Stages, trends and defining events in world history

Doug Cocks


Doug Cocks is a scientist and writer with a particular interest in human ecology.  The following is an extract from Deep Futures: A Guide to Surviving Well which will be published by UNSW Press next year.  In that book, the function of this extract is to set the scene for an extended discussion of how societies change over time.  Details of references are available from the author on request.


The past, like a cricket in the corner,
Whines in its low persistent  voice.
         Shu Ting one particular pattern of human exploitation of the environment began to encounter difficulties, thanks to exhaustion of one or another key resource, human ingenuity found new ways to live, tapping new resources, and thereby expanded our dominion over animate and inanimate nature, time and again (McNeill 1979).

As a frame on which to hang some queries about the macrohistorical process, let me recapitulate some basic trends and turning points in the development of world society.  Remember though that historical facts are not so much ‘facts’ as accepted judgements.  I draw heavily on McNeill (1979) for the pre-modern part of this story.  

Throughout the last ice age, which lasted, with warmer and colder periods, from 115 000 years BP (Before Present) to 15000 years BP, society was organised into small (less than 100) unstratified bands of hunter–gatherers. Mastery of fire was the technological key to their survival. 

About 65 000 years BP a volcanic winter reduced the human population to perhaps 10 000 people.  It has taken most of the ensuing interval for that genetically homogeneous group of Homo sapiens to populate the world, reaching, for example, Australia c. 50 000 years ago and North America c.12 000 years ago.  Language then was a primitive instrument (eg possibly without nouns (Jaynes 1976)), generating some information (commands, warnings, opportunities) additional to the senses as well as allowing, for the first time, useful information to be stored outside the individual’s genes and memory.  Despite being a primitive tool, language allowed humans to move to the top of the food chain

While the human genome has changed little since, the speed of cultural development began to accelerate from about this time.  For example, stone tools improved dramatically with the length of cutting edge obtainable from a source rock improving perhaps 10-12 fold between 65 000 years BP and 40 000 years BP.

12 000 BP-6000 BP

Coming out of the ice age, some 12 000 years ago, perhaps as the well-watered grasslands of the African-Asian steppe were drying out and as large food animals were becoming less abundant, humans started growing their food (eg cereals) rather than obtaining it all from hunting and gathering.  This was the neolithic revolution in which, across the Eurasian continent, people began to live settled and relatively peaceful lives  (although not necessarily longer and more leisurely lives) in agricultural villages.  Life was mostly peaceful because food was produced only in subsistence quantities and this left no opportunity for non-producers such as priests and soldiers to be supported by farmers and little temptation to attack other villages in search of food.  Population grew by the spatial spread, rather than the intensification, of settlement.  Religion, art and magic became important tools for managing society.

6000 BP-3000 BP

Then came large-scale irrigated agriculture, beginning about 6000 years ago and, with the invention of writing, the beginning of history proper.  Sumeria, the first real civilization (meaning a society supporting cities and specialist occupations), appeared about 5500 years ago in southern Mesopotamia in the flat lands around the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Soon after, c. 5000 years ago, a Nile civilization appeared.  The complexities of managing irrigation systems devolved to a specialised priestly class which was fed from large grain surpluses (partly explainable by the invention of the plough as well as by high yields under irrigation), as was the warrior class which emerged to protect those same surpluses from marauders.  As marauding increased, command (military) management replaced priestly management in the Mesopotamian and other irrigation civilizations.  As urban populations grew in the irrigation civilizations additional specialist occupations (eg metal working, transporting goods) emerged and the technologies associated with these new occupations advanced in step with the numbers who practised them.

Food surpluses induced a second surge in human numbers, this time in urban rather than rural areas.  But waterborne diseases (boosted by close human contact) and the need to sustain armies acted as major checks on population growth.  Only rich urban civilizations could sustain viruses and armies which ate but did not produce.  While urban populations acquired some immunity to the new diseases of crowded civilization, rural peasant populations did not---an important determinant of the success of urban elites in controlling outlying areas.

By about 3500 BP the Middle Eastern civilizations had been joined by an Indian civilization in the upper Punjab area and a Chinese civilization on the middle Hwang-Ho.  The Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations began around 3500 BP.  The classical Greek civilization on the Aegean Sea came about 3100 BP.  Across Eurasia societies were now coming to be organised into spatially-extensive politically-independent imperial command structures.  Government-at-a-distance was achieved through the bureaucratic principle of delegation.  Taxes, collected on commission for the centre by feudal warlords, were the price of military protection.  Difficulties with transport and communications were persistent challenges to the management of empires, as were fluctuations in crop yields.  For instance in 3628 BP the Santorini volcano exploded, destroying, by tidal waves, the Minoan civilization and initiating a period of volcanic winter, and political instability, worldwide.  In the words of McNeill (1979), most of Eurasian political history can be viewed as unending fluctuation between imperial consolidation and peripheral feudal unrest, punctuated at times by epidemics of invasion by mobile horse-riding nomads from the animal-producing steppes which lay beyond areas suitable for cropping.

3000 BP-2000 BP

The millennium beginning around 3000 BP saw not only the continuing expansions and contractions of Eurasia’s empires but the decline of the magic-based religions that had controlled social behaviour since the early Neolithic.  In what Jaspers (1953) calls the ‘axial age’ of new religions, the period c. 2800 BP to 2200 BP saw the emergence of Taoism and Confucianism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India, monotheism in Iran and the Middle East and Greek rationalism in Europe.  Beneath their obvious differences all shared a concern for how to cope with the misery of life (oppression and disease), how to transcend personal weaknesses and how to live in peace in a flawed world. (Armstrong 2001).  Morality had become central to religion. 

Even more importantly, both Jaspers (1953) and Jaynes (1976) identify the axial period as a time of marked expansion in human consciousness, most spectacularly in the Aegean civilization (from where it spread through Eurasia with the growth of the Alexandrian empire).  What is involved here, and the process is probably still in progress, is a transition from rationalising decisions already made sub-consciously to a rationalisation of decisions as choices between alternatives formulated by a conscious self; the species was beginning to escape its dependence on both external and internal authority.  Primitive thinking in which (eg) names and images were perceived to be real properties of the things they signified began to give way to critical thinking, ie thinking about the thinking process (Turchin 1977).  Searching for a trigger for this transition, such adaptation and learning might begin when existing mental models of the consequences of actions fail, as may well have happened in the struggles to manage turbulent empires.  Decisions based on custom, tradition and divine authority fail when conditions change.

2000 BP-1000 CE

And indeed, by about 2000 BP, the beginning of the Common Era (CE), a sort of stability had been reached in humanity’s response to the advent of urbanisation.  Circe 200 CE most of the world's people were to be found in four major civilizations stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, north and south of the Mediterranean and across southern and eastern Asia.  To the east of the Roman empire was the neo-Persian or Parthian empire (covering Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran).  To the west of the Chinese empire was the Kushan empire covering parts of northern India, Afghanistan and central Asia.  But not for long.

Trade within the protective boundaries of individual enlarging empires had grown slowly from the time of the irrigation civilizations, but some 2000 years ago long-distance trade and transport between civilizations by ship and caravan began to expand rapidly.  Wind energy, captured by bigger sailing ships and utilised through trade, began to change power balances (Cottrell 1955).  It was a development which, while bringing material benefits, new ideas and new technologies inaugurated a thousand years of instability across Eurasia.  The initial impact of this first move towards a globalisation of commerce was epidemiological disaster as the separate disease pools of each empire (plague, smallpox, measles, syphilis) mingled together.  For example, drastic depopulation in parts of the Roman empire contributed to its disintegration.  Conflict between the main religions raged.  Weakened empires were beset by rebellion from within and raids from the steppes without. In 535 CE, atmospheric dust and debris from a major natural event, perhaps a comet or asteroid, but most probably the eruption of Mt Krakatau in the Sunda strait, initiated several years of low temperatures and reduced sunlight.  This led to crop failures around the world, followed by some decades of climatic instability (Keys 1999); plagues, droughts and floods placed further pressures on social organisation and this period saw the collapse of numerous societies including the major civilizations of south-east Asia and South America.  The 6th century, after 535 CE, was a period of major political reorganisation right across Europe and Asia, eg the collapse of the southern Chinese empire during this time led to the consolidation of northern and southern China into a single empire.

From the eighth century, Islamic civilization arose to unify the core of the western civilized world from Spain to India, while Sinic civilization spread through Korea and Japan, and Indic civilization throughout southern Asia.  By 1000 CE, complex global trading routes linked the centres of manufacturing production in the Middle East, China, India, and Southeast Asia to underdeveloped suppliers of raw materials in Russia and Europe (Goldstone 1998). 

1000 CE-Present

The first thousand years of the Common Era can be usefully interpreted as a see-sawing struggle between authoritarian systems and market systems for control of the Eurasian civilizations. Which of these systems would determine how resources were to be mobilised into projects large and small?  But after c.1000 CE the balance between command and market systems began tipping inexorably towards the market as the major determinant of economic activity, first in China, then in the West.  The undermining of western feudalism began after the 1300s with the slow emergence of rich and powerful non-aristocrats including merchants and landed gentry.  It was in 1430 when, by peremptory imperial command, China withdrew from all trade, land and sea, opening the way for a European dominance of sea trade for centuries to come. 

Ghengis Khan and his sons/grandsons were the last great horse-riding marauders from the steppes.  By the late 13th century their Mongol empire spread from the Pacific to the Black Sea and from Siberia to near-India.  As much as anything it was bubonic plague which was responsible for its subsequent rapid breakup and the permanent closure of the great overland trade routes.  Also, the spread of hand firearms allowed the formerly invincible mounted nomads to be repulsed. 

Notwithstanding, an Islamic revival began in 1301 with the founding in Anatolia of the state which was to become the core of the future Ottoman empire, eventual master of much of Europe up till the siege of Vienna in 1689.  The Ottomans, together with two other Islamic empires, the Persian and the Mughal, controlled Eurasia from the frontiers of Austria and Morocco to the borders of China, plus much of northern India by 1639.  Thereafter, these land-based empires began to give way to the seafaring Dutch, French and English.  But for 300 years the rise and spread of Islamic civilization, with its great art, architecture, science and conquests, was the most important feature of Eurasian history.

While the biggest civilizations continued to break up, the advantages of large centrally organised armies for defence meant that the states which succeeded the large empires were still territorially extensive.  Gunpowder was decisive in achieving political consolidation of these emerging states, eg control of cannon, including the metals used for their construction, allowed castles of resisting warlords to be invaded.  

Europe however remained unconsolidated.  War there, commonly religious war, was endemic because no state had clear superiority.  One consequence of this was an ‘arms race’ improvement in weaponry which was to later ensure the military dominance of Europe over the rest of the world.  Also, there was greater scope for market-driven behaviour in Europe than elsewhere because capital could move between countries when the command system became too demanding.  Because mercantile wealth could not be readily appropriated by bureaucratic authority, private and, subsequently, state wealth began to accumulate rapidly, feeding on itself.  The new wealth accumulated preferentially in metropolitan areas at the expense of the rural peripheral peasantry who remained subject, not to market forces, but to feudal control over their lives.

The trend towards European dominance of trade and capital accumulation was only reinforced by the industrial revolution.  After the 18th century European states were able to use both cheap manufactured goods and military superiority to dominate and extract surpluses from peripheral states around the world in a frenzy of colonisation.  And in this they were helped by the decaying of the gunpowder empires that had arisen in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Of equal importance, the European Enlightenment of the 18th century brought three revolutionary changes of perspective, all of which spawned powerful secular trends which are still being worked through worldwide.  Heilbroner (1995: 112) calls these the promise of science, capitalism’s capacity to utilise resources and the legitimacy of the will of the people as the source of their own collective direction.  To quote Harris (1977: 264) on the third of these:

In anthropological perspective, the emergence of bourgeois democracies in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe was a rare reversal of that descent from freedom to slavery which had been the main characteristic of the evolution of the state for 6000 years.

Throughout the 19th century, science and technology continued to provide capitalism with the inventions and innovations that, amongst other things, underpinned successive waves of economic growth and facilitated medicine’s success in sharply reducing infant mortality.  The former, economic growth, was strongly correlated with increasing fossil-energy use, first deep coal and then oil/gas, a relationship which led in the 20th century to pervasive, as distinct from what was a previously spotty degradation of the world’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems and natural resources.  The latter, reduced infant mortality, led to the 20th century population explosion which only now is being tempered by a world-wide demographic transition to fewer children per woman.

The 20th century, as noted in Chapter 1, was one of ‘murderous and barbaric’ wars over ideology and access to resources.  Societies everywhere continued to move erratically along the path from traditional to modern and modern societies moved further towards marketism and individualism.  Energy-hungry technologies allowed the capabilities of the food, transport and communications systems to grow enormously, thereby accelerating globalisation, this being the process whereby formerly separate societies come to function as a single society, economically, socially and culturally.

Two cautions

Short as it is, my potted history of world society mentions many of the factors that have featured in diverse attempts to interpret history---great men, great ideas, great social movements, natural disasters, environmental change, resource availability, resource degradation, human nature, religion, culture, trade, war, disease, social stratification and technology (particularly new energy sources and their applications).  It also throws up two cautions for those who would seek the quality survival of world society, ie high quality of life for most people into the indefinite future.

One is that societies, particularly large societies, come and go with depressing regularity, at least on the scale of historical time.  Against that of course, while individual societies tend not to survive, society as a whole has persisted.  Perhaps the ultimate danger in globalisation is that it leaves only one society to disappear.

The second caution is that quality of life, at least as measured by the basic indicators of food availability, health and freedom from coercion, has been poor for most people for most of recorded history.

Encouraged perhaps by improvements in quality of life for ordinary people in limited parts of the world in recent centuries we might ask the historians if history has been directional in senses that matter for the present inquiry.  And, taking up the other caution raised, what do they have to say about why societies come and go?