A Ten-Point Big-Picture
Most of history’s really big deals happened relatively early in our species’ existence. Bear in mind that we’re talking some 200,000 years since Homo Sapiens evolved, and five to six million years since hominids evolved. In this top ten list below, seven items happened before the eighteenth century.
I’m not looking, here, at dynastic struggles, or historic battles or political revolutions. All of that, all of the “stuff” usually thought of as “history,” I consider to be the details of one story from one period of the human career, that is to say the Agrarian period, starting with the “birth” of agriculture, and ending with the Industrial Revolution.
In this period the human energy profile remained relatively constant because technology did not develop dramatically, and population growth was slow and steady. People lived and died, dynasties and empires fought using relatively similar weapons, the mass of people existed in poverty, without much individual agency, died from disease, violence or hunger–if not in childbirth or childhood–until a “J curve” moment shows up–The Industrial Revolution, and we begin to overturn everything about how we lived.
The really big things, then — the turning points — happened before and after the Agrarian period, either in the first 190,000 years, or in the last 250. So having said that, here’s my top ten major developments in Human history.
1 Bipedalism (4–6 mya).
In discussing human history you need to define “human.” We can stick with homo sapiens, our specific species, but I find it more persuasive to go back further to our human ancestors. Around four to six million years ago, early hominids started walking on two legs. What were the consequences? Hands were now freed from tree-grasping, and available for other activities. This adaptation allowed for subsequent major adaptations, including tool-making, hunting, and cooking. Humans are the only large mammal that can walk upright for extended periods; some apes and monkeys can, but only briefly. In the absence of teeth and claws, eventually handy-man skills paid off — for defence, aggression and survival-related creativity.
But why did we start walking upright? We don’t know for sure, but many theories highlight the role of the cooling (drying) climate of this time, which created more of a woodland than a thick forest, in particular in the East African Rift Valley, where our ape ancestors were hanging out. This obliged us to descend from the trees to get to other trees which had fruit, and make it across open ground — a dangerous proposition. Other theories highlight the fact that standing upright on the savanna allowed the wind to cool us, and enabled us to spot the leopards over the long grass. As with all adaptations, standing upright would have been a quirk to begin with, restricted to a few individuals who could do it. As those individuals beat the survival odds they passed this quirk to their offspring–thus natural selection–and it became mainstream in the population. Most of the survivors had this characteristic. Had this adaptation not occurred, or had those individuals with bipedal characteristics died out in the struggle for survival, the African apes would never have become Australopiths, those upright-walking monkeys that evolved into various species, and then, eventually Homo Sapiens. So yes, Bipedalism was most certainly an inflection point, a revolution, a game-changer.
2 The Development of the Human Brain. (6 mya to 50 kya).
Biologist E.O. Wilson considers this the most important development in human history. Once our brain was formed, it drove selection, not nature; in other words cultural evolution took over as the prime mover in human history.
Our brain is big, really big. Mammals weighing 140 pounds have an average brain size of 200 cubic centimetres. Ours grew over several million years (probably in a feedback loop in step with meat-eating) to today’s 12–1400 cc. You don’t need me to do the math: That’s ten times the average size for mammals of this weight. Accounting for about three percent of body weight, it consumes 25% of our energy intake. So the brain costs us dearly, but, like bipedalism, eventually paid off handsomely. One key benefit was the development of language, which helped in maintaining large groups, which in turn, enabled us to thrive–ultimately to change the face of the planet. Such cooperation, what some have termed ultra-sociality, is rare among mammals, and restricted to some insect species. Equipped with language and the ability to cooperate in large — huge — numbers, humans were able to become the very top predator and change their relationship with nature.
There are many theories about why natural selection favoured intelligence. Clearly it helped early hominids stay alive; the finding of food is easy for some species, but for others they need more help, remembering the location of fruiting trees, figuring out how to get at the termites or ants, knowing which plants to eat and which not. Our brain allowed all of this, but also allowed us to protect ourselves from larger, fiercer animals, and so we managed to evolve from prey to predator. The reason we put the end date of this development as 50,000 years ago is that some scholars believe that at this point an internal change occurred inside the brain that allowed for human culture, and symbolic thinking–art, religion, etc. This is debatable (it may have been in place way earlier but we just have not found much evidence) but the argument is that this is when we took off, as a species, our true social potential was unlocked, and our “separation” from nature and the rest of the animal kingdom was begun.
3 Sedentism (c. 12,000 years ago).
Homo Sapiens emerged some 200,000 years ago. From then until about 12,000 years ago, all HS were hunter-gatherers, moving within a large range constantly. All humans, in other words, were nomadic. This meant no attachment to specific place. At about 12–14,000 years ago, some people in the Middle East, started making semi-permanent “villages.” These were collections of huts with simple hearths. Initially these were located where the livin’ was easy, and this might answer the question, Why did we settle?
The weather–warming up after the last ice age–provided some areas of abundance. These proto-villages were well situated to harvest wild food, so moving to new ranges was not necessary. But there were also cultural developments: We started burying the dead ritualistically, and such cultural evolution allowed for a new notion of what was normal (staying put). Population growth may offer another explanation, as it may have made moving around freely more challenging, as tribes began bumping into each other. This, incidentally, spurred the Out-of-Africa migration, and the eventual population of the entire planet as people looked for new areas to populate, eventually filling the earth up wherever it was habitable. Scholars disagree as to whether sedentism caused milestone # 5–Agriculture, or was caused by it. Either way, these two are interrelated–you cannot practice farming if you are constantly moving, tilling the soil ties you to the soil, and this is why agriculture is such a big deal.
4 The Great Male Take Over Bid. (c. 10 kya).
Recently there have been a few “public intellectuals” who have questioned the idea of patriarchy, that is to say, whether it exits. That is a political argument. From a historical point of view, it exists. Humans have never been equal. At least not since the agricultural revolution. Biological differences between men and women certainly created difference of experience. It would have been annoying and dangerous to take a nursing infant mammoth hunting. And women did the nursing. But once we had food surpluses, jobs were invented; that is to say public roles: priest, chief, warrior, gaoler, executioner. One could say that it was men’s relative uselessness domestically that forced him out into the village square to create leadership positions for himself. Furthermore, once we were sedentary, private property appeared. More importantly, with agriculture, you needed kids to work. This meant that men needed to be sure of their paternity, and for this reason was marriage born, creating all the downstream ideologies of monogamy which, it turns out, is not necessarily a “natural” part of our evolutionary past. Hunter-gatherers, once assumed to be monogamous like farmers, actually often practiced polyandry, the taking of many “husbands.”
Seeing marriage as a practice that only dates to the divergence between farmers and hunter-gatherers makes it a little easier to understand why although still the prevalent type of relationship world-wide, it has been somewhat unsatisfactory, at least judging by the prevalence of divorce and infidelity. From the dawn of agriculture, then, women, have been largely powerless possessions of men until very, very recently, and are still, in many parts of the world. New Zealand was the first country to extend the right to vote to women in 1881. The United States followed in 1920. In Britain all women were allowed to vote by 1928. This is a story that is still unfolding, with millions of women, especially in the developing world, still disenfranchised and ultimately a form of property, and it began with agriculture. All the institutional and ideological frameworks that were set in place by that particular adaptation are still largely in place, and perhaps nowhere more than gender relations are they still being unpacked
5 Agriculture (C. 10 kya).
This was not an all-or-nothing proposition: Over thousands of years people in multiple regions (probably earliest in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East and southern Turkey) began collecting stands of wild wheat, and harvesting and processing them (grains). Agriculture may today seem like a no-brainer, a step on a “progressive” human path, but it was not. It was prompted by certain events, and adopted not because it was “better” somehow than the “Old Way,” but because it was necessary as a survival mechanism.
In all major evolutionary changes we need a cause or a prompt, things generally don’t just happen for no reason. For over two million years hominids had picked plants and killed animals without interfering (much) in how those plants and animals lived or reproduced. But the intensive collecting of wild plants that happened in the Fertile Crescent and other areas independently, eventually morphed into planting and cultivating (wheat in the Mideast, Rice in China, Corn in the Americas). Eventually the plant species developed into larger, hardier, tastier versions of their wild selves. Domesticating animals had a similar effect–except animals generally became smaller. We began corralling the most biddable smaller animals. Within a few generations those giant ornery auroxes who were the ancestors of modern cattle, who were reluctant to have their udders pumped twice a day, became smaller and more docile through selective breeding.
This was a radical change in the history not just of humans, but of life on earth. Until now all change was effected by natural selection. Humans, and before them hominids, may have dreamed about slow-moving easy-to-catch prey, but no hominid or other creature had created new kinds of plants and animals by selective breeding. This was just a glimpse of what would come–what is coming into effect today, as scientists can now take the characteristics of one animal, and implant genes from another species to create certain characteristics. This is the long-term consequence of domestication, a god-like power to genetically engineer, disposing of the laws of natural selection.
But in the shorter term, the consequences of agriculture were also huge. Agriculture created surpluses. This enabled specialization–people did not all need to be involved in food production all the time. Now we could have warriors traders, priests, and leaders. In the process, the notion of private property evolved, and this came with baggage–namely that of inequality–some have more than others–power imbalances–who is to rule?– and warfare–I’m taking yours. Population growth accompanied agriculture as the new farmers had more children. Environmentally there were big problems as well. As soon as we opened the soil, it blew or washed away. Only now are we seeing the problem up close as the Eurasian Steppes and American Midwest have been opened up on a grand scale–and billions of tons of soil wash down rivers. Some consider agriculture humanity’s greatest mistake. Others its saving grace, but one way or another agriculture was a turning point in the human experience.
6 Urbanism (3–4 kya).
Populations burgeoned after agriculture took hold in the millennia after 10,000 BCE. The invention of porridge–the original baby food–enabled women to have babies at shorter intervals, reducing the nursing period (something that kept hunter-gatherer populations low). Cities probably emerged first in Mesopotamia (mostly today’s Iraq). If Natufian villages had dozens of inhabitants, at around 12,000 BCE, and Neolithic towns such as Turkey’s Catal Huyuk had several thousand around 8,000 BCE, the larger Sumerian cities of 2–3000 BCE had somewhere between 50–80,000 inhabitants.
Often seen as the birth of “civilization” (which is a dicey term) they are where writing began, and therefore the origin of History as we know it (textual reports of the past). Why did we need cities? Very possibly because they provided security. Most of the earliest cities we know about (Uruk of Gilgamesh fame–some 5000 years ago) had walls, big walls, and they were probably not built to keep people in. If we put this insight together with archaeological data (for example from Mycenae in Archaic Greece), which almost always turns up artefacts to do with war and warriors, we get a picture of an ancient world where security could not be taken for granted. Cities are therefore early indicators of war.
In another J-curve moment, with writing and notation humans could now store the kind of data they needed to manage life in big cities. The first writing seems to have been a form of accounting, keeping track of goods, as trade was relatively extensive among the early city-states and even between civilizations such as Sumer and the Indian civilization of Harappa. “Universal” religions also appeared with cities. The many tribes who settled in urban areas brought with them their local deities and spirits. These evolved into gods, such as Enlil and Marduk in Sumer, and pantheons such as you found in Ancient Rome and Greece. It was only later that the “world religions” appeared, but this happened as an evolution of these earlier deities.
It may seem like a large gap, between the early civilizations and 1492 AD. But as I said in the intro, the basis of human life was established early, and although the Agrarian period witnessed lots of changes and events, once we had established cities, trade, religions, writing, etc., the format, you might say, for human life was stamped for millennia.
No, I won’t say that Columbus discovered America. But the arrival of the Iberians in the New World signalled the birth of World History as we know it, since the Eastern and Western hemispheres were now joined forever. Even if the Vikings got there first, these expeditions did not create lasting colonies. The Vikings fled from the Native Americans, or “Skraelings” (wretches) in Norse — probably tribes from what is now northern Maine, or Canada and Nova Scotia. They beat a retreat to Greenland where they remained for several centuries before disappearing from there.
These fifteenth-century Iberians were there to stay. They had more resources, better technology, and most importantly biological weapons in the form of germs. Whereas the Europeans had for centuries been building up immunity to old world diseases like smallpox and measles, these were unknown in the New World. And it seems that the exchange was to be one way, there being no diseases that affected the Europeans in large numbers. The indigenous death toll was enormous. As Spaniards moved through the Caribbean in the sixteenth century, entire islands of Carib, Taino and Arawak Indians were reduced to desolate wastes, inhabited only by the feral pigs left behind by Iberians for future expeditions to feed on, which were themselves vectors of disease. Those not killed by disease were often killed by the slave labor forced on them by the Spaniards.
The Caribs, with a population of 3.7 million in 1492, were declared extinct over the course of a single generation.
Then the diseases hit the mainland, aiding and abetting the Conquistadores as they conquered Mexico, Peru and the rest of South and Central America. In the North it was the same story in the seventeenth century. The English, Dutch and French, initially looking for routes to China like Columbus, spread disease liberally, and then helped themselves to the spoils. This was the “Columbian Exchange:” The Europeans got a new continent. The “Indians” got Smallpox.
8 Scientific Revolution. (16th-18th c).
Science. Ah Yes. Was there any before the sixteenth century? Perhaps. But science as we understand it today is surprisingly recent. Most ancient states, empires and kingdoms did not invest money in anything we can call “science.” If they employed specialists of one sort or another they were more likely astrologers (not astronomers) whose knowledge of the stars and interpretation of their meanings was intended to shore up the political power of the leader in question. Mayan kings, Mongol khans, Abbasid caliphs, all relied on specialists with knowledge of mysteries–shaman, priests, alchemists–to provide them with clues to the workings of the universe, with immortality, with victory.
Notwithstanding medieval Islamic preoccupations with theological matters–Islamic law and jurisprudence in Baghdad, notably–caliphs still held out hope for the discovery of an elixir that would make them immortal, even though such a thought was never sanctioned by the Holy Qur’an. Most rulers looked to astrologers for auspicious dates for campaigns or dynastic marriages. One way or another, knowledge, such as it was in the ancient and pre-modern world, was used to make leaders look good and maintain power. There was little hope of actually discovering new “realities,” gaining new knowledge, largely because the paradigms operating in all pre-modern societies were sacred and religious, and suggested that important questions are answered satisfactorily in the scripture. New questions were therefore anathema, thus the troubles faced by Copernicus and Galileo.
Modern science operates under different assumptions. One of these is that we do not know everything and that what we do know can be disproved. Having admitted ignorance, modern science then uses observation to create general theories, often using mathematics (not theology). New knowledge, once acquired via science, is then used to create new technologies. This was radical in human history. Pre-modern knowledge systems being religious in nature, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc, all assumed that what was not in the scriptures was not important…one assumed that God or Krishna, knew it, and that was enough. Science admits its lack of knowledge. As one historian put it: “Darwin never argued that he was the Seal of the Biologists,” (as the Prophet Muhammad argued he was the Seal of the Prophets–that is to say the last, final, ultimate prophet of God). Since the scientific method gained ground from around the 1600’s developments in human experience have exploded. In the last 500 years human population has increased fourteen-fold (from 500 million in 1500 to 7.5 billion today) Energy consumption has increased 115 fold.
9 The Industrial Revolution (c. 1760–1840).
The Industrial Revolution was arguably more revolutionary than any revolution (perhaps apart from the Scientific Revolution). Whereas political revolutions changed borders, economies, etc., the IR changed almost everything–from how we ate, to how we dressed ourselves to what we bought and where it came from. Since the beginnings of agriculture we had been doing things the same way: eating from very local sources (and with the seasons, therefore), traveling by foot, horse or sailboat; using weapons with limited deadly power; using human and animal muscle power for everything. From ancient Egypt to Napoleonic France, the Agrarian way held sway.
And it is difficult to overstate life’s hardships in this pre-industrial era. Almost nowhere on earth did average life expectancy exceed 35. Today the majority of humanity lives better than pre-industrial royalty. In Medieval Europe and elsewhere most people spent the bulk of their earnings on bread. This was often baked only once or twice a month. In the Tyrol it was baked once or twice a year and needed to be cut with an axe. In Florence in 1457 (at the height of the Renaissance!) 80 percent of the population were classified as destitute or very poor. Moreover there was no steady improvement in the human condition. Things were bad all over before the Black Death which hit Europe in 1348.
Conditions improved after half the population died, creating opportunities for the survivors (higher wages, cheaper housing), but when the population rebounded by the sixteenth century all the old problems–shortages of work and food, overcrowding, epidemics, etc., returned. Things certainly improved after the IR, but not during, or even immediately afterwards. Industrialization was a long process involving many transitional pains, perhaps the central ones being urban overcrowding, poverty and unemployment, as well as exploitation of workers, especially children. In Manchester, England, in 1840 conditions were such that six out of ten children died before the age of five. Severe poverty continued in Britain and other industrializing countries into the nineteenth century. In 1899 when 10,000 men tried to enlist in the British army for the Boer War, only 1000 were found fit enough for admission. In Russia things were worse for longer. Stalin’s drive to industrialize in the 1920’s meant forced rapid transition from agricultural to industrial production. The industrial labour force doubled in five years after 1928. Living standards fell dramatically and did not recover until the 1950s. Even in Russia, however, they did recover.
10 Nuclear Weapons (1945).
At 05:29:45 on July 16, 1945, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a new era in human history began. The Manhattan Project, the attempt to create an atom bomb, conducted a successful test. After the iconic mushroom cloud had blossomed above the desert, those watching remained largely silent. Kenneth Bainbridge, the manger of the test, apparently turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was the head of Los Alamos Labs, and said “Now we are all sons of bitches.” We don’t know how Oppenheimer responded, but later he recalled thinking of the rather more profound line from the Baghavad Gita, uttered by Lord Krishna: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” And indeed, from that point on, humans had within their grasp the ability to wipe out life on the planet.
Ultimately this, you could argue, would be (will be?) more significant than any other event in history, although many of the previous historical milestones led us to this point. Unlike all the other items in this list, we have not had time to digest all the consequences, its only been a little over half a century. However, even in that time we have decimated two large cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and brought the world the brink of a nuclear war (Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962), as well as enduring nearly half a century of Cold War. This in itself is vastly historically significant, as it shaped much of the twentieth century, starting with the division of Europe, the Nuclear Arms Race, and the various proxy wars from Vietnam and Korea to the Suez Crisis, and various Central and South American conflicts, including the execution of Che Guevara at hands of the Bolivian army/CIA in 1967.
Of course, the ultimate consequences of this invention will hopefully be avoided, but if it comes to pass it is questionable whether there will be anybody left to document it. The Harvard Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton once said that the magnitude of the nuclear threat was so enormous that it was difficult for us to actually appreciate it and therefore take it seriously. This is a characteristic that the nuclear threat shares with global climate change; these are realities which surround us and affect the entire planet. The ideology of “mutually assured destruction” which emerged in the latter years of the Cold War might well presage another shift in perspective which could enable humanity to save itself in the longer run. As the emergence of nuclear weapons eventually created international bodies to monitor them, is it possible that threats of this magnitude will foster the kind of global government that Albert Einstein argued was not only necessary but inevitable?
Post Script: In the next fifty or so years we will likely have at least one if not two major contenders for inclusion in this top ten list. These are climate change, which perhaps should be there already, and the development of Artificial Intelligence. Both of these arguably inhabit the Number One threat position toward human life. And both are equally alarming. While AI is less well-defined and, you might say less visible (and we have not achieved it yet) there is an increasingly shrill group of commentators warning that it will be the end of the human species. As for climate change, this is much better defined and documented even if, as of the time of writing, its seems that climate denial might mean humanity will pass the tipping point with catastrophic consequences for life as we know it. All of human history to-date has unfolded in the geologic era of the Holocene, and this is because the climate has been conducive to agriculture, sufficient to feed us all. Now that we are the in the Anthropocene, the human-generated era, all bets are off.