Category: History of Civilisation

When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going

This common saying embodies much of the history of mankind. The mobility of the human race over many thousands of years has been one of its marked features. One of the main stimulants to mobility has been the quest for food. Disappearance of traditional game sources,failure of crops often due to changed weather patterns, livestock diseases, all contributed to large people movements. ,The arrival of new immigrants in an already populated territory often occasioned the departure of the existing population – a “domino effect”.Apart from movement created by real need there have of course been situations where a basic desire for “greener grass on the other side of the hill” , a desire for adventure, aggressive tendencies, all have contributed to movement. In a great number of cultures there is a long-lasting oral tradition of the origins of the current population, often borne out by DNA research. It would be very hard to identify a truly “aboriginal” population today. The world was peopled before the last Ice Age. One can only imagine the degree of movement over a period as people and animals alike sought ever-diminishing warmer climes. On a smaller scale, and more recently, in the mid-19th. century a series of wet harvest periods, when grain and root crops lay rotting in the fields, in colder Northern lands of Europe and America caused millions of deaths and massive population movement over a period. (The Irish Potato Famine being one well-documented event of this era). It was in this period that the discovery of gold in North America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand triggered a movement of people from affected areas in search of wealth. Not succeeding in their hopes, most would have stayed to settle. 

Empires are another source of movement. For whatever reason an empire grows, whether it be self-defence or self-aggrandisement, it creates a situation where constituent populations mingle, travel freely, work,, settle away from their original home. There have been many such empires, but the Roman and the British Empires are among the best-known. In an empire the language of the dominant party tends to be the accepted “working” language, while local vernacular tongues tend to remain as day-to-day local speech. Thus Latin and English became the working languages of their respective empires. 

Throughout the Roman Empire there was a freedom of movement from the Atlantic to the Middle East, from Scotland to North Africa. The very large Roman Army was a cosmopolitan force, including units drawn from outside the Empire itself. Recent DNA research in the Hadrian’s Wall area in the North of England showed North African traces. This was soon explained by the fact that North African troops had served in the area. When soldiers retired they were encouraged to settle in the area of their last posting,and many would already established family liaisons with the local population.

In the case of the British Empire a parallel effect can be observed .Just as Roman public servants were sent to all corners of the Empire with their families, the same applied to British officials. As in Roman times merchants located themselves wherever their work was – as in the case of the East India Company which until mid-19th.century even had its own army to advance and safeguard its interests. In both Empires a proportion of ex-pats returned home but many stayed to become a permanent feature  of their new homeland. 

We must not ignore the impact of “commercial empires ” on people movement. The pre-Roman Phoenicians had a great influence on Europe and Western Asia, establishing their alphabet wherever they went. Greece, although a conglomeration of independent city-states rather than a nation, had an enormous commercial and cultural impact on the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with its citizens being found all over these areas. 

Not all population movement is positive. War has always led to waves of refugees seeking new homes. The Second World War produced millions of “displaced persons” More recent Middle Eastern tensions have created a massive refugee movement which will have long-lasting consequences. Religious and political persecution of minorities has produced great changes in the history of many nations. In he 17th. century the persecution of such groups as Puritans, Quakers, etc. resulted in the settlement of the East coast of North America. The rest, as they say, is history! 

Forced movement of labour from areas where  labour is abundant to areas where it is scarce has always been a factor in population shift. Slavery as evidenced in North America and the West Indies immediately come to mind. Slavery is a very ancient and widespread institution, for example the consequence of capture in war. (Prisoners of war and captured civilians not being repatriated at the end of hostilities but sold on as forced labour). Quite often Roman slave-owners set free their workers eventually, enabling them to become free workers. The story is told of one Roman politician who suggested to the Emperor that freed slaves should be made to wear a badge in public, to which the Emperor is said to have replied that it was not a good idea “in case they find they outnumber the rest of us!” Slight exaggeration perhaps – but a pointer to a mobile labour force. 



How Did We Get Here?

This is a question all cultures seem to have shared in the past. It covers both the problem of what was the point of origin of a particular group – how and when they arrived at their present location, and the perhaps more philosophical problem of how did the human race emerge or evolve. .It is the more long-term question of human origins we will look at.

In most traditions there is the common factor of a  “creator god,, gods, spirit” responsible for the existence of the world and its inhabitants. There are common factors world-wide in these attempts to explain origins.  For one thing we seem as humans to have fallen short of the creator’s expectations. Surprise surprise! In the Old Testament Eve and Cain stand out in this respect. In the Maya tradition the creator found the physical materials – such as mud – were not suitable for the job and a re-make had to take place. Even then all was not well and for one thing the humans made too much noise, and irritated the gods, leading to their own destruction by flood. This method of mass-destruction appears in the Old Testament as well as in many accounts world-wide, including Noah’s Flood  and  the Greek legend of Deucalion and Pyrrha.  In fact flood stories abound world-wide and are borne out by such experts as  archaeologists. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that post the last Ice Age episodes could have remained intact in human memory as part of traditional folk lore. In the case of Creation myths of course we are in different territory, and such traditions must be classified as attempts to find a logical explanation for our existence. However, flood myths and accounts of the arrival of the “first settlers” can have a strong factual foundation.

An interesting aspect of many myths is that they tended to be be rejected by scientists, historians, and related experts as yarns to keep the children (and their parents) entertained on long winter nights.. In more recent times, particularly since what one might call “the DNA Revolution”origins of races in many areas have been proved to be in line with traditional tales. Unfortunately our remote ancestors were often lacking in knowledge of correct time sequences, the need to be accurate about names of people and places, the need for accurate statistics – all those boring details which get in the way of a good yarn!  So much work has to be done in reconciling accounts. It can be surprising how today’s scientific accounts can be corroborated in ancient tradition. For example in the Irish  “Book of the Invasions” accounts are given of the coming of sheep-rearing, the drainage of marshes for agriculture, and other processes now classified by scholars sine the 19th. century. 

The probable location of the Garden of Eden has been defined as in Mesopotamia (Iraq). In more recent years the Garden of Eden has acquired a rival in East Africa as the point of origin of Homo Sapiens. For the last few years it has been proposed that modern man emerged from East Africa to spread over the world, over a long period and in fits and starts. More recently the “Out of Africa” theory has been called into question. Personally I have found it hard to accept that the very different racial groups on the various continents could have had a common origin – my own preference would have been for separate development/evolution in each area of the world. But then I am a complete amateur in such matters. One curious thing is that a good deal of the proposed movement out of East Africa would appear to have taken place in the last Ice Age. One would have thought that people living in a warm region would have been inclined to”stay put” rather than moving North? Of course factors such as drought would have caused movement – but with such far-reaching consequences? 


To continue with our theme of the human journey, “Our Journey” December 28, 2017, we will look again at Gauguin’s thought-provoking questions “Where have we come from ? – Where are we ? – Where are we going?” These three questions are  in line with the concepts of the past, the present, and the future.If History tells us about the past, it should also help us to understand the present, and also do something positive about the future. (Well – no harm in hoping!)  The current theme will be “movement”. 

Both animals and humans share an infinite capacity for movement. Since movement requires precious energy, there must be a motivation for such activity. It would appear that the greatest motivating force for movement  is the need to eat. If we watch a bird, for example, nearly every movement is directed to spotting the nearest tit- bit, then taking up a position whence it can detect another one etc. etc. Even in our sophisticated human society we leave home to go to work to earn the wherewithal to go to the supermarket. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors followed the game on which they relied, and searched out roots and fruit as they went. The later farmers ,although more attached to a home base, spent the day tending the plants and animals on which they depended. The other two human needs, clothing and shelter, make fewer demands on our energy than our “daily bread”.

The apparently static aspects of the farmer’s life are more illusory than  it would seem. Both plants and animals are dependent on the weather for their existence. Changes in weather patterns over even a brief period can have disastrous consequences. Death from starvation and disease, migration of whole populations in search of new food sources or of employment are obvious results. The human population has , as part of its survival strategy, , learned either to move or otherwise adapt to changed circumstances.

Seemingly in all human cultures there is a “folk memory”of  how they came to be in their current environment. This can take the form of a “mythology”   by word of mouth over an incredible period, eventually appearing in written form. These traditions are often dismissed by modern commentators as fictional, not taking into account the fact that they are based on historical fact, with exaggeration, confusion, and incorrect sequences.

Just a few examples would be theHebrew traditions recorded in the Old Testament, the Popul Vuh (the traditional account of the Quiche Maya in Central America), the Aeneid of Virgil  (the account of the origins of Rome as a resultof the arrival of refugees from the Trojan War), the Book of the Invasions (the traditional account of the origins of the people of Ireland). There are so many of such accounts now available to us.  Some are even more adventurous in carrying the account back to the origins of the human race.  In the case of the Book of the Invasions the question of the change from hunter-gathering to farming is referred to. Sometimes there are recurring themes, such as feuds between two brothers, as in the Popul Vuh, Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, to give but a few (perhaps a philosophical attempt to look at areas such as sin,good and evil, etc).

This at least is an example of the question of “Where have we come from?”


The French Impressionist painter Gauguin produced a work whose title has always impressed me more than the painting itself. – namely “D’ou venons-nous? Ou sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?” (“Where have we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?) Three very important questions  apply to the human race – ideal questions as they fit into the category of “I’d rather not answer that one!” However our men and women of science have not been deterred from at least having a go. 

In response to the first question of “Where have we come from ?” they tell us about our progress or evolution from a more primitive stat to what we are today. We are, I believe, classified not just as representatives of homo sapiens (wise man) but as homo sapiens sapiens –  “even wiser man”. (Sorry ladies –  don’t blame me for the bias -its the fault of the ancient Romans for not having a word to embrace you too . Perhaps a comment on their culture and civilisation) ? Good at least to know that we have attained the description “wise” in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.  How we got there is a matter of interesting debate. Our mentors assure us that we were both preceded and accompanied by less-fortunate humans called Neanderthals, rather unfortunate beings when compared with the intellectual capacity of homo sapiens.  (By our standards they didn’t look all that attractive either). Bur in very recent times a change in our superior outlook has taken place. It has been found that thes Neanderthals existed on a much higher level of “civilisation” than previously imagined. More recently it has been discovered through dna and related research that the neanderthals often intermarried with homo sapiens . So thereby ends yet another neat theory. To me that is the great appeal of archaeology and related studies – that you never know from day to day what new discovery or interpretation may sweep the ground from under your feet. 

In the nineteenth century the desire to put  everything into neatly-classified boxes was applied to our remote ancestors. It was felt that human achievement and progress shoud measured by the increasing sophistication of material objects, such as tools and weapons. (Was this an indication of Victorian – and modern –  materialism?) So the terms palaeolithic, mesolithic, neolithic evolved  to distinguish between stages of human progress. Likewise the use of metal produced the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages. The weakness of these classifications was that there were often great differences between geographical regions as  moved into a new phase. Middle Eastern areas, notably Turkey, could be in the Bronze Age when Northern Europe was still in the Neolithic. People travelled, ideas travelled, but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was a powerful argument. 

The tendency is to start the study of mankind as we know it today at the time when the Ice Age was substantially coming  to  an end, 10000-8000 BC. The vast areas of Northern Asia, Europe, and America which had been uninhabitable for so long were becoming capable of bearing trees and plants with accompanying animal population. Humans , for example in Europe , had been concentrated South of the Mediterranean and in pockets further North which had better conditions locally, notably Iberia. The warmer Middle Eastern/West Asian regions were beginning to abandon a hunter-gatherer life-style and to grow crops and herd animals – farming in other words. The first immigrants into Northern Europe followed the hunter-gatherer life-style. Naturally this global warming  had beneficial effects world-wide as the Northward movement of plants and animals led to a movement of people from what were probably over-crowded conditions. From around 5000 BC Middle Eastern/Eurasian farmers seem to these Northern areas via Danube and by sea into the British Isles and Western Europe. This may have been occasioned by a change in rain-patterns leading to a shift onto the banks of the rivers Tigris, Euphrates,Indus, and Nile. Those unable to do so  had the alternative of moving to cooler moister climates.These early farmers joined the earlier hunter-gatherer population.These newcomers brought with them not only plants,”portable”animals, and farming techniques but also a whole new culture which had a great impact on North-Western Europe – but that, as they say, is another story.


Des Johnston

When we read about historical events in a particular place or time, we can miss out on the fact that they may be linked up with events evn thousands of kilometres away during roughly the same period. If we do spot something like this we may be inclined to dismiss it at coincidence, rather than cause and effect, perhaps arising from happenings in another area of the world over roughly the same period.

When there is a large time-gap between events, we may think of “coincidence” or other factors.  When they occur reasonably close together in Time, even though widely separated in Space, it may well pay to look for links – perhaps via events in yet another place. In the 19th. century Napoleon invaded Russia with disastrous  consequences. In the 20th. century Hitler invaded Russia with similar results. We can dismiss “cause and effect” in favour of other factors such…

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Today’s World – is it all That Different?



History, they tell us, is about the past. But the study of history shows an oft-repeated cycle of events. Since human beings have not changed over thousands of years, they have reacted time after time in the same way to events as we do today. The emphasis in the teaching of history in schools and universities has always tended to be on political history (monarchs, wars, treaties, laws) and has perhaps made us forget that history is about people like ourselves, trying desperately to get on with their lives in spite of what their rulers, neighbours, the climate, etc etc may throw at them.


Today’s world, at least for most of us, is an urbanised, industrialised one, with a sophisticated governmental, social, economic, legal, and educational system. We tend to forget that when the first urban civilisations developed in the Middle East over 5000 years ago they too had to develop systems parallel to our own in order to survive. They experienced the need to have adequate food, clothing and shelter, to plan their environment, to evolve a legal code which enabled society to run efficiently. They were concerned not just with survival but with “getting on” in the world. They deplored the lack of discipline and respect in the “younger generation”. They despaired of the lack of interest in education in the young. They rejected malign “foreign” influence on their lifestyle. As states grew wealthy the “haves” competed with one another for bigger, better, and more beautiful possessions. The “have-nots” either strove to emulate their better-off neighbours or expressed their anger and resentment at those who had done better for themselves. Social classes evolved, usually based on wealth, privilege, birth, and ownership of property, (traditionally land).

Wars took place — sometimes through sheer “need” — at other times through sheer “greed”. Prosperity brought with it all sorts of problems — not least such questions as “who inherits your property after you’re gone?” I.e. — what happens to the share of the children of the original marriage if the mother dies and the father remarries, producing more children? (Pliny’s Letters Ist. Cent. AD).


Modern states have for the most part only just solved, over the last 150 years, the age-old problem of the fact that ownership of land gave one a higher status in society than ownership of, for example, a business. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries has put status firmly in the ownership of business, money, and property generally . But has this “solution” made us any happier? Is the power conferred by economic status much different from that once obtained from land? Just how “democratic” is our system today, where on paper in most places everyone has equal rights?


Our ancestors spoke strange languages, wore funny clothes, did not have our present means of transport, communicated by speech and writing without electronic assistance. Yet they faced and tackled the same issues as ourselves in a parallel environment. Intricately carved ornaments and cave paintings of 40,000 years ago show manual and artistic skills even in the less sophisticated societies of that time.


We tend to regard present-day issues, whether personal, national, or international as unique to our current time and situation. This is only natural — and yet the same situations have been affecting people and society for thousands of years. Perhaps it should make us more optimistic when we realise that the human race has survived all this time in spite of such recurrent problem situations. On the other hand some folk may feel depressed that mankind has not yet solved such problems and driven them away for all time — “Will we never learn?”


A few points are worth bearing in mind. The first is that human intelligence over the last, for example, 10,000 years has not changed. Whether a culture is or was more sophisticated or less sophisticated has no relation to the IQ of its members. The second is that human society evolving from the basic family situation shares common elements equally with the early hunter-gatherers and with today’s urban dwellers. Concepts of acceptable behaviour and of right and wrong are permanently and universally valid. Thirdly, human personality, psychology — call it what you will — has remained unchanged for thousands of years.


Many things have changed over the millennia — government in particular has evolved from the tribal assembly to that of the city state, through the nation state, to that of the international community (European Community). But what we tend to forget is that our generation didn’t invent the city, the nation, or even the “empire”. The process of urbanisation began between 4000 and 3000 BC – possibly in Iraq (Mesopotamia), the Indus Valley (north-west India), Iran (Persia), and Egypt. As these areas developed cities they evolved written, legal, government, economic, and religious systems on a par with our own. They handled diplomatic relations, international trade, war, employment, price and quality control, town planning, building standards (to name but a few), on a daily basis. Such areas as religion, recreation and social welfare were all catered for.


From 2000 BC this more sophisticated lifestyle began to spread to the fringes of Europe, with Cretan, Phoenician and Anatolian (Turkish)  cultures creating “modern” systems and in particular international trade. By 700 BC in Greece urban areas (city states) began to grow, with a prosperity based on the manufacture and exchange of agricultural and other products. These cities were independent of each other and each set up colonies (mirror images of itself) all around the Mediterranean Sea. These cities — in particular Athens — began to gain a reputation for philosophy, literature, and above all experiments in government (democracy).


It is not always appreciated however that the “classical” Greeks in the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle etc.  went for their tertiary education to Egypt — providing a link between the early Middle Eastern cultures and Western Europe. (Links between the Cretan culture of 2000 BC and Egypt were strong and Crete influenced Mycenae and Greece).


In the centre of Italy the town of Rome began to expand from around 300 BC, over the centuries taking over Italy, Greece, North Africa, West Asia, and a great part of Western Europe (excluding Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia). This Roman culture produced an international language (Latin) which is still the basis of many European tongues, a legal system on which much modern European law is based, a government system which has been adapted right up to modern times. Many Roman concepts and ideas in themselves were borrowed from Greece.


One point about these cultures over the past 6000 years is that they faced the same problems as we do today. Since they had evolved writing systems we can follow their recognition of these issues which we are still coping with today and their attempts to solve them. Surviving written material is more limited from Egypt and Mesopotamia, much less limited from Greece and Rome. (Even there a vast amount of material was lost during the Dark Ages after Rome fell). Because of the greater amount of source materials is from Greek and Roman  sources we tend to make the mistake of thinking that their civilization was in some way on a higher plane than older cultures such as Sumeria.

Nor should we think that urban cultures parallel to our own represent a higher level of intelligence. For example the Celtic tribes of the Upper Danube and Alpine areas had a more rural-based culture which in intellectual achievement was on a par with their neighbours and contemporaries in Greece and Rome. Although literate, they preferred to learn by heart, and to learn through live discussion and argument, rather than via books. This indicates to us that we will probably never learn the real capacity of cultures such as that of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey around 8000 BC. We tend to judge a culture by the amount and quality of three-dimensional material remains it leaves behind. Perhaps the fact that the science of archaeology evolved in the materialistic Victorian Era has a lot to answer for!

Des Johnston.