A Very Short History of Humanity

The Earth, from the Galileo spacecraft, 1992.
George Moromisato
13 June 2004

A Very Short History of Humanity
1st version. 13 June 2004.

History is like a TV series. If you start in the middle, you can't figure out what's happening. Who is that guy? Why did they do that? Oh, are they, like, allies? My answer was to write a quick little summary, a sort of "Previously, on Planet Earth..." introduction. I hope it helps to make sense of what's going on today and maybe even foreshadow some future episodes.

I wrote this for my niece, Isabella, who soon will be old enough to take an interest.

My very short history is 4,000 words, which should be almost too much for today's TV generation. It was certainly almost too much for me to write. But if you are interested in more, you would probably enjoy the following books, which I used to create this history:

Blainey, Geoffrey. A Short History of the World. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: Norton, 1997.

Fagan, Brian M., ed. The Oxford Companion to Archeology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hart. Michael H. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. New York: Kensington Publishing, 1992.

Scupin, Raymond, and Christopher R. DeCorse. Anthropology: A Global Perspective, 5th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004.


Out of Africa and Into the World

It started in Africa, in or about the year 50,000 b.c. We were living in the savannahs of East Africa, hunting for meat, gathering berries, and otherwise looking like any other group of two-legged apes, once common in Africa. But something was different about us. We decorated and adorned our bodies like humans do; we created art like humans do; we planned our hunting and gathering like humans do; and most importantly, we improved on everything we did and taught our children everything we knew, in the hopes that their lives would be better. Nobody yet knows what made us different from the other apes—perhaps it was a combination of seeking new ideas and having the language to communicate those ideas to others—but whatever happened so many years ago in Africa finally made us human and that’s when our story starts.

There were only a few thousand of us back then. All of humanity could have fit into a ballpark. Every day under the burning sun the men hunted while the women collected berries and nuts. Every night under the brilliant stars we huddled together and told ourselves stories. And sometimes we were afraid, when the storms washed the land, or when a lion came to hunt, but we knew where to hide and we knew how to fight and every day we learned new things. There were only a few thousand of us back then, but every century there were more of us.

We have always been seekers of new things, and (possibly more importantly) we have always been seekers of fame. It did not take long for some of us to leave the hunting grounds of East Africa and head north across the African plain. As each century passed, we left our footprints on more and more of the world. We walked to the Fertile Crescent, settling in the places we liked, happy near the abundant game and the bountiful earth. Later we walked towards the Northern Star and settled in the craggy majesty of Europe; and we walked East towards the rising sun and walked on the golden steppes of Eurasia. Eventually, we even built boats to reach the land of New Guinea and antipodal Australia. In only a few millennia we had populated three-quarters of the land. It has always been a small world after all.

As we walked and hunted throughout the world we were not always alone. In Europe we met another group of ape-descendants who had left Africa long ago. The Neanderthals were our older cousins. They were larger than us and had hunted in Ice Age Europe with fire and stone for more than 50,000 years. But by then, our skills were great and our tools were powerful. Nobody knows whether we out-hunted them or out-fought them. All we know is that the Neanderthals disappeared soon after we arrived.

Millennia went by and our collection of tools kept increasing: gravers, borers, and scrapers; arrows, knives, and spears of all kinds. Every tool allowed us to live in new places. With fish hooks made from ivory we could live by the coast. With sewing needles made out of bone we could make furs and live in the tundra of Asia. In time we followed the wooly mammoth across the ice and found a whole New World.

We crossed the icy-covered Bering Strait into America no later than 10,000 b.c., just as the glacial blankets were retreating towards the pole. The world was warming, and other species struggled to adapt. The mammoths disappeared, as did the megathere, the saber-toothed cats, the American lions, and the mastodons. But we had no trouble adapting to the changes and in the end we thrived. Nobody knows whether we pushed those other animals towards extinction. All we know is that our campsites were filled with their bones.

And so, at the end of the Ice Age, having started in Africa, we now lived on every continent on Earth, save the coldest one at the bottom of the world. The mammoths and the mastodons were gone, but we hunted other prey. And now everywhere we went, we met ourselves, and all other ape-descendants were gone. There were 4 million of us then, spread-out all over the world, living much as we had lived for the last 40,000 years, and entirely unaware of the wrenching changes that were to come.

To Have and Have-Not

At first, farming was a giant leap backwards. The reedy weeds that passed for crops back then were nothing like the hypermarket corn that you can buy today. But hunting was a source of protein only if the hunt succeeded, and it’s no surprise that we liked the idea of food that couldn’t run away from you.

Eventually, of course, we got better at growing food. But more amazingly, eventually food got better at feeding us. Every spring we planted many different seeds. At harvest time, we could see that some seeds resulted in a better crop than others. The next season we planted the seeds from the best crop. Thirteen-thousand years later we realized what we had done: We had selected the genes that were best at feeding us. We genetically engineered our food in 11,000 b.c. In that way we domesticated barley, grapes, and olives in the Near East; we cultivated soybeans, cabbage, and plums in China; and we grew maize, squash, and chili peppers in Central America.

Even animals were not immune from our influence. Wolves came by our campsites from time to time. Those that attacked us, we killed; those that were friendly, we fed. By 10,000 b.c. the wolves at the fringes of the campsite had turned into dogs sleeping by the fire. Cats, ever more independent, joined us 4,000 years later. The mammoths were dead, but the dogs, the cats, the sheep, the goats, and the cows now lived. The world was being shaped by our hands, consciously or not, and not for the last time.

With our newly altered crops and our loyal animals, getting enough food to eat no longer required sixteen hours a day. For the first time in our history there was a surplus of food. More importantly, we were no longer walking around the world following game to hunt. Our campsites became more permanent and soon they turned into villages. Those two changes in our lives, the surplus of food and the emergence of villages, led to the greatest transformations in our history. Civilization lay ahead.

Economics in 11,000 b.c. was simple. Farmers grew more than enough food for their families, so they gave some of their food to metal-workers. In exchange, metal-workers gave the farmers tools for the farm. But it didn’t take long for things to get complicated. Bandits could take food from the farmers and force the metal-workers to make weapons for them. This forced the farmers and the metal-workers to hire soldiers to protect themselves. In exchange farmers gave the soldiers food and the metal-workers gave them weapons.

But for us, nothing stays the same. We are always looking for new things and (of course) we are always looking for fame. And so, the villages got bigger and bigger, and the farms got better at growing food; and the metal-workers created new tools and new weapons. But it was the soldiers who benefited most. With more and more surplus food, they could support larger and larger armies. And among the soldiers, some ruled over the others, and these rulers became kings and queens of the villages. And though the farmers just had enough food for themselves, the kings and queens, the sultans and viziers, the emperors and their bureaucrats, all controlled the wealth of the kingdom and their word was law (though law itself had not yet been invented).

The division between the haves and have-nots has been with us ever since. In a sense, it was both the cause of civilization and the first product of civilization. But the greatest contribution of civilization has been to provide an environment in which new ideas could prosper. And not the least of those new ideas, was the thought that all people are equal, and that all, not just kings and queens, deserve the same opportunity and freedom to pursue their dreams.

But that idea would have to wait. Other ideas were flourishing that increased the power of a civilization. One of the greatest must have been the realization that the sun, the moon, and the stars moved in predictable ways. More importantly, we discovered that the motion of the sun marked the seasons and could tell us when to start sowing and when to start reaping. Can you imagine a more encouraging discovery? It must have seemed as if the universe itself was helping us to succeed. This discovery was so important to us that we devoted enormous time and energy to build gigantic monuments to help us track the position of the sun. These monuments connected our day-to-day farming life with the ethereal mysteries of the cosmos. This was organized religion in 4,000 b.c.

The greatest idea of this time was probably writing. We are all born with an instinct for spoken language—children will spontaneously develop grammar for a pidgin language that lacks it. But the idea of making marks on clay to represent words only occurred to us in a few places in the world. At first, writing was used mostly for record keeping. But in time, writing served as the repository of knowledge. The wisdom of a thousand of year was preserved in the written word, long after authors were dead. Unlike many other inventions and discoveries, writing improved the process of invention and discovery itself.

And the world had changed again. Mesopotamia in the Near East was the first to see the transforming power for civilization. The city of Ur rose on the Euphrates river by 3500 b.c. In Egypt, the kingdom of the Pharaohs grew on the Nile around the same time. The valley around the Indus river followed in 2500 b.c.; and the Chinese civilization around the Yangtze blossomed in 1800 b.c. Any hunter from the beginning of our story would have been lost in these great cities, unaccustomed to the new roles (farmers, craftsmen, soldiers, kings) and to the new ideas (writing, organized religion, money). To us, on the other hand, a visit would be no more than an exotic vacation. The differences between 2000 b.c. and our time are no more than those that can be covered in a good travel guide.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

In a.d. 1969 two ape-descended human beings walked on the surface of the moon. On Earth, 600 million people watched or listened, using two recent inventions known as television and radio. At the exact same moment, two other ape-descendants held the power to launch thousands of nuclear missiles, very similar to the ones that had just propelled the astronauts to the moon, and loaded with enough destructive power to kill most of those 600 million people.

3,000 years earlier, we struggled to understand the world: What laws governed the motion of the planets? What were rocks, trees, and rivers made out of? What caused diseases and how could they be cured? What was the best way to defeat the enemy? How should people be governed? Many ideas were proposed to answer these and other questions. Some of those ideas succeeded in answering interesting questions—other ideas did not fit the facts. Over the years, the successful ideas were kept while the unsuccessful ones were discarded. And always, ideas built on other ideas, so the more we learned about the world, the easier it was to learn more.

On the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, the civilization of the Greek city-states produced many new ideas. Greek philosophers measured the circumference of the Earth, speculated on the circulation of blood, and launched a massive research-and-development program to develop the catapult. Democracy was another such idea. Instead of a permanent king who ruled over all, Greek democracy called for shared rule, in which each landowner took turns serving in a ruling council.

In the second century b.c. the Greek civilization was conquered by the Romans, but the ideas that the Greeks possessed were not lost—they were simply adopted by the Romans. And in turn, the Romans built on the past and developed new technologies to improve their life.

Many new ideas improved our control over the natural world, but some ideas were more personal and dealt with the questions that all humans have asked: Why am I here? How should I live my life? Why do people suffer? What will happen after I die? Many tried to answer these questions. In northeast India, Buddha began a religion eschewing selfishness and desire. In China, Confucius taught guides of conduct, reinforcing the mutual responsibilities of rulers and subjects. And in the Near East, Jesus Christ preached a religion founded on love. The philosophies of these three men have endured long after their deaths and millions are now inspired by their ideas.

In fourth century a.d. the Roman Empire succumbed to invading Vandals and Goths. The ideas of that civilization were lost for a time, but other empires rose in its place. Mohammed united the tribes of the Arabian peninsula and built a religion and an empire that challenged every realm from Spain to the western mountains of India. The Islamic empire preserved and extended many of the ideas of the ancient world. Algebra was one of those ideas. The number zero was another.

Secure in the middle of Asia, China produced more than its share of ideas and innovations. Books were printed in a.d. 868. and gunpowder was known by a.d. 1044. Nevertheless, the Mongols, united under Genghis Khan, managed to conquer Peking in 1215. China turned inward and tempered its curiosity about the rest of the world. In the early 1400’s China possessed the skills to build ships that could cross the Pacific. But the Middle Kingdom, then the most advanced civilization in the world, saw nothing outside itself that was of interest.

The various tribes and civilizations of America were isolated from each other. The ideas of the Aztecs, for example, were not known to the Incas, and neither was able to learn from the other. In contrast, the civilizations of Europe, Asia, and Africa, all traded with each other and all learned from each other. For example, paper was invented in China in a.d. 105, but Arabs acquired the technology from captured Chinese papermakers in 751, and Europe learned it from the Arabs in the twelfth century. If an American delegation had visited Europe in 1492, they would have found European technology to be almost indistinguishable from magic. Unfortunately for the Native Americans, it was Europe which sent a delegation to America in that year.

The European powers of the sixteenth century lacked the technological sophistication of China or the Arab world. Moreover, bottled-up in Europe, they ended up fighting each other over land, religion, and power. But their competition encouraged innovation and exploration, and when the New World appeared before Columbus, it set off a race to exploit its treasures. Britain and France fought for control of North America while Spain and Portugal raced to subjugate South America. For the civilizations of the Americas, resistance was futile. The Spanish Conquistadores charged on horses (which the Americans had never seen), fought with iron (which sliced through quilted armor), and brought numerous infectious diseases (to which the Native Americans had no immunity).

The competition among the European powers centered as much on technology as it did on conquest, and soon the skills and knowledge of Europe surpassed those of the rest of the world. Discoveries followed rapidly: In 1610, Galileo worked a few laws of motion using, for the first time, experiments and numerical measurement. In 1687, Newton published the Principia which provided us with the tools (calculus among them) to predict the behavior of the planets and control the motion of cannon balls. In 1769, James Watt perfected the steam engine. In 1789, Antoine Lavoisier revolutionized Chemistry. In 1831, Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the principle behind electric motors and generators. In 1859, Charles Darwin explained why we are here when he published On the Origin of Species. And in 1905, on the American coast settled by Britain only three centuries before, Albert Einstein developed the equation E = mc2, which accurately predicted the ferocious power unleashed by an atomic bomb.

Armed with these and a thousand other advances, the European powers fought each other, while the rest of the world served as their pieces and their board. In the eighteenth century, French and British empires fought each other around the world; warships were their technology, and they both fought for control of the seas. The American Colonies seceded during this war, and vowed never to become entangled in the affairs of the Great Powers. In the nineteenth century, France and Britain fought again, this time on land, and with Germany as their pawn. But as the twentieth century opened, France and Britain became reluctant allies as they warily realized that Germany was no longer a pawn, and that the once dormant countries of Russia, China, and Japan, had begun to stir.

We pause our story at the threshold of the twentieth century, the most remarkable century in our history, to look back at where we started. The agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago unleashed two irresistible forces. The first was the increasing power of technology that enabled our competitive human need to amass wealth, power, and status. The second was the system of ideas that tempered and guided the first. But as the power of technology increased exponentially, the temptation to use that power for conquest and control outstripped the guiding force of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. These powers increased so fast and furiously that the deeds and weapons that burned the twentieth century would have been imaginable to the first Fertile Crescent farmers only as visions of Hell.

It is said that the First World War started by accident, but if so, it was an accident that required meticulous preparation. In 1914 Germany and its allies fought against France, Britain and its allies. Everyone thought that this would be just another short European wars, but the power of technology was too great for easy prediction. Machine guns and chemical weapons kept the armies in the muddy trenches for years, and when overwhelming strength finally broke the stalemate on the French and British side, the shock of defeat on the German side virtually ensured a sequel. Other states were also casualties of that war. The Ottoman Empire collapsed, turning the Middle East into a dozen, warring, jigsaw-puzzle pieces. The Russian revolution ushered in a totalitarian leadership that corrupted the social aspirations of the masses to assume dictatorial control over the largest country in Asia. And Imperial Japan realized that technology was power and decided to amass as much of it as it could.

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1932 and fought on the plains of northern China in 1937. In Europe, the bitter defeat of World War I and the Great Depression left Germany prey to the totalitarian ambitions of Adolph Hitler. Germany invaded Poland in 1939 with Russia as its ally. Weak and tired of war, France and Spain succumbed to the German advance by 1941. Britain remained unconquered but exhausted, while the United States, looked the other way, safe on its own continent. But Japan did not trust the strength of the US peace movement to keep the American power out of the war. In 1941 it attacked and destroyed the primary American naval base in the Pacific. In retrospect, this was a miscalculation.

Another miscalculation was Hitler’s betrayal of its Russian ally. German armies invaded Russia in 1941, opening up a disastrous second front. Meanwhile, the latent industrial might of the United States surged into gear. Thousands of tanks and airplanes rumbled out of factories in America. The Western Front was won by the allied powers after an audacious amphibious invasion in 1944. The Eastern Front was won by Russia only after a sacrifice of millions of soldiers. The war now turned to Japan, and once again the economic power of the US was decisive. Battleships and carriers left American docks almost every week. Island by island, the United States shrank the Japanese Empire until American marines where fighting on the shores of Okinawa. In previous centuries, this would have been the end, and the leaders of Japan and the US would have settled on terms. But this was a total and final war; too many people had died and too many people had suffered. This had to be the war to end all wars or else what was the point of fighting? In 1945, the United States sent a message to the Japanese Emperor: Surrender or be annihilated. In any other century this would have been a bluff, and the Japanese treated it as such. But the power of technology was incalculable. A few days later, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, instantly destroying the city center and killing more than 100,000 people. A few days later, another bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. Japan did not wait for a third. The Second World War was over.

The dictatorships of Germany and Japan were defeated and both were rebuilt by the allies into democratic republics. But the dictatorship of Russia endured and prospered. In 1949, Russia tested its own atomic bomb, the same year that China fell under the control of totalitarian communism. To the countries of the Western World it seemed as if the power of their democratic ideas would fail under the contagion of totalitarianism and one-party rule. East and West developed and built more powerful nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them. Every person on Earth lived at the endpoint of a missile’s ballistic flight path. And just as it seemed that this balance of terror would go on forever, the world changed again.

In the end, the power of ideas was just as great as the power of technology. The world was truly small now, and everyone could see how the rest of the world lived. As the people of the communist world saw the success of the Western economies, they yearned to follow their example. In 1989, the Soviet Empire collapsed, and the fear of nuclear holocaust collapsed with it.

Being Human

It all started in a very different world. The warmth and abundance of those African savannahs seem now like a paradise lost. We are uncomfortable now, in our mechanized and technological society. But we are a young and promising species and we should not give up hope. The peace and balance of the natural world appears so only because we live our lives in an instant of geologic time. Over a long enough time, species rise and fall, battling with each other to populate the world with their descendants. Life defies balance because it always struggles to be better than it is.

And so it is with us. Our history is filled with terror, death, treachery, and cruelty, but we are always struggling to be better than we are. Which is not to say that there are no problems. We no longer live in fear of nuclear annihilation, but we (rightly) worry about environmental collapse, global pandemics, and persistent economic inequalities. But the future will be better than the past as long as the men and women of the present struggle to make it so. That at least has never changed.