The Other Worlds of the Ancient Past

So far in this account huge areas of the world have still hardly been mentioned. Though Africa has priority in the story of the evolution and spread of humanity, and though the entry of men to the Americas and Australasia calls for remark, once those remote events have been touched upon, the beginnings of history focus attention elsewhere. The homes of the creative cultures which have dominated the story of civilization were the Near East and Aegean, India and China. In all these areas some meaningful break in rhythm can be seen somewhere in the first millennium BC; there are no neat divisions, but there is a certain rough synchrony which makes it reasonable to divide their histories in this era. But for the great areas of which nothing has so far been said, such a chronology would be wholly unrevealing.

This is, in the main, because none of them had achieved levels of civilization comparable to those already reached in the Mediterranean and Asia by 1000 BC. Remarkable things had been done by then in western Europe and the Americas, but when they are given due weight there still remains a qualitative gap between the complexity and resources of the societies which produced them and those of the ancient civilizations which were to found durable traditions. The interest in the ancient history of these areas lies rather in the way they illustrate that varied roads might lead towards civilization and that different responses might be demanded by different environmental challenges than in what they left as their heritage. In one or two instances they may allow us to reopen arguments about what constitutes ‘civilization’, but for the period of which we have so far spoken the story of Africa, of the Pacific peoples, of the Americas and western Europe is not history but still prehistory. There is little or no correspondence between its rhythms and what was going on in the Near East or Asia, even when there were (as in the case of Africa and Europe though not of the Americas) contacts with them.

Africa is a good place to start, because that is where the human story first began. Historians of Africa, sensitive to any slighting or imagined slighting of their subject, like to dwell upon Africa’s importance in prehistory. As things earlier in this book have shown, they are quite right to do so; most of the evidence for the life of the earliest hominids is African, they spread from it into Eurasia and beyond, and the first humans in due course followed them. Then, though, in the Upper Palaeolithic and the Neolithic the focus moves elsewhere. Much was still to happen in Africa but the period of its greatest influence on the rest of the world is long over.


Why this is so we cannot say, but one primary force may well have been a change of climate. Even recently, say in about 3000 BC, the Sahara supported animals such as elephants and hippopotami, which have long since disappeared there; more remarkably, it was the home of pastoral peoples herding cattle, sheep and goats. Today, the Sahara is the fastest-growing desert in the world. But what is now desert and arid canyon was once fertile savannah intersected and drained by rivers running down to the Niger and by another system 750 miles long, running into Lake Tchad. The peoples who lived in the hills where these rivers rose have left a record of their life in rock painting and engraving very different from the earlier cave art of Europe which depicted little but animal life and only an occasional human. This record also suggests that the Sahara was then a meeting place of Negroid and what some have called ‘Europoid’ peoples, those who were, perhaps, the ancestors of later Berbers and Tuaregs. One of these peoples seems to have made its way down from Tripoli with horses and chariots and perhaps to have conquered the pastoralists. Whether they did so or not, their presence (like that of the Negroid peoples of the Sahara) shows that Africa’s vegetation was once very different from that of later times: horses need grazing. Yet when we reach historical times the Sahara is already desiccated, the sites of a once prosperous people are abandoned, the animals have gone.

Perhaps, therefore, it is climate which drives us back upon Egypt as the beginning of African history. Yet Egypt exercised little creative influence beyond the limits of the Nile valley. Though there were contacts with other cultures, it is not easy to penetrate them. Presumably the Libyans of Egyptian records were the sort of people who are shown with their chariots in the Sahara cave-paintings, but we do not certainly know. When the Greek historian Herodotus came to write about Africa in the fifth century BC, he found little to say about what went on outside Egypt. His Africa (which he called Libya) was a land defined by the Nile, which he took to run south, roughly parallel to the Red Sea, and then to swing westwards. South of the Nile there lay for him in the east the Ethiopians, in the west a land of deserts, without inhabitants. He could obtain no information about it, though a travellers’ tale spoke of a dwarfish people who were sorcerers. Given his sources, this was topographically by no means an unintelligent construction, but Herodotus had grasped only a small part of the ethnic truth. The Ethiopians, like the old inhabitants of upper Egypt, were members of the Hamitic peoples who make up one of three racial groups in Africa at the end of the Stone Age later distinguished by anthropologists. The other two were the ancestors of the modern Bushmen (now sometimes called the ‘San’ people), inhabiting, roughly, the open areas running from the Sahara south to the Cape, and the Negroid group, eventually dominant in the central forests and West Africa. (Opinion is divided about the origin and distinctiveness of a fourth group, the Pygmies.) To judge by the stone tools, cultures associated with Hamitic or proto-Hamitic peoples seem to have been the most advanced in Africa before the coming of farming. This was, except in Egypt, a slow evolution and in Africa the hunting and gathering cultures of prehistory have coexisted with agriculture right down to modern times.

The same growth which occurred elsewhere when food began to be produced in quantity soon changed African population patterns, first by permitting the dense settlements of the Nile valley, which were the preliminary to Egyptian civilization, then by building up the Negroid population south of the Sahara, along the grasslands separating desert and equatorial forest in the second and first millennia BC. This seems to reflect a spread of agriculture southwards from the north. It also reflects the discovery of nutritious crops better suited to tropical conditions and other soils than the wheat and barley which flourished in the Nile valley. These were the millets and rice of the savannahs. The forest areas could not be exploited until the coming of other plants suitable to them from South-East Asia and eventually America. None of this happened before the birth of Christ. Thus was established one of the major characteristics of African history, a divergence of cultural trends within the continent.

By that time, iron had come to Africa and it had already produced the first exploitation of African ores. This occurred in the first independent African state other than Egypt of which we have information, the kingdom of Kush, high up the Nile, in the region of Khartoum. This had originally been the extreme frontier zone of Egyptian activity. After Nubia had been absorbed, the Sudanese principality which existed to its south was garrisoned by the Egyptians, but in about 1000 BC it emerged as an independent kingdom, showing itself deeply marked by Egyptian civilization. Probably its inhabitants were Hamitic people and its capital was at Napata, just below the Fourth Cataract. By 730 BC Kush was strong enough to conquer Egypt and five of its kings ruled as the pharaohs known to history as the Twenty-Fifth or ‘Ethiopian’ Dynasty. None the less, they could not arrest the Egyptian decline. When the Assyrians fell on Egypt, the Kushite dynasty ended. Though Egyptian civilization continued in the kingdom of Kush, a pharaoh of the next dynasty invaded it in the early sixth century BC. After this, the Kushites, too, began to push their frontiers further to the south and in so doing their kingdom underwent two important changes. It became more Negroid, its language and literature reflecting a weakening of Egyptian trends, and it extended its reach over new territories which contained both iron ore and the fuel needed to smelt it. The technique of smelting had been learnt from the Assyrians. The new Kushite capital at Meroe became the metallurgical centre of Africa. Iron weapons gave the Kushites the advantages over their neighbours which northern peoples had enjoyed in the past over Egypt, and iron tools extended the area which could be cultivated. On this basis was to rest some 300 years of prosperity and civilization in the Sudan, though later than the age we are now considering.

It is clear that the history of man in the Americas is much shorter than that in Africa or, indeed, than anywhere else. About 20,000 years ago, after Mongoloid peoples had crossed into North America from Asia, they filtered slowly southwards for thousands of years. Cave-dwellers have been traced in the Peruvian Andes as many as 15,000 years ago. The Americas contain very varied climates and environments; it is scarcely surprising, therefore, that archaeological evidence shows that they threw up almost equally varied patterns of life, based on different opportunities for hunting, food-gathering and fishing. What they learnt from one another is probably undiscoverable. What is indisputable is that some of these cultures arrived at the invention of agriculture independently of the Old World.

Disagreement is still possible about when precisely this happened because, paradoxically, a great deal is known about the early cultivation of plants at a time when the scale on which this took place cannot reasonably be called agriculture. It is, nevertheless, a change which comes later than in the Fertile Crescent. Maize began to be cultivated in Mexico in about 2700 BC, but had been improved by 2000 BC in Meso-America into something like the plant we know today. This is the sort of change which made possible the establishment of large settled communities. Further south, potatoes and manioc (another starchy root vegetable) also begin to appear at about this time and a little later there are signs that maize has spread southwards from Mexico. Everywhere, though, change is gradual; to think of an ‘agricultural revolution’ as a sudden event is even less appropriate in the Americas than in the Near East. Yet it had an impact which was truly revolutionary not only in time, but beyond America itself. The sweet potato, a native of Mexico and Central America, was to spread across the Pacific to sustain island farming communities centuries before the European galleons of the colonial era took it to Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Philippines.

Farming, villages, weaving and pottery all appear in Central America before the second millennium BC and towards the end of it come the first stirrings of the culture which produced the first recognized American civilization, that of the Olmecs of the eastern Mexican coast. It was focused, it seems, on important ceremonial sites with large earth pyramids. At these sites have been found colossal monumental sculpture and fine carvings of figures in jade. The style of this work is highly individual. It concentrates on human and jaguar-like images, sometimes fusing them. For several centuries after 800 BC it seems to have prevailed right across Central America as far south as what is now El Salvador. It appears apparently without antecedents or warning in a swampy, forested region which makes it hard to explain in economic terms except that maize could be harvested four times a year where there was open land in tropics supplying reliable rainfall and warmth all year. Yet we do not know much else which helps to explain why civilization, which elsewhere required the relative plenty of the great river valleys, should in America have sprung from such unpromising soil.

Olmec civilization transmitted something to the future, for the gods of the later Aztecs were to be descendants of those of the Olmecs. It may also be that the early hieroglyphic systems of Central America originate in Olmec times, though the first survivals of the characters of these systems follow only a century or so after the disappearance of Olmec culture in about 400 BC. Again, we do not know why or how this happened. Much further south, in Peru, a culture called Chavin (after a great ceremonial site) also appeared and survived a little later than Olmec civilization to the north. It, too, had a high level of skill in working stone and spread vigorously only to dry up mysteriously.


What should be thought of these early lunges in the direction of civilization is very hard to see. Whatever their significance for the future, they are millennia behind the appearance of civilization elsewhere, whatever the cause of that may be. When the Spanish landed in the New World nearly 2000 years after the disappearance of Olmec culture they would still find most of its inhabitants working with stone tools. They would also find complicated societies (and the relics of others) which had achieved prodigies of building and organization far outrunning, for example, anything Africa could offer after the decline of ancient Egypt. All that is clear is that there are no unbreakable sequences in these matters.

The only other area where a startlingly high level of achievement in stone-working was reached was western Europe. This has led enthusiasts to claim it as another seat of early ‘civilization’, almost as if its inhabitants were some sort of depressed class needing historical rehabilitation. Europe has already been touched upon as a supplier of metals to the ancient Near East. Yet, though much that we now find interesting was happening there in prehistoric times, it does not provide a very impressive or striking story. In the history of the world, prehistoric Europe has little except illustrative importance. To the great civilizations which rose and fell in the river valleys of the Near East, Europe was largely an irrelevance. It sometimes received the impress of the outside world but contributed only marginally and fitfully to the process of historic change. A parallel might be Africa at a later date, interesting for its own sake, but not for any special and positive contribution to world history. It was to be a very long time before men would even be able to conceive that there existed a geographical, let alone a cultural, unity corresponding to the later idea of Europe. To the ancient world, the northern lands where the barbarians came from before they appeared in Thrace were irrelevant (and most of them probably came from further east anyway). The north-western hinterland was only important because it occasionally disgorged commodities wanted in Asia and the Aegean.

There is not much to say, therefore, about prehistoric Europe, but in order to get a correct perspective, one more point should be made. Two Europes must be distinguished. One is that of the Mediterranean coasts and their peoples. Its rough boundary is the line which delimits the cultivation of the olive. South of this line, literate, urban civilization comes fairly quickly once we are into the Iron Age, and apparently after direct contact with more advanced areas. By 800 BC the coasts of the western Mediterranean were already beginning to experience fairly continuous intercourse with the East. The Europe north and west of this line is a different matter. In this area literacy was never achieved in antiquity, but was imposed much later by conquerors. It long resisted cultural influences from the south and east - or at least did not offer a favourable reception to them - and it is for 2000 years important not for its own sake but because of its relationship to other areas. Its role was not entirely passive: the movements of its peoples, its natural resources and skills all at times impinged marginally on events elsewhere. But in 1000 BC - to take an arbitrary date - or even at the beginning of the Christian era, Europe has little of its own to offer the world except its minerals, and nothing which represents cultural achievement on the scale reached by the Near East, India or China. Europe’s age was still to come; hers would be the last great civilization to appear.

This was not because the continent’s natural endowment was unfavourable. It contains a disproportionately large area of the world’s land naturally suitable for cultivation. It would be surprising if this had not favoured an early development of agriculture and the archaeological evidence demonstrates this. The relative ease of simple agriculture in Europe may have had a negative effect on social evolution; in the great river valleys men had to work collectively to control irrigation and exploit the soil if they were to survive, while in much of Europe an individual family could scratch a living on its own. There is no need to fall into extravagant speculation about the origins of western individualism in order to recognize that here is something very distinctive and potentially very important.

Scholarly consensus now accepts that both agriculture and copper-working (the earliest form of metallurgy) made their way into and across Europe from Anatolia and the Near East. Thessaly and northern Greece had farming communities a little after 7000 BC. By 5000 BC others existed as far west as northern France and the Netherlands, and soon after appeared in the British Isles. The main routes by which this spread occurred had been the Balkans and their river valleys, but at the same time farming had been taken up on Mediterranean islands and along the coasts of southern Europe as far west as Andalucia. By 4000 BC copper was being worked in the Balkans. It no longer seems likely, then, that either this technique or agriculture arose spontaneously among Europeans, though they quickly imitated others who brought these skills with them as migrants. It took thousands of years, though, for Europe to acquire the major cereals from the Near East.

Most of the north-western and western parts of Europe were occupied in about 3000 BC by peoples sometimes termed western Mediterranean, who were gradually squeezed during the third millennium by others from the east. By about 1800 BC the resulting cultures seem to have fragmented sufficiently distinctly for us to identify among them the ancestors of the Celts, the most important of prehistoric European peoples, a society of warriors rather than traders or prospectors. They had wheeled transport. One enterprising group had reached the British Isles. There is much disagreement about how far Celtic influence is to be traced, but it will not much disfigure the truth if we think of Europe divided in about 1800 BC into three groups of peoples. The ancestors of the Celts then occupied most of modern France, Germany, the Low Countries and upper Austria. To their east were the future Slavs, to the north (in Scandinavia) the future Teutonic tribes. Outside Europe, in northern Scandinavia and northern Russia, were the Finns, linguistically non-Indo-European.

Except in the Balkans and Thrace, the movements of these peoples affected the older centres of civilization only in so far as they affected access to the resources of the areas into which they moved. This was above all a matter of minerals and skills. As the demands of the Near East civilizations grew, so did Europe’s importance. After the appearance of the first centres of metallurgy in the Balkans developments in southern Spain, Greece and the Aegean and central Italy had followed by 2000 BC. In the later Bronze Age, metal-working was advanced to high levels even in places where no local ores were available. We have here one of the earliest examples of the emergence of crucial economic areas based on the possession of special resources. Copper and tin shaped the penetration of Europe and also its coastal and river navigation because these commodities were needed and were only available in the Near East in small quantities. Europe was the major primary producer of the ancient metallurgical world, as well as a major manufacturer. Metal-working was carried to a high level and produced beautiful objects long before that of the Aegean, but it is possibly an argument against exaggerated awe about material factors in history that this skill, even when combined with a bigger supply of metals after the collapse of Mycenaean demand, did not release European culture for the achievement of a full and complex civilization.

Ancient Europe had, of course, one other art form which remains indisputably impressive. It is preserved in the thousands of megalithic monuments to be found stretching in a broad arc from Malta, Sardinia and Corsica, around through Spain and Brittany to the British Isles and Scandinavia. They are not peculiar to Europe but are more plentiful there, and appear to have been erected earlier - some in the fifth millennium BC - there than in other continents. ‘Megalith’ is a word derived from the Greek for ‘large stone’ and many of the stones used are very large indeed. Some of these monuments are tombs, roofed and lined with slabs of stone, some are stones standing singly, or in groups. Some of them are laid out in patterns which run for miles across country; others enclose small areas like groves of trees. The most complete and striking megalithic site is Stonehenge, in southern England, whose creation is now thought to have taken about 900 years to its completion in about 2100 BC. What such places originally looked like is hard to guess or imagine. Their modern austerity and weathered grandeur may well be misleading; great places of human resort are not like that when in use and it may be that the huge stones were daubed in ochres and blood, hung with skins and fetishes. They may well often have looked more like totem-poles than the solemn, brooding shapes we see today. Except for the tombs, it is not easy to say what these works were for, though it has been argued that some were giant clocks or huge solar observatories, aligned to the rising and setting of sun, moon and stars at the major turning-points of the astronomical year. Careful observation underlay building like that, even if it fell far short in detail and precision to what was done by astronomers in Babylon and Egypt.

These relics represent huge concentrations of labour and argue for well-developed social organization. Stonehenge contains several blocks weighing about fifty tons apiece and they had to be brought some eighteen miles to the site before being erected. There are some eighty pieces of stone there weighing about five tons which came 150 miles or so from the mountains of Wales. The peoples who put up Stonehenge without the help of wheeled vehicles, like those who built the carefully lined tombs of Ireland, the lines of standing stones of Brittany or the dolmens of Denmark, were capable of work on a scale approaching that of ancient Egypt, therefore, though without its fineness or any means of recording their purposes and intentions except these great constructions themselves. Such skill, coupled with the fact of the monuments’ distribution in a long chain within short distances of the sea, has suggested that their explanation might lie in what was learnt from wandering stonemasons from the East, perhaps from Crete, Mycenae, or the Cyclades, where the technique of dressing and handling such masses was understood. But recent advances in dating have removed a plausible hypothesis; megaliths were being put up in Brittany and western Iberia 4800-4000 BC before any significant Mediterranean or Near Eastern building, Stonehenge was probably complete before Mycenaean times, tombs in Spain and Brittany antedate the pyramids, and Malta’s mysterious temples with their huge carved blocks of building stone were there before 3000 BC. Nor do the monuments have to form part of any one process of distribution or Atlantic phenomenon. They may all have been achieved more or less in isolation by four or five cultures made up of relatively small and simple agricultural societies in touch with one another, and the motives and occasions of their building may have been very different. Like its agriculture and metallurgy, prehistoric Europe’s engineering and architecture arose independently of the outside world.

For all their considerable achievements, the Europeans of ancient times seem strangely passive and unresisting when they finally appear in regular contact with advanced civilization. Their hesitations and uncertainties may have resembled those of other primitive peoples meeting advanced societies at later dates - eighteenth-century Africans, for example. But, in any case, regular contact only began shortly before the Christian era. Before then, the European peoples seem to have exhausted their energies in grappling with an environment which, though easily worked to satisfy modest needs, required the coming of iron to make it fully exploitable. Though far more advanced than their contemporaries in America, or in Africa south of the Nile valley, they never reached the stage of urbanization. Their greatest cultural achievements were decorative and mechanical. At best, in their metallurgy, the ancient Europeans serviced other civilizations’ needs. Beyond that, they would only provide the stocks which would receive the impress of civilization later.

Only one group of western barbarians had a more positive contribution to make to the future. South of the olive-line an Iron Age people of central Italy had already during the eighth century BC established trading contacts with Greeks further south in Italy and with Phoenicia. We call them Villanovans, after one of the sites where they lived. In the next 200 years they adopted Greek characters for writing their language. By then they were organized in city-states, producing art of high quality. These were the Etruscans. One of their city-states would one day be known as Rome.

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