Two books have really tried to explain the history of the civilizations. ‘Sapiens by Yuval Harari’ and ‘Guns, germs, and steel’ by Jared Diamond.
The main question in these text is ‘why did different parts of the world develop differently’
Here I try to summarize the research done by Jared and Yuval into how the current world came to be.
Jared Diamond’s book begins by distinguishing between proximate causes and the ultimate causes. Proximate causes are easier and direct. Those regions that had more weapons, military and better organised were able to defeat, conquer when they came into contact with another population. ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ tries to explain the ultimate causes.
Roughly 10,000 years ago humans decided that farming was better than moving from place to place. Initially starting from a region called mesopotamia, present day parts of eastern Mediterranean(mainly Iraq but also parts of Syria/Iran). It later spread to the nearby regions. According to Jared, the expansive Eurasia region had favorable geographic and climatic conditions for agriculture. It was the first region for humans to change to agriculture. Initially, we were hunters and gatherers but changing to agriculture had both intended and unintended consequences.
Domestication: most of the wild animals found in the region were also suitable for domestication than other regions. Diffusion of domesticated crops and animals was faster and easier in Eurasia with longer east-west latitude: allowing for similar climatic conditions/day-length, an important ingredient for crops farming.
The whole Guns, germs and steel theory can be summarized as continental axis theory: Eurasia had better geographic conditions to gain upper hand in domestication and agriculture than Africa.
It is largely assumed in the book that most of the other regions continued with hunting and gathering for a while before being forced to adopt agriculture. Agriculture propelled more population growth, leading to different but mostly centralized systems of governance, growth of larger communities, chiefdoms, conflict between people, military and growth of weapons. These were able to be developed since communities settled in one place. While these advancements were being made in Eurasia, most of other regions were still moving from place, largely due to geographic factors, or just because they saw no need to settle down. Subsequently, it was the Eurasians who millenniums later began exploring the world having developed capabilities of conquest and search for new lands. When they came into contact with other groups there was spread of germs and outbreaks such as smallpox eliminated majority of local populations. This coupled with better weapons contributed European conquest in areas of Americas, Australia. They ended up settling in these regions and displacing the local populations, however, in some regions, they were not able to settle down because they were also repelled by local tropical diseases such as malaria in New Guinea and tropical Africa. Furthermore, due to food production and settling down, there was a lot of tinkering and cultural exchange and conflicts in the Eurasia region. These allowed for diffusion of technology in the region faster.
The initial head-start by the region is still being witnessed today. Based on this theory, the perfect recipe for building a civilization is: develop key competency in one area- spread it to as many people as possible- establish structures to enjoy the first mover advantage.
There are other viewpoints. In explaining what happened in the near history later years especially from 1400s onward, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in the book ‘Why Nations fail‘ attribute economic and political institutions played a more important role than climate and geographical aspects. The arguments made are such that regions that established centralized political systems and other economic incentives such as property rights for the people enabled more people to undertake trade and develop innovative solutions. When the industrial revolutions started in the 17th and 18th century, regions that had more developed political and economic systems would benefit highly than those who did not. Regions in sub-Saharan Africa continued to face challenges because the policies instituted by the colonial government were not really meant to empower ordinary people and even after the end of colonization, the institutions left behind were not reformed, this coupled with hundred of years of lack of robust systems meant lack of progress.
however, some points to note:
Accounts by Jared on ‘Guns Germs & steel’ are intriguing, but still fail to account for developments that existed in parts of Africa at the same time or even before European rise.
Majority of ancient history focuses on empires of Rome. In Africa, Egypt is mainly the focus due to the great pyramids. The above two books and majority of others focus mainly on European conquest, however, there is much much more.
Islam influence is thought to have been flourishing in the so called dark ages in Europe. Some great innovations and progress was made in the Islam world that spread to parts of North Africa, Middle East to present day central European region. Some of trials such as compass, camera, flying etc laid the foundation for improvements and innovations later on.
Chinese were actually among the first to explore the old world not the Europeans. They were the first to develop ships and sailed across vast parts of the world. However, for some reason they tended to resist interfering with other cultures and preferred not to share and influence other cultures. Some sources say that the cause could be local politics that led to them abandoning their quests. However, some major innovations such as gunpowder, paper money, wheelbarrow, windmills, block printing and paper are thought to have originated from the Chinese.
Also, some parts of Africa show some impressive old world progress and innovations. Some of the old kingdoms that existed in Africa include: Great Zimbabwe, It was an impressive ancient Kingdom that had huge stone walls and most powerful kingdom in the region. The robust architectural designs used at that time are incredible and exist today as ruins. Archaeological evidence shows that they were constructed by local people in the area. There are accounts of how it grew even further with trade with the Arabs, Indians, with Swahili coast serving as entry point. The great merchant trade existed between Egypt, India and coast of East Africa to the Great Zimbabwe. The enormous and expansive trade route was among the first published descriptions of ancient trades, centuries before the arrival of Europeans. One of the hot-stops was Kilwa that even invented its own currency in the 11th century in order to facilitate international trade. You can find more here.Today, the place remains and is a great tourist attraction. Impressive how some 900 years ago they were able to build such fortifications with remarkable fashion.
The Bantu expansion in Africa is also a major historical event that has led to occupation of major regions of modern day Africa from the Congo basin. The original inhabitants are thought to be the Khoisan and African pygmies. They still exists today but it very small numbers.
The Kingdom of Benin was also among the most developed. Not be confused with modern day Benin, the Kingdom was located in modern day Nigeria. It had some impressive structures and showed the prowess of the local people in making them. Apart from art, it had sophisticated methods of trade, government, rule among others.
A wonder in its own time
Ajuran Sultanate: was an ancient powerful Kingdom of the Somali empire in the horn of Africa. It was flourishing in the middle ages. They were able to resist invaders for long periods of time, even fighting the Portuguese invasion of the Indian Ocean coast and winning several times. They had sophisticated methods of architecture, trade and governance that enabled them to trade with other empires.
Africa’s history is a puzzle of grand propositions and could only have been unraveled partly. There’s still a lot that we still don’t know. Africa has an estimated 1500-2000 languages, making it harbor about 25% of all languages spoken in the world today. Most of the history, traditions were passed from one generation to another orally. ‘some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth‘. There is a lot of mix and match in Africa and probably not all history is recorded correctly and maybe there is more to discover.
For example, whereas it might be largely known that Egypt was the first place to start Agriculture and farming in Africa, some other archaeological evidence suggests it could be the Sahara, specifically the Sahel region. In the past, The Sahara was not as dry as it is today. If that is true, then there is probably a lot we don’t know about the region yet. Like the ancient lost city of Atlantis. could it be in west sahara?
There are other great ancient kingdoms such as
Kingdom of Kush (Sudan)
Mali Empire: it was ruled by Mansa Musa who was the richest person in the old world.
Aksum empire: One of the 4 great powers of the old world together with China, Rome and Persia. Located in modern day Ethiopia, it existed around 100 – 950 AD and was a major commercial route for roman and Indian trade. It even invented its own currency called Aksumite currency. Later came the Ethiopian empire which was equally impressive. The Ethiopians, led by Menelik II were able to defeat Italian invasion during the Battle of Adwa in the 1896. Before that, it has rich history of powerful dynasties such as Zagwe dynasty and Solomonic dynasty as well as purported home of Queen of Sheba. One of the other figures in the modern times was Emperor Haile Selassie who was even the Time Man of the year in 1935 after his world-moving speech at the League of Nations calling for ‘collective security’ and resisting the renewed Italian invasion.
There are many others. I hope one day we get to see such depictions in popular culture.
Like other places in ancient Europe and Asia, Africa also had empires and kingdoms that flourished. There were periods of conquest, rise and decline just like in other parts of the world. People developed in different parts based on the region they were in. Innovations were largely based on culture, environment and climate needs. However, what is true is that talent, human ingenuity existed in all parts of the world.