[This is the first part of the revised version of a short history of the world that I wrote for my daughters in 1990. I began with a warning. ‘This sketch is intended for my children, who are currently undergoing varying degrees of adolescence. If nothing else, it exemplifies two maxims of history: it depends on what story you believe, and it is written by the winners. This sketch is hopelessly selective, incurably biased toward the West (and in particular the traditional Anglo-Saxon view) and loaded toward the present. For anyone other than a WASP MCP, it is probably at best irrelevant, and at worst offensive. There is little fact – it is almost all comment. If I were you, I would not accept any of it.’ This version of the history of the world is less than 9400 words. It is therefore shorter than so many judgments of our superior courts. There’s a lesson there.]
A very brief history of the world
- Interlude: Civilisation?
- Civilisation – Are we there yet?
Did it all start with a bang or a whimper? I wouldn’t know, but the hot-shots favour the big bang. That’s fine, but where did it come from? It’s all very well to say, as some ancients did, that the elephant stands on the tortoise – what does the tortoise stand on?
Until recently, most people on earth took their history of humanity from religious texts. Most now believe that human beings evolved from animals. The theory of evolution was pioneered by the English scientist Charles Darwin. He revolutionised the way we think about a lot of things, and we will come back to him. Science has also developed ways of dating artefacts from the past so as to prove, to the satisfaction of most people, that the account of creation in the Bible is physically impossible. (Although a frightening number of people in the U S Congress still believe it. It may be not be long before people ask if they are mad.)
It looks like this process of evolution was completed round about 200,000 years ago in Africa, in that part of Africa that is now one of the most backward parts on earth. (Being first isn’t everything.) We think that humans started moving out of Africa about 70,000 years ago. They got to Australia after that. Artefacts of our blackfellas can be dated to about 65,000 years ago. Their occupation of this continent is so long compared to the tiny fragment in time of the white settlement that white people cannot get their heads around it. It looks like America was uninhabited when the first humans arrived here – when Tasmania was attached to the mainland – and the Maoris did not reach New Zealand until centuries after the birth of Christ.
We apply the label Neanderthal to the earliest man. Applied to someone now – say a backward politician – that term is one of abuse (like knuckle-grazing). They were savages. Their first job was to stay alive. They didn’t need Darwin to tell them about the importance of survival. The symptoms of what we now call panic attacks show how we learned to heighten our responses to heightened danger. People had to eat, find shelter, and stay warm – or cool. They learned to speak. People spoke to each other. The apes hadn’t done this. They learned to light fires. They developed tools – and from tools came weapons. We take the term Stone Age from our use of stone tools. These men we call Neolithic – about say 10,000 BC, although stone tools have now been found in Australia that are 65,000 years old.
Like our blackfellas, these people were nomadic. They wandered in the forests and the savannah and sought out caves. They didn’t cultivate the land or crops, or stay long enough in one place to develop towns. This phase in our story is by far the longest. We refer to the period before writing was developed as prehistory. We now see writing and the division of labour that town life permits as essential to what we call civilisation.
We cannot now know what part fear played in human life then. We now live with the risk of extinction by nuclear war. But they must surely have lived with the threat of death or injury from nature, starvation, or predators, animal or human. Having only a rudimentary knowledge of nature, what we call the supernatural may have had some charm. So, some men came to claim power over others, either because they were stronger, or because they knew more, or because they were persuasive. The fear of the unknown has always been a potent force for us. They painted. They developed totems and taboos. We see all this in the Dreamtime and in big swinging dicks on Wall Street.
The Songlines of our aborigines go back a very long way. In 1857 a blackfella told a white settler north of Melbourne that his grandfather could recall tracing the Yarra River down to the Heads where it entered the sea. As Geoffrey Blainey remarked, it was a grandfather one hundred times removed whose memory was invoked.
And people began to notice not just that they were different to the apes, but that they were different among themselves. There were differences in language, skin colour, and customs. When the white people landed uninvited at Sydney Cove, the blackfellas required ocular proof that the white men were in fact men. When people think they are somehow different to others, it is rare for one model to think that the other model is superior. What you get is a kind of sibling rivalry. And there is conflict not just about survival, but about beliefs. They might kill not just to guard their territory, but to honour a leader or to appease a god. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was a man of towering intellect who stopped three bullets during the American Civil War – he spoke of ‘that unspeakable somewhat’ that allows us ‘to face annihilation for a blind belief.’
So, before the end of what we call prehistory, mankind was infected by two searing divisions from which we have never recovered – caste and race.