The most recent ~1% of human history—the past 10,000 years—has seen major and rapid cultural innovations. That much is clear from a whole host of prehistoric records, from exquisite artifacts to discarded trash, from ornamental beads to crude weaponry, and much, much more. The glaciers had retreated, creating warmer and wetter environments, thereby allowing the land to flourish. Our hunter-gatherer forebears followed the spreading flora and fauna, occupying, even if sparsely, every part of the globe except the poles. All the while they were toying with tools and refining ideas to enhance their survival.
Of all the factors that contributed to the rapid rise of modern humans, the invention of agriculture was surely among the most important—some say the most important, as it represents a pivotal milestone on the road to modernity. As suggested by Figure 7.22, tilling the land made available a reliable source of food to feed growing numbers of people on Earth. In short, scavengers had transformed into agriculturists, beginning with the domestication of plants and animals ~100 centuries ago.
Agriculture Archaeological data show clear evidence for whole new methods of subsistence by ~8000 years ago, initially amongst the hills of the Fertile Crescent, from the eastern Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea, spreading quickly thereafter into the Near East and western Europe. Systematic crop planting and livestock raising near stable village settlements fostered then swelling populations in agricultural locales (eventually to become cities) across Eurasia. Not only did absolute numbers of additional people survive, but many more were migrating to eventually colonize virtually every nook and cranny on the planet.
The tricks of the trade of agriculture spread like a weed on the wind from Asia and the Aegean, reaching (or perhaps emerging independently) within a few thousand years many distant places, including China, Mexico, and South America. Hunter-gatherers had indeed given way to farmers and herders of mainly cattle, sheep, maize (corn), rice and wheat, the last of these the most valuable single crop in today’s modern world. Food-production jump-started society: Trading flourished; economy rose; population soared. Change was rampant as the so-called Neolithic Revolution was well underway—though even here those cultural changes were probably gradual, albeit rapid—to repeat that trite though apt phrase, more evolutionary than revolutionary. Urbanization and ultimately industrialization were not far behind.
Civilization had moved into high gear. It had taken an awfully long time after life originated, but highly organized and manipulative life forms had finally arrived. One thing led to another: Lifestyles multiplied; cultures proliferated; technologies advanced. Aided by irrigation systems built alongside river valleys, the skill of farming developed dramatically.
The human population rose yet more rapidly, especially in urban areas along waterways such as the Nile River in what is now Egypt and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers running through what is now Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Specialized crafts were refined to serve the populace of these growing communities: Metalwork, ceramics, shipbuilding, and woodcuts all show up clearly in the archaeological record beginning ~6000 years ago. That record is best documented for southwestern Asia (the Middle East), yet pragmatic and artistic progress likely ensued at other geographical centers as well. Figure 7.23 graphs some key cultural and technical innovations advanced by civilizations in this area, particularly Mesopotamia.
Although much of this preceded recorded history, urban societies and mature economies, as well as complex social and political systems, were surely the rule, not the exception. Agriculture, industry, and commerce were fully established several thousand years ago. And they have persisted to this, the 21st century.
We have reached the here and now in our cosmic-evolutionary narrative.
Historical Perspective Be sure to place into perspective these later developments of civilization’s advance toward greater complexity. Thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of years tend to merge into a temporal blur after a while. To appreciate the time frame for the tallest highlights of recorded history, consider the following analogy:
Imagine the entire duration of Earth to be 50 years, instead of nearly 5 billion, thereby making each megacentury a “year.” Comparable to a human life span, this compressed time scale then allows salient features of Earth’s history to become more comprehensible. In this analogy, no record whatever exists for nearly the first decade. Rocks hardened relatively soon thereafter, as the environment subsided appreciably during those first 10 years. Life originated ~35 years ago, when Earth had hardly become a teenager in our analogy. The planet’s middle age is largely a mystery, though we can be reasonably sure that life continued to evolve, or at least persist, and that tectonic events continued to build mountain chains and oceanic trenches.
Not until ~6 years ago, in our 50-year analogy, did abundant life flourish throughout Earth’s oceans. This same life didn’t come ashore until ~4 years ago. Leafy plants and squeaky mammals prevailed across the surface <2 years ago. Dinosaurs reached their peak ~1 year ago, only to disappear suddenly ~8 months ago. Human-like apes became ape-like humans only last week and the latest major ice age occurred only yesterday. Modern Homo sapiens didn’t appear until several hours ago. In fact, according to the compressed timescale of this analogy, the onset of agriculture is only ~1 hour old, all of recorded history a half hour, and the Renaissance a mere 3 minutes in the past.
In short, a microscope would be needed to see the highlights of recorded history and cultural evolution on a temporal scale spread across any one page of this Web site. Yet it’s within that shrunken duration of contemporary times that we humans have richly probed, reasoned, and discovered much about our conscious selves and the expansive Universe beyond.