7,000,000 years in 700 words: A Brief History of the Human Race

by adamsopticks

'Guns, Germs and Steel': The spread of humans around the world.

‘Guns, Germs and Steel’: The spread of humans around the world.

I normally steer well-clear of history as a subject because I’m useless at remembering detail. I prefer patterns. It is for this reason that I’m currently deeply absorbed Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. As a history book written by a biologist it brings to the traditional conception of the subject not only a breathtaking multi-million-year perspective, but also – controversially – a scientist’s ambition to perceive order in history’s chaos. Diamond’s theory is one that seeks to explain why some societies – most notably Eurasian ones – got such a headstart over others (such as Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, South Africans and Pacific Islanders), and it does so largely with recourse to geographical factors like the worldwide distribution of domesticable plant and animal species. Gone are the tales of individual genius, great leaders, or the innate superiority of certain peoples. In their place sits the guiding assumption that everyone, everywhere, is pretty smart – and that getting ahead is just a matter of what resources you have to work with.

I’m not going to recount Diamond’s full argument here. You can read the book for that. Instead, I’d just like to offer a quick summary of chapter one, ‘Up to the Starting Line’, because it provides a wonderful foundation for all the subsequent detail – and for an understanding of humankind in general. What follows is essentially a whirlwind account of the last 7 million years of human development and expansion across the globe.

A note regarding accuracy: Obviously, most of the dates listed here are the best guesses based upon the available evidence (which is sometimes scant). Diamond discusses at length the various controversies surrounding each claim, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve relegated most of these concerns to a brief footnote.

And so…

c. 7,000,000 years ago: A group of African apes splits into four separate populations which eventually evolve into four distinct species: gorillas, the common chimp, the bonobo chimp, and humans.*

c. 4,000,000 – 1,700,000 years ago: Proto-humans evolve in sequence from what we now call ‘Australopithecus africanus’ to ‘Homo habilus’ to ‘Homo erectus’. There are advances in upright posture, body-size and brain-size (though the latter is still only half as large modern humans’). Some very crude stone tools are innovated.*

c. 1,000,000 years ago: Homo erectus makes it out of Africa, and all the way to South-East Asia (with the earliest evidence of a human ancestor outside of Africa found in Java).*

c. 500,000 years ago: Proto-humans – now classified as ‘Homo sapiens’ – make it to Europe. Despite sharing our classification, these people were yet to develop the brain size and behaviour patterns of modern human. The use of fire was innovated.*

c. 500,000 – 40,000 years ago: There are evolutionary divergences between the three main populations of proto-humans in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The most famous amongst these were Europe’s ‘Neanderthals’, who had larger brains, buried their dead, and cared for their sick. The Africans at this time were the most similar to modern humans. Tools and hunting skills remained rudimentary across the board, however.*

c. 50,000 years ago: ‘The Great Leap Forward’ occurs. Modern (‘Cro Magnon’) man appears. The revolution in human development probably centred around the emergence of language. Its effects included the invention of standardised stone tools, jewellery, bone tools (including fishhooks), harpoons, spears, bows and arrows, rope, houses, sewn clothing, and incredible art (most famously at Lascaux, in France). It seems likely that this ‘Great Leap’ happened first in Africa and then spread to other continents as those more advanced humans displaced their evolutionary counterparts. This is certainly what happened in Europe, with African Cro-Magnons killing or displacing the Neanderthals with little hybridisation. In China and Indonesia the picture is less clear: there is some (controversial) evidence that the indigenous people of those areas have been established for hundreds of thousands of years, suggesting a parallel ‘Great Leap’.*

[According to Andrew Marr’s History of the World, currently airing on the BBC, all modern humans may trace their line of descent back to a single tribe – and a single pregnant woman – who left Africa at this time. This supports the hypothesis that modern humans spread to every corner of the world by force.]

c. 40,000 – 30,000 years ago: Modern humans reach the (then-combined) Australia-New Guinea continent. Much of Indonesia was reachable on foot (due to lower sea levels during the Ice Age), but this is the first indication of watercraft being used. There was the first major extinction of indigenous ‘megafauna’ (including giant kangaroos, rhino-like ‘diprodonts’, marsupial ‘leopards’ and ostrich-like birds). Unlike large African or European mammals, these species had not had a chance to co-evolve with increasingly threatening humans. Instead they were probably completely tame, and likely wiped out by the burgeoning human population.*

c. 20,000 years ago: Humans (in possession of needles, sewn clothing and warm-housing) reach Northern Europe and Siberia. The woolly mammoth and woolly rhino go extinct.*

c. 14,000 years ago (12,000 BC): With the thawing of the previously impassable Canadian ice-sheet, humans reach the Americas via Alaska, and spread all the way south as far as Amazonia and Patagonia within 1000 years. Hoards of native elephants, horses, lions, cheetahs, camels and giant sloths go extinct.*

c. 10,500 – 6,000 years ago (8,500 – 4,000 BC): Mediterranean peoples reach the islands of Crete, Cyprus, Corsica and Sardinia.*

c. 4000 years ago (2,000 BC): Native Americans (latterly Inuits) reach the High Arctic.*

c. 3,200 – 1,500 years ago (1,200 BC – 500 AD): One group of sea-faring New Guineans (from the Bismark Archipelago) spread out across the hundreds of Polynesian and Micronesian Islands (including New Zealand, Tonga and Hawaii).*

c. 1,700 – 1,200 years ago (300 AD – 800 AD): Indonesians (rather than Africans) discover Madagascar by canoe across the Indian Ocean.*

c. 1,100 – 1000 years ago (900 AD – 1000 AD): Norse peoples reach Iceland (though they may have been preceded by Scottish or Irish Celts).*

c. 700 years ago onward (1,300 AD – ): European explorers discover the last remaining islands in the remote Atlantic and Indian Oceans (such as the Azores and Seychelles), plus Antarctica.*


* Probably.