. Most 'barbarians' were civilized one way or another. Civilizations in the Americas followed their own trajectory. But, in the late 15th century, European explorers, conquerors, colonists and missionaries began to reverse this parting of life-ways. Around the globe, cultures and civilizations were no longer at liberty to follow their own course, but had to assimilate, resist or adapt to European incursions as best they could. Europe itself commenced a 'Renaissance' – a period of explosive artistic, intellectual and technological change. Perhaps for the first time in history, people began to look forward to future Progress (with a capital 'P'), instead of backward to a supposed golden age of universal obedience to some divine plan. We might call it a second axial age, which is not to say that everything was rosy. In the early 20th century, what was essentially one terrible war with a twenty-year intermission put an end to Europe's imperial power, and transferred the hegemony of its (now global) civilization to the United States – determinedly a Pacific power as well as an Atlantic one. What has followed since then, is a series of challenges to that dominance, a series that may be expected to continue as American power relative to the rest of the world continues to decline from its apex in 1945. Meanwhile, science and technology continue to advance and population continues to grow – to the extent that Earth's carrying capacity for our species is threatened. Where we go from here is anyone's guess, because from the biological perspective, we are now not just our worst, but our only serious enemies. It remains doubtful that we will find the political wisdom and good will to use our tremendous powers to a future human benefit. History is not a boring subject. Nightmare that it has often been, along with Nature itself it is the context that has shaped our world and our individual lives. This synopsis is proposed as an orientation for whatever further reading your curiosity may suggest.

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