History of the World: BBC Version

Survival: History of the World Episode 1

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This informative eight-episode BBC series is framed as a history of the species Homo sapiens. In reality, it’s a gruesome history of Western imperialism, but I didn’t figure this out until Episode 7. Obviously aimed at a millenial audience, the melodramatic reenactments are too long and a bit nauseating (especially the really gory scenes depicting human sacrifice and torture).

Part 1 begins 70,000 years ago with the 1,000 fully evolved members of the homo sapiens species leaving Africa by crossing the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. At this point in their development, they possess both language and weapons. Following the trails created by migrating herds, they head east towards India and South East Asia and north towards Europe. Some would reach Australia by 50,000 BC, Europe by 45,000 BC and North America (via the Bering Strait) by 15,000 BC (other non-BBC sources suggest they reached North America by 30,000 – 40,000 BC and were well in place by 15,000 BC).

In Europe, homo sapiens encounter Neanderthals, a second species of human apes which migrated there (from Africa presumably?) around 150,000 BC. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis coexisted in Europe (and according to modern DNA analysis interbred) for between 5,000 – 10,000 years. The Neanderthals become extinct, around 30,000 BC, possibly because tools and language help Homo sapiens compete more successfully for limited game.

During the 27,000 – 16,000 BC ice age, most of Europe is covered with vast sheets of ice. As the climate begins to warm, homo sapiens hunter gatherers in the fertile crescent region of the Middle East learn how to domesticate plants and animals. This knowledge spreads north to Europe over the next 1,000 years. A parallel agricultural revolution also occurs in China, India and South America.

This new found ability to produce their own food leads nomadic hunter gatherers to begin settling in permanent towns and villages.

In cataloguing the earliest evidence of “civilized” society, the filmmakers start with 4,000 BC China, which had a population of about 2 million. Next they highlight the Minoan civilization in Crete around 3,700 BC. Estimated to number approximately 100,000, the Minoans produce aqueducts, multistory architecture, and bronze weapons and jewelry. They also engage in human sacrifice to appease gods who inflict earthquakes and volcanoes on them.

In 3,200 BC Egyptian civilization develops the first written language, which enables them to develop a legal system and the first recorded history.

Oldest UK Human Remains 400,000 Years Old

The World of Stonehenge: Episode 1 The Age of Ice

BBC (2018)

Film Review

In this documentary, Scottish archeologist Neil Oliver explores the archeological evidence for the earliest human settlement of the UK.

The oldest remains he presents are those of Boxgrove Man (or Woman), whose relatives left thousands of tools (mainly hand axes). Carbon dating reveals the remains (and tools) to be 400,000 years old. Genetic testing reveals that Boxgrove Man/Woman was distinct from Homo sapiens, the human species that evolved in Africa. He/she may or may not be related to the Neanderthals.

The next oldest human remains are 33,000 years old and are genetically identical to Homo sapiens (ie modern man). Homo sapiens hunters migrated to Europe from African around 40,000 years ago. These 33,000 year-old remains, which predate the last Ice Age, stem from a period during which Britain was still a peninsula attached to the European mainland and 20,000 to 30,000 Homo sapiens hunters populated all of Europe.

According to Oliver, the last Ice Age began 30,000 years ago and reached its peak 18,000 years ago. However by 12,000 BC, the ice sheets retreated sufficiently for a few human hunters to return to the UK. Archeologists have discovered human artifacts and cave art dating from 14,000 years ago.

A second Big Freeze engulfed all of Europe between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago. Geological evidence reveals Britain, which was still a peninsula, was repopulated with hunters around 10,000 years ago and has been continuously populated ever since.

Around 4,000 BC years ago, one of the largest tsunamis ever recorded with set off by a giant landslide in Norway. Creating ten meter high waves, it traveled 40 kilometers inland, killing all human settlers on the west coast of Britain. It also created the English Channel, which presently separates the UK from Western Europe.

 

Collapse: Revisiting the Adam and Eve Myth

short history of progress

A Short History of Progress

by Ronald Wright (2004 Caroll and Graf)

Book Review

The theme of A Short History of Progress is social collapse. In it, Canadian historical archeologist Ronald Wright summarizes humankind’s biological and cultural evolution, as well as tracing the role of ecological destruction in the collapse of the some of the most significant civilizations (Sumer, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Easter Island and the Mayan civilization). Exhaustively researched, the book advances the theory that many of colossal blunders made by modern leaders are very old mistakes made by earlier civilizations. Wright starts with the mystery of the agricultural revolution that occurred around 10,000 BC, when Homo sapiens ceased to rely on hunting and berry-picking and began growing their own food. Twelve thousand years ago, the global population was still small enough that there was more than ample wild food to feed them. Yet for some reason, a half dozen human settlements in widely separated regions simultaneously domesticated plants and animals. Why?

The Importance of Stable Climate

Citing extensive geological and archeological evidence, Wright suggests plant and animal domestication may have been triggered by unprecedented climate stability. Prior to 10,000 BC, the earth’s climate was wildly unstable, with ice ages developing and abating over periods as short as a decade or so. These sudden periodic changes in climate forced our hunter gatherer ancestors to continually migrate in search of food. The climate stabilization that occurred following the last ice age (around 10,000 BC) enabled them to settle in larger groups, save seeds to cultivate crops that took months to harvest, and engage in trade for other basic necessities.

Wright goes on to describe a number of diverse civilizations that arose and collapsed between 4,000 and 1,000 BC – and their unfortunate tendency towards mindless habitat destruction and runaway population growth, consumption, and technological development. In each case, an identical social transformation takes place as resources become increasingly scarce. As prehistoric peoples find it harder and harder to feed themselves, inevitably a privileged elite emerges to confiscate communal lands and enslave their inhabitants. They then install a despotic tyrant who hastens ecological collapse by wasting scare resources on a spree of militarization and temple or pyramid building. This process is almost always accompanied by wholesale murder, torture, and unproductive wars.

Wright relates this typical pattern of ecological destruction and collapse to a series of “progress traps,” in which specific human inventions turn out to have extremely negative unintended consequences. Instead of fixing the underlying problem they’re meant to solve, the inventions create an even worse environmental mess. It’s a pattern so common in prehistory that it’s become enshrined in the Adam and Eve and similar creation myths. All describe how the quest for knowledge ended humankind’s access to freely available and abundant food and forced them to produce their own.

Our Ancestors Wipe Out the Neanderthals and Mammoths

According to Wright, the first of these “progress traps” was the invention of weapons (for hunting) by early Homo sapiens. Wright blames this early invention of weapons for the first (archeologically) recorded instance of genocide – namely the wiping out of Homo Neanderthalis (Neanderthal man) by Cro-Magnon man between 40,000 and 30,000 BC. This was followed by other important mass extinctions as Homo sapiens spread out across the globe between 30,000 and 15,000 BC. The most recent archeological evidence suggests the mammoth, camel and horse became extinct in North America during this period because of perfected hunting techniques that allowed human beings to carry out mass slaughters (involving as many as 1,000 mammoths or 100,000 horses simultaneously).

Some archeologists attribute the end of hunting as a predominate food source (in numerous regions simultaneously) and the rise of plant-based diets to the decline in game animals stemming from this indiscriminate slaughter. The birth of agriculture, in turn leads to widespread deforestation and soil erosion in all the ancient civilizations, accompanied by soil salinization from over-irrigation. According to Wright, the entire cycle takes around a thousand years, which happens to be the average lifespan of most historic civilizations.

Turning Iraq Into a Desert

The first civilization to collapse in this way was Sumer (in southern Iraq), which flourished between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. The Sumerians invented irrigation, the city, the corporation (in the form of priestly bureaucracies), writing (for trade purposes), hereditary kings and slavery. By 2,500 BC, soil salinization (from irrigation) had caused a massive drop-off in crop yields. Instead of implementing environmental reforms, the ruling elite tried to intensify production by confiscating communal lands, introducing slavery and human sacrifice and engaging in chronic warfare.

From Sumer the cradle of civilization moved north to Mesopotamia (Babylon), in the region of northern Iraq and Syria, and humankind created one of the first man made deserts out of a region lush in date palms and other native vegetation.

Around 1,000 BC, similar civilizations also appeared in India, China, Mexico, Peru and parts of Europe. The Greeks (around 600 BC) were the first with any conscious awareness that they were destroying their own habitat. Plato writes a vivid description of the dangers of erosion and runoff from deforestation. The Athenian leader Solon tried to halt increasing ecological devastation by outlawing debt serfdom, food exports, and farming on steep slopes. Pisistratus offered grants to farmers to plant olive trees for soil reclamation.

Wright makes a good case for similar environmental destruction, rather than barbarian invasion, causing Rome to collapse. By the time of Augustus, Italian land had become so degraded that Rome was forced to import most of their food from North Africa, Gaul, and other colonies.

The Role of the New World

The most interesting section of the book concerns the role the New World played in rescuing the environmentally decimated European civilization. According to Wright, it was mainly New World gold and silver that capitalized the industrial revolution. However he also stresses the importance of the New World foods that were added to the European diet at a point where the population had outstripped their food supply. Maize (sweet corn) and potatoes are twice as productive (in terms of calories per acre) as wheat and barley, the traditional European staples. He also makes the point – ominously – that, despite all our apparent technological progress, humankind hasn’t introduced one new food since the Stone Age. In fact, Homo sapiens hasn’t evolved culturally or intellectually since our ancestors failed to confront resource scarcity in a way conducive to their survival.

If anything, given mass extinctions, potentially catastrophic climate change, and a growing scarcity of energy, water and fertile soil, we seem to be repeating the old maladaptive pattern. As examples, Wright cites the idiotic war on terrorism, which has ironic parallels with the chronic warfare the Sumerians launched 4,000 years ago. He also cites the rise of the New Right and the folly of trying to address resource scarcity by consolidating wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite.