The Fates of Human Societies
Up to the Starting Line
A suitable starting point from which to compare historical developments on the different continents is around 11,000 B.C. This date corresponds approximately to the beginnings of village life in a few parts of the world, the first undisputed peopling of the Americas, the end of the Pleistocene Era and last Ice Age, and the start of what geologists term the Recent Era. Plant and animal domestication began in at least one part of the world within a few thousand years of that date. As of then, did the people of some continents already have a head start or a clear advantage over peoples of other continents?
If so, perhaps that head start, amplified over the last 13,000 years, provides the answer to Yali's question. Hence this chapter will offer a whirlwind tour of human history on all the continents, for millions of years, from our origins as a species until 13,000 years ago. All that will now be summarized in less than 20 pages. Naturally, I shall gloss over details and mention only what seem to me the trends most relevant to this book.
Our closest living relatives are three surviving species of great ape: the gorilla, the common chimpanzee, and the pygmy chimpanzee (also known as bonobo). Their confinement to Africa, along with abundant fossil evidence, indicates that the earliest stages of human evolution were also played out in Africa. Human history, as something separate from the history of animals, began there about 7 million years ago (estimates range from 5 to 9 million years ago). Around that time, a population of African apes broke up into several populations, of which one proceeded to evolve into modern gorillas, a second into the two modern chimps, and the third into humans. The gorilla line apparently split off slightly before the split between the chimp and the human lines.
Fossils indicate that the evolutionary line leading to us had achieved a substantially upright posture by around 4 million years ago, then began to increase in body size and in relative brain size around 2.5 million years ago. Those protohumans are generally known as Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus, which apparently evolved into each other in that sequence. Although Homo erectus, the stage reached around 1.7 million years ago, was close to us modern humans in body size, its brain size was still barely half of ours. Stone tools became common around 2.5 million years ago, but they were merely the crudest of flaked or battered stones. In zoological significance and distinctiveness, Homo erectus was more than an ape, but still much less than a modern human.
All of that human history, for the first 5 or 6 million years after our origins about 7 million years ago, remained confined to Africa. The first human ancestor to spread beyond Africa was Homo erectus, as is attested by fossils discovered on the Southeast Asian island of Java and conventionally known as Java man (see Figure 1.1). The oldest Java "man" fossilsof course, they may actually have belonged to a Java womanhave usually been assumed to date from about a million years ago. However, it has recently been argued that they actually date from 1.8 million years ago. (Strictly speaking, the name Homo erectus belongs to these Javan fossils, and the African fossils classified as Homo erectus may warrant a different name.) At present, the earliest unquestioned evidence for humans in Europe stems from around half a million years ago, but there are claims of an earlier presence. One would certainly assume that the colonization of Asia also permitted the simultaneous colonization of Europe, since Eurasia is a single landmass not bisected by major barriers.
That illustrates an issue that will recur throughout this book. Whenever some scientist claims to have discovered "the earliest X"whether X is the earliest human fossil in Europe, the earliest evidence of domesticated corn in Mexico, or the earliest anything anywherethat announcement challenges other scientists to beat the claim by finding something still earlier. In reality, there must be some truly "earliest X," with all claims of earlier X's being false. However, as we shall see, for virtually any X, every year brings forth new discoveries and claims of a purported still earlier X, along with refutations of some or all of previous years' claims of earlier X. It often takes decades of searching before archaeologists reach a consensus on such questions.
From Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond. © 1997 Jared Diamond.
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