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.


Plows, Plagues and Petroleum

plows plagues and petroleum

Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate

By W F Ruddiman

Princeton University Press (2010)

Book Review

In Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, paleoclimatologist W F Ruddiman makes the argument that the human species began interfering with climate – by increasing CO2 emissions – long before they began burning fossil fuels during the industrial revolution. After studying millions of years of ice core records, Ruddiman concludes that agricultural activities that began roughly 10,000 years ago increased atmospheric CO2 sufficiently to reduce planetary cooling and reduce a long overdue ice age.

Ruddiman’s book carefully traces the domestication of local plants and animals that occurred simultaneously in Mesopotamia, China, Africa and the Americas between 8,500 and 4,000 BC. Plant and animal domestication was accompanied by large scale clearing of forest land for fields and pasture. This massive loss of trees was accompanied by a big increase in atmospheric CO2.

Ruddiman has always been curious about periodic drops in CO2 concentrations that began around 540 AD. Theorizing that these dips correlated with temporary declines in global population, he examined historical records for evidence of wars, famines and pandemics that might have wiped out large numbers of people. What he discovered was a close link between infectious epidemics and declines in CO2 concentrations, as forests reclaimed large swaths of agricultural land.

The first epidemic in the recorded history was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Roman Empire in 540 AD. By 590 AD, it had wiped out 40% of Mediterranean Europe. European plague outbreaks continued to occur every ten to fifteen years until 749, when a long plague-free period was accompanied by a rebound in population growth, deforestation and atmospheric CO2. By 1089, virtually all of Europe was deforested.

An even more severe plague pandemic occurred in the mid-1300s, wiping out a third of Europe (25 million people). In some cities, mortality rates were as high as 70%. The resulting labor shortage gave serfs who survived immense bargaining power. As they moved from estate to estate seeking good working conditions, they began to be treated as tenant farmers rather than slaves.

There were new plague outbreaks, accompanied by reduced atmospheric CO2, in the mid-1500s and mid-1600s.

The large pre-industrial drop in CO2 emissions occurred with what Ruddiman refers to as the North American pandemic (1500-1750. This was caused by the arrival of Europeans – who Ruddiman describes as flea infested, lice ridden peoples who shunned bathing – with a host of illnesses (smallpox, influenza, hepatitis, diphtheria, measles, mumps, whopping cough, scarlet fever, cholera and plague) to which native populations had no immunity. This was in addition to untold numbers of natives slaughtered by Europeans.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the population of North America was estimated between 50-60 million. Ninety percent (50 million) would die over the next 250 years. This amounted to 10% of the global population. Nearly all their agricultural settlements were reclaimed by forest, resulting in the third and largest pre-industrial drop in atmospheric CO2.

Download a free PDF of this book at Plows, Plagues and Petroleum