According to The National Geographic anatomically correct humans, our Homo sapiens ancestors, started to roam parts of the African continent at least 200,000 years ago and possibly as much as 250,000 years ago. What can we say for certain about these people? They are genetically so similar to us, although less genetically diverse than humans of today, that if we had a time machine and swapped an infant born today with an infant born approximately 200,000 years ago those children, assuming a similar diet, would have the same potential for learning skills (be that identifying medicinal plants, hunting or computer programming) as their peers in that time zone. However, despite this genetic similarity much evidence indicates that tool making was extremely limited and patterns of behaviour, such as tactics for hunting, barely changed for tens of thousands of years.
Toba super volcanic eruption
Evidence from the Toba super-volcano eruption (in modern day Indonesia) circa 73,000 BCE is strongly suggestive, although not definitive, that the population level of Homo sapiens fell to as low as 10,000 individuals or thereabouts. Certainly the climatic changes caused by such an enormous explosion would have had serious consequences for our ancestors and may have imprinted on the collective psyche and perhaps been transmitted in the form of myth. It is also interesting that all humans alive today might be descended from this group, the size of a small town, and that all subsequent diversity in individual and racial appearance might be accounted for by several thousand generations of genetic mutations and environmental factors.
Out of Africa
Around 60,000 BCE Homo Sapiens spread out of their ancestral homeland in Africa and into the Eurasian landmass, territory already sparsely populated by other intelligent hominids Homo Neanderthalensis. Around half way between the time when Homo sapiens first left Africa and the end of the last ice age, circa 40,000-30,000 BCE, cave art appears, as far as we are aware for the first time, independently at several locations across the globe. Some anthropologists suggest human behaviour and tactics for hunting also become more complex from this time.
Harsh ice age conditions
Maximum Glaciation occurs from around 24-17,000 BCE, after which ice sheets begin to retreat until the ‘mini-ice age’ known as the Younger Dryas (circa 11,000 BCE). It is also worth noting that this pre-historical period of around 200,000 years is almost twenty times longer than the period of history from the end of the last ice age (the Younger Dryas) until the present time. That is an extremely long part of human history that we really have very little hard evidence for. The generally accepted suppositions of archaeologists are that technology hardly changed and, until cave art appears, there is almost no use of symbols. Moreover, as far as we are aware, all humans, or certainly the vast majority, lived in non-state societies, except perhaps on special occasions of diplomatic, economic or religious significance.
The Younger Dryas
Although the exact cause of the Younger Dryas has been disputed over the years, evidence since 2007 presented in such peer-reviewed journals as New Scientist and The journal of Geology of very high Platinum/iridium and platinum/aluminium ratios in the Greenland ice core of approximately 12,900 years ago suggest an extra-terrestrial impact or multiple smaller impacts over the time period from the same comet. Moreover, a layer of nano-diamonds around the world dating from the same period also suggest the impact of a comet. The period of C. 1,300 years gives ample opportunity for multiple fragments of the same comet to impact the earth and point towards a time of several super floods in addition to long term cooling.
The peoples of the northern hemisphere suffered the harsher change in climate with a significantly colder and dryer environment, while parts of the southern hemisphere were much less affected. Presumably there was an initial negative impact on human population level but we survive again and live the following 1,300 or so years under harsh ice age conditions until again the earth begins to warm, but this time very rapidly, some scientists speculating that the ice age ended in less than a decade.
The end of the Younger Dryas and with it the Ice-Age (circa 9,600 BCE) marked the extinction of a large number of giant mammals such as the mastodon, woolly rhinoceros, short-faced bear, sabre-tooth cat and dire wolf. It is quite possible that without the extinction of these megafauna humans would never have had the chance to flourish as we have. Furthermore, until the recent (man-made) climate change it was the last time that major earth changes occurred and that the shapes of continents and islands changed globally. The loss of the megafauna and the after effects of the flood laid the stage for the subsequent spread of Homo sapiens, the development of complex states and civilisations.
According to mainstream archaeologists and historians approximately three and a half millennia pass (C. 9,700 BCE – C. 5,000 BCE) from the end of the Younger Dryas to the rise of the first known civilisation, with writing and a sophisticated bureaucracy, of Sumer in modern day Iraq. This period witnesses the first transitions from human hunter-gatherer societies to settled human agricultural societies and this happens at several locations independently around the planet. We know that in addition to the Fertile Crescent, which gave rise to both Sumer and Pharaonic Egypt that agriculture certainly arose independently in the Andean region; Meso-America; the Indus Valley; and parts of China. Widespread animal domestication also occurs during this period.
The rise of local empires
After the rise of Sumer (approximately 7,000 years ago) nomadic hunter gatherer societies increasingly begin to give way to more settled agricultural societies who can support classes of skilled artisans, warriors, priests and royalty with the surplus food that has become available. Larger and more complex societies begin to form, languages develop & change and distinct cultures arise and compete with each other. Empires rise and fall, leaving their ambiguous marks on history, but there is no global village, only scattered racial/cultural hamlets, towns, cities and states. Although some ethnically-diverse cosmopolitan cities and city-states come about, many, if not most, humans will never see or meet another human with a distinctly different skin colour. North Americans, South Americans, Papuans, Australian Aborigines and sub-Saharan Africans develop in total isolation for many centuries. It is only the peoples of the Eurasian landmass, including North Africa and coastal areas of the Arabian Peninsula, that have any consistent contact, with outsiders, at all until the rise of the European nations and the ‘Time of Exploration’ starting in the thirteenth century AD. Many localised states exist and although lingua francas come and go there is no dominant global language and few hints of a global culture.
Worlds in collision
1492, the year of the Spanish ‘discovery’ of the Americas, is year zero for the history of Sustainable Development. Until this time no one ethnic or racial group had dominated all other ethnic and racial groups on the planet, but after this time Europeans and their descendants conquered, repressed, raped and pillaged Native Americans of the north and south, sub-Saharan Africans, Arabs, Aboriginals and Asians. Of course this subjugation was not total and many groups resisted for centuries, but patterns of behaviour had been set that would value Western/European/White ideas, values and systems that would colour all subsequent history, social and economic development.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution (C.1750 AD) paved the way for the first truly global empire (the British Empire) and the spread of the English language which has had both positive and negative impacts on Planet Earth and its peoples. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the majority of the world’s population still worked in agriculture and for many their lives were more similar in many respects to those of the ancient Babylonians, Mayans, Khmers, Norse, Dravidians, Celts, Moors, Han, Zimbabweans, Egyptians or Romans than they were to the peoples of today. After a long period of exceptionally slow gradual change, we see a period of increasingly rapid change in both technology and lifestyle, certainly for the people of Britain, and after a short lag the other peoples of Europe and then after a slightly longer lag all the peoples of the world. This increase would eventually facilitate the near total dominance of Europeans and their transplanted colonials, over the other peoples of the world to a degree never before seen.
The (English speaking) British ushered in the first hydro-carbon revolution and the (English speaking) Americans the second. The harnessing of massive amounts of wood, coal, oil and gas has allowed what our ancestors would consider magic to become commonplace. It is hydro-carbons (not, as many would have us believe, capitalism) that are responsible for the massive development and fundamental change in lifestyle for humans since the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism is merely a management system; no more, no less. We humans may well be on the cusp of a third energy and technology revolution and we are in dire need of an updated functional, effective & egalitarian management system.
The atomic age
In August 1945 global human population is roughly about 2.4 billion people when the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralds a new chapter in human history. By 1945 the British empire was in its death throes and the baton had already been passed to the United States of America, which would eventually become the undeclared de facto pre-eminent world imperialist power through various puppet governments, proxy wars, economic hit men and, when necessary, direct military intervention. In addition to these new economic and global political trends there we see the beginnings of a technological revolution that will radically alter the human experience in both positive and negative ways. Soon there will be an explosion in personal computers, mobile phones and the internet which will utterly transforms the way in which humans work, interact socially and live our daily lives. The world is truly poised to become a global village with a proliferation of air travel, new communication technologies, social media and 24/7 news channels. On the day of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City human population has moved upwards of six billion people.