The First Global Civilization

on February 20, 2011

I’ve been developing a bunch of unorthodox theories here, and at times I can start to wonder if I’m just letting my imagination run away with me, so it’s nice to get occasional confirmation that I’m on the right track. Case in point: an article the other day summarizing a paper by archaeologist John Shea, who argues that there is no significant biological difference between the earliest modern humans of 200,000 years ago and their more recent descendants, including ourselves.

“For decades anthropologists contrasted these earlier ‘archaic’ African and Asian humans with their ‘behaviorally-modern’ Upper Paleolithic counterparts,” the article notes, “explaining the differences between them in terms of a single ‘Human Revolution’ that fundamentally changed human biology and behavior. … Shea argues that comparing the behavior of our most ancient ancestors to Upper Paleolithic Europeans holistically and ranking them in terms of their ‘behavioral modernity’ is a waste of time. There are no such things as modern humans, Shea argues, just Homo sapiens populations with a wide range of behavioral variability.”

As anyone who’s been following this blog may have noticed, I’ve arrived at much the same conclusion over the last year, as it’s become apparent to me that my chronology for the sequence of visions requires the earliest visions to go back to the dawn of modern humanity.

But even though it’s nice to see someone else rejecting the old Eurocentric delusion that the important part of human history began only when modern humans arrived in Europe, I’d still take exception to Shea’s reductionist notion that all we’re seeing over the last 200,000 years is “behavioral variability” involving “the varying costs and benefits of different toolmaking strategies.”

The human knowledge base has expanded enormously over that period, art and technology have grown increasingly complex, and the pace of change has constantly accelerated. A theory like Shea’s which describes history as essentially flat has to be omitting something vital.

In addition, the lines of evidence which suggest that there was some kind of leap in cultural sophistication around 50,000 years ago cannot be dismissed just because we no longer interpret that leap as a sign of biological evolution. Something of enormous importance happened then — and I believe I can explain it in terms of the visions.

The key lies in the nature of the period between about 50,000 and 20,000 years ago, when the transformative-and-kinship partnership was reasserting its dominance. I previously discussed this period with reference to attempts that might have been made to bring the emerging spirit vision back in line — but that would have been only a small part of what was going on.

Throughout history, periods of this sort have been characterized by ambitious empire-building, as those societies which have most whole-heartedly embraced the dominant partnership begin to exert political hegemony over their neighbors. As they do, cultural diversity gives way to relative uniformity, and even rival empires are likely to be in frequent contact and share a common cultural style.

The most recent such period began in 1989, with the collapse of Soviet-style communism, the emergence of the United States as the sole global superpower, and the world-wide dominance of American cultural norms. Before that, there was the period that began after World War II and extended through the 1950’s, during which the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was the controlling factor in world affairs.

One more step takes us to the late 1800’s, when the British Empire was at its greatest extent and the European powers in general had colonized every corner of the world. Before that was the Napoleonic Empire in the first decades of the 19th century, and before that the period in the late 1600’s when France under Louis XIV was the dominant European power and the acknowledged center of cultural influence.

Periods like these are not times of wild innovation, especially compared to the earlier Golden Age when the dominant partnership was first developing, but they typically provide a prolonged Silver Age, marked by a high level of social stability and artistic and intellectual sophistication.

And though the mainstream culture at such times tends to be a bit on the slick side and given to glorification of the ruling elite, there is also room for the emergent visions to develop actively around the edges — at least so long as they confine themselves to romantic dreams and philosophical speculations and stay out of politics.

Eras of this sort are not sustainable, however. They gradually sink into complacency and stagnation, followed by cultural decay and fragmentation. But at their peak — as in the 1990’s, the 1950’s, or the 1890’s — it is easy to believe that they have found the perfect formula for social tranquility and popular satisfaction.

Because of these hallmarks, such periods are easily identifiable, even in the earlier historical record. There was the late medieval culture that dominated northern Europe in the 1400’s, until it was fragmented by the rise of nation-states and the Protestant Reformation. There was the Islamic caliphate of the 800’s, which maintained a distinctive artistic style over a vast geographical area until it too fragmented. There was the Roman Empire, which drew many different local strands into a culturally vibrant whole when it was established in the first century BC.

And the pattern can be traced back further yet. The late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean was marked by the rise of powerful empires, which interacted in a true international civilization that also incorporated many smaller city-states. The end of the Neolithic is harder to document because of the lack of written records, but archaeological finds indicate a high level of cultural exchange and at least one practice — the construction of megalithic monuments — that is found in otherwise diverse societies up and down the Atlantic coast from North Africa to Scandinavia.

All of this leads me to the conclusion that not only was there an equivalent period between about 50,000 and 20,000 years ago, but it was the great original which set the pattern for all those that followed.

But what might it have been like? How would it have functioned?

Here’s my best guess:

Around the start of the last ice age, there was a single human community stretching from southern Africa to Southeast Asia. With the partial exception of a few archaic outliers, everyone in that vast domain spoke a common language, had the same cultural practices, and may even have perceived themselves as bound by ties of kinship.

But as the cold deepened, this original territory was split by deserts into three broad zones: one in sub-Saharan Africa, a second consisting of limited refuge areas in the Middle East and India, and a third encompassing Southeast Asia and the subcontinents of Sunda and Sahul.

The period of separation lasted long enough for the three zones to diverge, both culturally and linguistically, and there may also have been lesser internal divergences. As a result, when the climate warmed up and people began to spread out again, they would have come into contact with others who looked much like them but who spoke oddly — perhaps even unintelligibly — and behaved in strange and unfamiliar ways.

That would have presented them with an enormous cognitive challenge, especially if they did not yet have a category of like-us-but-not-quite-the-same. The strangers they were meeting were not as alien as the Neanderthals of the Middle East or the Denisovans of East Asia, but they were undeniably different, and that would have been both disturbing and more than a bit frightening.

I believe that they met the challenge, however, and that they did so by inventing a new universal culture, based on a shared symbolic vocabulary which transcended differences of language and ordinary social customs. That is, after all, more or less what has happened during each of the more recent periods of empire-building — but because this was the first time ever, the experience would have been vastly more far-reaching.

As one example, it would have involved the invention of art as we now know it — not merely a few ornamental beads or simple linear designs scratched on a rock, but detailed representations of the natural world freighted with symbolic meaning. The performance arts, from music to story-telling, would also have been transformed into vehicles of symbolic communication.

And language itself may have undergone a transformation. Not only would vocabularies have expanded as people acquired new words from their neighbors, but the kind of abstract philosophical statements about time and space and relationship that are built into the very structure of present-day languages may well date to this period.

Moreover, once this subtle symbolic vocabulary had come into general use, that in itself would have provided the basis for further growth in both cultural sophistication and personal self-awareness.

This is, of course, highly speculative on my part, but a theory of that sort would explain the many indications of “behavioral modernity” appearing shortly before people first set off on the long trek to Europe, northern Asia, and the Americas.

It would also force us to acknowledge what a truly astonishing intellectual revolution that must have been, nurtured by a series of creative geniuses of extraordinary insight and ability. If we can drop our Eurocentrism entirely and recognize the admittedly impressive art of Paleolithic Europe as just one small, local manifestation of a global creative explosion, we may start to grasp the true dimensions of this achievement.

Most of the original products of that explosion have not survived. But there are traces of their legacy in every corner of the world, and that legacy is the foundation on which all later human civilization has been constructed.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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One Response to “The First Global Civilization”

  1. scifieye says:

    Very interested in prehistory, I believe that civilization has been around much longer than commonly cited. Your article coincides with my own general belief and offers a good starting point theory. However, I’m still wondering how the different races developed, and how it might fit into your theory of the divergence of human civilization, and if habitat has any bearing on this. Humans are varied in looks and behavior, but we are all intelligent to the same degree, as borne out when people of different cultures are brought together to experience the same environment of learning. We wonder where the “spark” of inventiveness, self awareness, and thirst for knowledge at different stages of civilization came from, or if certain special individuals were just born with these qualities, and if they in turn taught those around them how to think beyond the everyday tasks to just stay alive. History is littered with these special people, known and unknown.

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