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The Mental Floss History of the World
An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits
Africa and After
(60,000 BCE-1500 BCE)
In a nutshell
If there's one thing you can say about human beings, it's that we're always hungry. When modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) left Africa to conquer the globe more than sixty thousand years ago, they settled near sources of food, and those areas that produced more food became more populated. Some groups found forests with game to hunt, while others wandered grasslands, tending herds of cows. In Stone Age Mexico, coastal peoples subsisted on shellfish for thousands of years, leaving a huge heap of clam shells 240 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 21 feet tall.
Another thing about us: we don't like to share. Tribes constantly battled for territory, and some were pushed into less friendly environments—but nomads made the best use of limited resources. Arabs conquered the vast Arabian Peninsula by taming the camel, a hardy desert animal that carried them between lush oases. Central Asians took to horse- and sheepherding, ranging across thousands of miles in search of rare good pastures. Inuit learned to build homes out of ice.
But in terms of calories per acre, grain cultivation feeds many more people than fishing, hunting, or raising domestic animals. Grain cultivation began around 9000 BCE and soon spread around the world, and places that grew grain experienced a population explosion (oh yeah, apparently we also like to have sex . . . a lot). Soon, there was so much food that somepeople could stop working in the fields and specialize in crafts. Expert potters, weavers, and masons were soon followed by tailors, leather tanners, miners, and other trades. Yes, that includes "the world's oldest profession."
Around 8000 BCE, the world's first civilizations—defined as people living in cities—began appearing. The craftspeople lived together in encampments for safety against rival groups and for convenience of trade. Cities also became centers of government—in most cases, likely a hereditary monarchy descended from old tribal authority. Little is known about the world's first governments, but they were probably dominated by a single family or clan passing authority from generation to generation, with a dominant man becoming ruler each time. In prehistory, governments along matriarchal (woman-centered) or communal (leaderless) lines may have existed, but by the beginning of recorded history, these had been snuffed out. Each of the world's first civilizations was ruled by one man, a king. Men have hogged the remote ever since.
The king's job was simple: to protect his followers. In general, the people believed that the king's authority came from the immortal gods, so kings were closely associated with religion from the get-go. In some places the king was also the high priest, in charge of sacrificial offerings and ceremonies intended to bring good harvests. In other places, the king worked closely with the high priest or employed soothsayers to help divine the future.
While rival kings could cause trouble, the biggest enemy facing early civilizations was nature itself, which operated at the will of invisible gods. Droughts, floods, and other natural disasters could destroy crops, bringing starvation and misery. Translation: If everyone had enough to eat, the gods were happy with the leader; if there wasn't enough to eat, well . . . It's no surprise that across the "civilized" world, each ruler's first act was to store grain against hard times.
To make this food-insurance system work, kings ordered their subjects to turn over some grain during good times, which could be distributed again in an emergency. Grain was stored in huge stone or mud-brick silos, called granaries. Priests were in charge of keeping track of which grain had come from which landowner.
To help remember the grainy details, priests invented writing. Recording quantities, names, and dates on clay tablets in turn led to accounting and banking. Soon regular people began quantifying goods such as livestock, tools, and luxury items. As writing spread to society at large, merchants, bankers, and scribes joined the other craftsmen who lived in cities. Writing led to the first commercial contracts (e.g., "for these four pigs, you bring me two cows in three days"—we're not saying it was glamorous).
However, not every culture chose to settle down and farm. The differences between cities and nomadic groups created a lot of friction. For one thing the cities' accumulation of wealth, in the form of surplus grain and other goods, naturally attracted attention from people living a more marginal existence outside the cities. Nomads often enjoyed a tactical advantage over city folk, and men from the wilds, skilled in horse-mounted warfare, have long terrified the simple farmer on the outskirts of town. The nomadic threat still exists today—but by 1500 BCE, the power of settled societies based on farming was already uncontestable. The history of civilization is their story.
What Happened When
Homo habilis, earliest protohuman ancestor, uses stone tools in Africa.
Various protohuman ancestors spread out across the planet.
Hominids master fire.
Neanderthals live in Europe.
The Sahara is a lush grassland.
Modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, appear in Africa.
Homo sapiens sapiens spread out over the planet.
Polar ice caps begin to melt, raising sea levels four hundred feet.
The Natufian culture domesticates wheat, inventing agriculture.
The world's first cities emerge at Catal Huyuk and Jericho.
The Sahara has become a desert.
Catal Huyuk and Jericho are mysteriously abandoned.
The first Sumerian cities, Eridu and Ur, are founded.
The first cities are founded in Egypt.
Egypt is united by the pharaohs and becomes the world's first state.
China's first civilization begins (Longshan culture).
Harappan civilization flourishes in the Indus River Valley.
Egyptians complete the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
Babylon is founded by the Amorites.
China's first royal family, the Xia dynasty, rules.
Abraham leaves Ur for Canaan.
Harappan civilization disappears.
1600 BCE The Mental Floss History of the World
Indo-Europeans establish Hittite and Mitanni kingdoms in Mesopotamia.
An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits. Copyright © by Erik Sass. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.