Back to Contents

William H. McNeil

Some of the leading proponents of world system history, those who are heirs to a Marxist tradition, assume that material exchanges (supplemented by Hows of money and credit) were what created and sustained world systems among the people of the past. I propose to argue that paying attention to information networks offers a more promising way to understand human history. The reason is that information about material goods, business risks and potential gains was only part of what passed through such networks, and in many cases other kinds of information had far greater effect in changing the way participants in the network' actually behaved. In particular, religious ideas and organizations, almost wholly overlooked by those who concentrate on material exchanges, often altered human lives profoundly, sometimes affecting economic behavior in ways that cannot be reduced to calculations of material gain. A wide range of largely or entirely secular scientific, technological and aesthetic ideas and skills also passed through information networks, and also altered human lives, in greater or lesser degree.

The simple, obvious fact is that what makes us human is participation in information networks. Only by such participation do we learn who we are and what to do in everyday life. Language is the principal medium humans use to spread information - whether practical, theoretical, or fanciful. But as I point out in Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human Affairs (1995), the extraordinary success that reliance on language to direct and coordinate behavior has brought within our reach rests on top of and mingles with older, gestural; forms of communication that are needed to establish and sustain emotional cooperation.

If these propositions are true, it follows that a history of the human adventure on earth ought to focus on changes in the modes of communication, taking special note of alterations in their range and carrying capacity. Technological improvements in transport and in devices for recording and retrieving information will define the major eras of such a portrait of the past. But before sketching patterns of world history so defined, let me say a few words about die patterns of human interaction that created and sustained more local communities - bands, villages, cities, territorial states, polyethnic empires, and civilizations.

All human lives begin with helpless infancy. While awake, infants engage in almost continuous communication with parents especially the mother and other


members of the immediate family. As they grow older, this is supplemented by interaction with others in the immediate vicinity. The result of something like twenty years of messages in and messages out is an adult that resembles those around him or her closely enough to fit smoothly into the larger community, whatever its character. Gestural communication dominates at first: language takes over gradually and by about age two becomes dominant, but speech remains bedded in gestural patterns of which we become almost entirely unconscious, though they remain essential for communicating emotions.

In accordance with the biological principle 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,' this presumably recapitulates the history of our species. After our ancestors learned to walk on two legs, they probably next learned to dance together, and thereby aroused shared sentiments of solidarity. This allowed bands of hunters and gatherers to smooth over personal rivalries and frictions, improve cooperation generally and in particular to keep larger bands from breaking up as they do today among our close relatives, the chimpanzees. Larger bands, in turn, had decisive advantage in defending their hunting and gathering territory against smaller bands. Hence, only dancers survive, and all humans still dance. Chalk up success number one for a (still protohuman) improvement in communication.

Complex personal interactions within such groups eventually generated language which soon began to carry new meanings, not just about material matters like where to find the best berries, or how best to kill an animal and divide its meat among members of the group, but also about the spirit world, accessible through dreams and, more predictably, through trance induced by dance. Rules for dealing with the spirits were swiftly constructed. The first specialists, almost for sure, were experts in the supernatural who guided their fellows through resulting intricacies and were accorded both gifts and deference in return. Eventually, when the first complex societies arose in Sumer, spiritual specialists managed the collective effort necessary to erect monumental buildings for housing the gods where they conducted increasingly sumptuous rituals of worship to please them, and arranged all the other cooperative activities needed to sustain the cities of the Tigris-Euphrates flood plain.

The extraordinary way Sumerian priests shaped their society along new lines illustrates the way human beings became capable of remaking themselves and the world around them in accordance with a (largely arbitrary) world of meanings created by words. Grammatically and logically structured words, linking individuals together by shared meanings, came to enjoy a quasi-independent existence of their own, evolving across time, sometimes slowly, sometimes in spurts. Each separate language became a precarious semiotic equilibrium, analogous to the local biological equilibria that together constitute the ecosystem. And, as the Sumerian priests demonstrated so unmistakably, these semiotic equilibria came to be capable of controlling collective human behavior and directing it along new


The process long antedated Sumer. Unceasing interaction (and frequent friction) between the real world (where people still had to find food and other material goods after all) and the semiotic world (where they found meaning, achieved status


in their own eyes and those of their fellows, and learned everything else that made life worth living) accelerated innovation of all kinds. New forms of stone tools, succeeding one another with unprecedented rapidity, beginning about 60,000 years ago, are the principal surviving evidence of this extraordinary transformation of human behavior. Presumably it arose from the way play with words can guide human hands in their play with material objects, in this case, tools.

A corollary of the spurt in human inventiveness that thus became the norm was that hunters and gatherers became more and more skillful, allowing their numbers to increase. One important response was to expand into new territories, making all necessary adjustments to thrive in differing climates and ecosystems. But eventually, soon after all the habitable earth had been occupied, in more and more locations increasing numbers made the human impact on the biosphere unsustainable. This, in turn, provoked systematic food production, starting in different parts of the earth between about 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. Food production in turn allowed still greater numbers of human beings to survive until, in specially fertile landscapes, priests began to organize the first cities - once more, in different parts of the earth at times offset from one another by no more than 2,000 years.

The lesson to draw from this thumbnail sketch of humanity's prehistory is that once human groups began to act cooperatively in accordance with more or less arbitrary meanings invented by their use of words, a new, accelerated level of evolution set in. Just as living forms of plant life once transformed the atmosphere of the earth by releasing free oxygen, thus allowing animal life to evolve across ensuing geological epochs, so also man-made semiotic equilibria began to alter the biosphere by coordinating and directing human behavior along new lines. More recently, as we all know, humans have begun to alter the physio-chemical equilibria of the atmosphere and hydrosphere as well. Perhaps the near-abroad of space will be next to be affected by this new, peculiarly human, form of evolution.

Though cities with their priests and rulers, soldiers, merchants and artisans dominate the written records we inherit from the civilized past, it is worth reminding ourselves that from the time agricultural villages started to spread across suitable landscapes until almost the present, villages were the principal social context within which human beings lived. Nearly all villages were of such a size that everyone knew everyone else by sight, and knew how to behave towards everyone else in accord with well-defined rules instilled in childhood. Strangers were few at first, and later, when they multiplied, villagers learned how to deal with them too - sometimes offering gifts, sometimes taking flight, and sometimes simply disregarding outsiders.

Even when, after the rise of cities and civilization, more and more villagers were routinely compelled to hand over rents and taxes to landlords and rulers, they retained local autonomy for everyday activity. And by nurturing the young in traditional ways villagers continued to sustain both biological and cultural continuity among humankind, despite sudden crises, ceaseless changes and occasional disasters that sometimes wiped out local communities or even entire peoples. About three-quarters of humankind lived in such communities as


recently as 1850; earlier the percentage was larger. In short, village family and community life was the human norm. No stable substitute has yet been found. The success with which urban styles of life have invaded and disrupted almost all the village communities of the world since, say 1950, rests on very shaky ground. City dwellers have not yet clearly demonstrated a capacity to sustain biological and cultural continuity, as the widespread recent breakdown of family nurture shows.

When cities first appeared, they were parasitic on surrounding villagers. Not only did city dwellers import food from surrounding villages, they also failed to reproduce themselves biologically and therefore had to import a stream of villagers (freely or as slaves) to carry out all the more unattractive tasks of the urban community. This was partly because intensified infections, provoked by large numbers crowded together, commonly raised urban deaths above the number of urban births. A second, parallel factor was that many city dwellers were unable to form families and raise children because they led lives of isolated dependency as household servants, soldiers, caravan personnel or slaves of one sort or another.

Within villages, on the other hand, disease was less frequent and from age five or so, children could begin to earn their keep by helping around the house and in the fields. Doing so, they automatically acquired all the skills and knowledge needed to carry on as adults simply by associating with their parents and siblings at work, but also in play. Occasional festive dances where old and young kept time together for hours on end were the most important form of play. Such ceremonies appear to have been universal; and this, in tandem with the network of meanings expressed in words, was what made villages so resilient. Personal frictions were regularly dissipated by shared euphoria brought on by the dance. Thus, two communication networks - one linguistic, one gestural - intertwined and reinforced one another, binding villagers together into a tighdy-knit group where every individual had a place and knew what he or she had to do in almost all situations.

Through most of recorded history, of course, such primary communities were embedded in a far-flung network of other sorts of communication, organized and conducted primarily by city folk. Among them, no comparably powerful, comprehensive network of shared experience prevailed. Instead cities had to struggle with diversity. Occupational, religious, ethnic and neighborhood groups jostled one another. Individuals often had multiple group affinities and, depending on circumstances, could shift loyalty and behavior patterns from one to another - or straddle conflicting duties and expectations while suffering anxious confusion. What held diverse urban groups together was their common subordination to rulers, usually a single person whose power of course depended on support and cooperation from privileged followers and agents. They in effect became one more group, perpetually jostling with other groups for position and status.

Naked force and military organization played a part in defining who commanded and who (more or less) obeyed. But legitimacy always rested on words as well, used to invest rulers with some sort of supernatural, divine sanction. Acquiescence in such claims was essential for die rulers' everyday relations with


subordinated groups. Only so could tax collection become routinized, customary and more or less predictable. An alliance of throne and altar, in some form or another, thus became central in all urban societies and in all of the different civilizations as well. They were constructed on the strength of a communications network mat defined norms for die behavior of ruling groups throughout broad territories where thousands of villages and scores of cities had then to adjust to their common subordination.

Each of the diverse urban groupings over which rulers presided had its own network of shared meanings and an appropriate communications net to sustain them. That, and that alone, was what made a group out of die individuals who comprised it. But such networks overlapped and made different demands, so nothing like die tight-knit whole characteristic of village life could arise. Frictions provoked by discrepancies of belief and conduct were chronic. This distressing circumstance in turn kept on generating new sorts of behavior - sometimes hostile, sometimes defensive, sometimes seeking reconciliation with others.

Cities therefore became the primary seat of innovation, and contacts among different cities became the primary pathway for spreading particularly successful or attractive inventions from their place of origin to a wider world. Resulting diffusion of new ways of doing things and of thinking about the world constitute the warp and weft of world history since that was how most historical change was generated.

To be sure, other factors were sometimes operative. The way Easter Islanders destroyed the forests they needed for making canoes and moving statues shows that an isolated population may sometimes provoke very drastic change by disrupting its relation with the natural environment. But once specialized skills and divergent outlooks established themselves in urban clusters at a few locations on the face of the earth, the most powerful current of historical change was generated by contacts between such centers and surrounding peoples.

This was so because, in general, it appears to be true that bands of hunters and gatherers as well as herdsmen and fully independent agricultural villagers soon learned how to sustain a more or less stable relation with their environment. If numbers became too great, famine could be relied on to restore the balance with local food resources. But this was not very common. Instead, local customs usually had the effect of keeping human numbers from pressing too hard on available food resources. No doubt, resulting balances were unstable, but as far as one can tell, the fate of the Easter Islanders was exceptional. Instead, it was encounters with strangers with different ideas and skills that provoked the principal changes in local custom and traditional ways of exploiting the environment from the time that important differences of skill and knowledge began to distinguish occupational specialists from one another.

The resulting pattern of change resembles the shifting highs and lows on our weather maps. Just as winds blow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure, so also did skills and knowledge tend to flow from populations possessing high skills and specialized knowledge toward those whose skills and knowledge were less. Deliberate imitation and borrowing sometimes took place. More often


change was initiated by efforts to resist outside threats and blandishments. But success in preserving local ways of life regularly required innovation to keep strangers and their seductive ways safely at arm's length.

Not only that: effective resistance usually compelled convergence. Only independent and opposite but similar behavior was ordinarily able to meet an outside threat on even terms. And once a community or people began to interact with skilled outsiders - whether by borrowing or by rejecting their disturbing novelties - additional adjustments and alterations of customary behavior always became necessary. Self-sustaining processes of social and cultural change were thus generated across the centuries within every community and people in contact with strangers possessing different and superior skills.

Why did superiorly-skilled strangers persist in intruding? Search for precious raw materials, slaves and other goods was one motive, but only one of several. Flight from an enemy or from punishment for some crime was another common motive. Wandering off into distant parts was a risky but attractive solution for youths who confronted obstacles in assuming fully adult roles. And once the so-called higher religions arose and started to anchor the lives of believers upon new meanings, practices and truths, religious missionaries, and holy men who merely sought to escape from the corruptions of the world, had additional motives for intruding on distant peoples. Last but not least, organized armies sometimes attacked in hope of plundering neighbors, and perhaps extracting taxes afterwards, or of driving them away and settling surplus home populations on new ground.

Little is known about the resulting interactions of peoples and cultures in pre-Columbian America, and next to nothing can be said of Australia or even of the interior parts of sub-Saharan Africa before about 500 AD. I am confident however that contacts among strangers provoked historical change in those continents just as they did in Eurasia. But since differences in skill and knowledge were less pronounced in those parts of the earth than was the case in Eurasia, scrappy and inadequate archaeological remains do not show paths of diffusion very clearly. By comparison, the history of Eurasia is far more accessible, thanks both to far richer archaeology and, above all, to the mass of written records dating back almost 5,000 years. In the balance of this chapter, I will therefore only try to point out landmarks in the evolution of the Eurasian communications net, which however extended to parts of Africa from even the earliest times.

In the beginning, our ancestors walked on two legs; then they danced together; and then they learned to speak to one another. But that was only a start, for thanks to the way the semiotic equilibria created by human languages interacted with the biosphere and with the physico-chemical equilibria of the earth's surface, human communities kept on inventing new and more powerful modes of communication. This development moved along two lines. One was harnessing new sorts of energy to movement across distances, thus expanding the range and carrying capacity of human muscles. The second was inventing new ways of storing and retrieving information, thus expanding me range and carrying capacity of human memory. But each improvement in transportation and each improvement in


access to information expanded the reach and intensity of interaction among individuals and groups, thus accelerating historical change as the centuries passed.

This incremental intensification fed into an already existing network of slender interaction based solely on our biological heritage of walking, gesturing and speaking. With these means, throughout the millennia required to extend human occupancy across the varied landscapes of Eurasia, encounters with neighbors sustained a net of interaction that eventually extended, however loosely, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the northern forests to the central grasslands, southern deserts and beyond into the monsoon lands of India and Southeast Asia. The succession of stone tool types that diffused slowly within that network is the only surviving evidence, and no one can suppose that the sites that have been explored and analyzed yet provide anything like an accurate and full record of what actually happened. But changes did occur and did spread.

The network, obviously, became tighter and more capacious with each technical improvement. It also recurrently extended its geographic reach until in recent centuries the whole globe was caught in its meshes. Eurasian developments therefore can claim to be central to human history inasmuch as what happened there successfully intruded upon, altered and eventually engulfed all the other communications networks and lesser civilizational structures of other parts of the earth, i

The major landmarks of the transport and information access stories are entirely familiar, though the way successive improvements in moving people and goods across distances, and in storing and retrieving information affected economies, polities and cultures has attracted only sporadic attention from historians. Indeed the task of writing a really plausible account of the human past boils down to recasting familiar narratives of these dimensions of our past in the light of, and in accordance with, the notion that fundamental departures from old ways were regularly stimulated by changes in transport and in access to information.

Let me sketch plausible turning points (still only surmised and inadequately tested against the variety of local histories) in these two means of communication.

The muscular strength of domesticated animals was what first allowed humankind to transcend the limitations of human muscles for carrying heavy weights from here to there. Contemporaneously with the development of grain agriculture in the Middle East, donkeys, oxen and, subsequently to about 4000 BC, horses and mules were made to carry heavier burdens than people could bear. This was important for local life. Farmers needed to carry food, fuel and other commodities to their homes from where they grew or could be found in nature. Animal portage soon became important for long distance trade as well, circulating scarce commodities far and wide - things like obsidian, metals, precious stones, rare shells, textiles, jewelry, tools and weapons. Organized into caravans, animals could carry goods across indefinite distances, wherever fodder grew wild along the way. Simply by stopping to graze for part of the day, the animals fueled the next stage of the journey.


But for millennia the capability of caravans for conveying goods and information throughout the fertile areas of Eurasia was inhibited by the problem of safeguarding precious possessions against human predators. Before caravan linkages could begin to cross the continent, states capable of monopolizing organized violence within their borders had to come into being, and their rulers had to discover that safeguarding each passing caravan in return for a modest share of the goods it carried produced a better assorted and far more assured income than unchecked predation could ever do.

A cache of Assyrian records shows that such political conditions and understandings were firmly in place across Anatolia as early as 1800 BC. They also reveal remarkably sophisticated arrangements for standardized packaging of commodities, for negotiating protection rents with local rulers and even for insurance against losses. Caravans, clearly, were nothing new in 1800 BC and in all probability dated back, in some form or other, to prehistoric times when the obsidian of Catal Huyuk (say 6000 BC) was the principal trade commodity of the region.

But Anatolia was precocious. Effective monopolization of organized violence in a few hands across the whole of Eurasia required advances in communications and transport beyond simple animal portage. Rulers had to concentrate relatively massive resources in capital cities so as to be able to support a corps of military and administrative specialists. They also had to control subordinates at a distance and keep sufficiently in touch with them to be able to enforce their will by sending an expeditionary force to the spot in case of revolt. This required new kinds of transport and communications, and not surprisingly, they came on stream before the earliest cities arose.

On suitably dry and level terrain, wheeled vehicles made concentration of goods more feasible, carrying larger loads with fewer animals than caravans could do. On water, boats were far more capacious than carts and wagons, but could only traverse relatively slow rivers and calm seas at first. Both were already familiar in Sumer when the first cities arose between 4000 and 3000 BC. Sailing in the Mediterranean probably dates back to the same period of time, when islands like Crete were occupied for the first time. Navigation along the shores of the Indian ocean (and South China Sea?) was probably older, but no one knows when sailing vessels first began to come and go across long distances by exploiting the way monsoon winds reverse direction with the seasons.

The solid-wheeled wagons of early Sumer were too clumsy to turn and suffered from too much friction to carry heavy loads very far; but shipping probably was essential for supplying the early Sumerian cities, clustered as they were near the mouths of the Tigris-Euphrates. We know that long distance voyaging was commonplace. Contacts with Egypt date back to before 3000 BC for sure; they are attested with the Indus valley only from 2500 BC but that is because ground water halted excavation at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro at about that time horizon. Important information certainly passed between Sumer and Egypt. The earliest Egyptian monumental stone structures, for example, show clear signs of borrowings from Mesopotamian mud-brick architecture; while in Mesopotamia, Naram Sin (ca. 2250 BC) may have tried to consolidate the ramshackle empire he had


inherited from his grandfather, Sargon ofAkkad, by importing the idea of divine kingship from Egypt.

These imports did not nourish. Egyptians swiftly developed an architecture better fitted for stone construction; and divine kingship did not suffice to hold Mesopotamia together where the swift currents in the Tigris and Euphrates prevented shipping from moving up-river as in Egypt. Nothing like the Pharonic consolidation of the Nile valley below the first cataract was possible until overland transport achieved a carrying capacity that allowed rulers to concentrate sufficient resources to sustain overwhelmingly superior armed forces around their persons and thus overawe any and all rivals.

In Sargon's time, his armies were indeed larger than anyone else's, but they lived by plundering wherever they went. Stable government required rulers to substitute taxation for plunder; but taxing was only feasible when levies in kind could be delivered to the capital or some lesser administrative seat and used to support (more or less) obedient agents of the central authority. Efficient carts and wagons, using the hub and axle design we still employ to minimize friction, were invented about 1800 BC. They allowed concentration of tax revenues from suitably dry plainlands for the first time.

Use of writing to record tax payments and transfers was equally important for effective imperial administration. In addition, writing could transmit orders from the capital to provincial authorities and frame laws to guide general policy.' When laws and written instructions were further supplemented by appropriate ritual (that is, by gestural communication of emotional attitudes) the bureaucratic principle came to life and soon proved capable of governing a considerable range of human behavior across comparatively long distances even in the absence of any actual encounter with the sovereign ruler in whose name officials acted.

Efficient wheeled vehicles, the administrative use of writing, and resort to the bureaucratic principle whereby an appointed official exercised legally defined powers were all invented in Mesopotamia shortly before and after 2000 BC. These innovations overlapped with and were closely connected to a radical change in warfare that gave supremacy on Mesopotamian battlefields to compound bows shot from swift two-wheeled chariots, beginning about 1750 BC.

These new forms of power were not long confined to die region where they had been invented. Chariots spread across Eurasia very rapidly indeed, reaching Egypt with the Hyksos about 1650 BC, penetrating North China and Northwest India about 1400 BC, and filtering across the whole of Europe between 1400 and 1000 BC. The diffusion of chariots was a landmark of Eurasian history, since the new instruments of war supplemented by carts and wagons designed on the same hub and axle lines - allowed rulers to concentrate resources more effectually then before. Writing and bureaucracy traveled less fast and far than chariots and military technology did; but with varying delay they also diffused throughout the richer agricultural regions of the continent in ensuing centuries. The historic Chinese empire descends from the arrival of chariot warfare in the Yellow River valley. Aryan India was the creation of charioteers as well. And in ancient Greece


the Myceneans used chariots too, and may even have done so as absurdly as Homer says they did.

The cultural geography of Eurasia thus assumed a new shape when what we are accustomed to think of as separate civilizations took form in China, India, and Greece, each of them loosely in contact with the older center of high culture in the Middle East, but in most respects independent. Each of these new centers of high skill of course created a circle of interacting peoples around it, and across ensuing centuries resulting encounters caused civilized skills to spread onto new ground. To be sure, civilized expansion was irregular in tempo, alternating sudden spurts with recurrent collapses. But the overall trend was to expand the geographic boundaries of each Eurasian civilization. Eventually, their respective peripheral zones began to overlap and interpenetrate one another, making the Eurasian landmass into a more and more tightly interactive whole. The role of the Eurasian-wide communications net became apparent about 1000 AD, inaugurating what I would like to call the modern era of accelerated change within first a Eurasian-African and then a global theater.

Before that landmark was attained, however, and as might be expected, further improvements in transport and communication hastened and intensified the process. Simplified alphabetic writing after about 1200 BC, making literacy accessible to a far wider number of persons than before, was one such change. The skills required to ride directly on horseback, while freeing hands and arms to shoot a bow, were a second, almost equally important change that occurred after 875 BC. Let me comment briefly on both.

Alphabetic writing certainly facilitated commerce; and it is noteworthy that many of the earliest surviving shards on which such writing was inscribed were mercantile contracts of one sort or another. More important in the long run, however, was its ability to create portable religions of the book. All the so-called higher religions - Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and (rather less clearly) even Hinduism, together with several less successful faiths like Zoroastrianism -were based on sacred scriptures. Such scriptures offered authoritative guides for everyday behavior, even, or especially, in the confusing jungle of overlapping expectations that arose where strangers came together in cities, living side by side despite innumerable differences.

Amidst the moral dissonance of urban living, portable religions of the book allowed congregations of fellow-believers to create a diluted facsimile of the sort of primary village community that sustained the rest of humanity. It was a great invention. Like the older compromise between village autonomy and the demands of outside rent and tax collectors that sustained territorial states, the establishment of religious communities used sacred scripture to recreate a tolerable moral universe for poor and unfortunate multitudes. Sometimes these same moral rules were also shared in some degree or other by the rich and powerful who ruled over them.

Political boundaries decreased in importance when millions of persons began to mold their behavior on precepts drawn from sacred books that were the same (or almost the same) everywhere. Religions transcended their initial tie to locality


and gave life new meaning, anywhere and everywhere, simply by constructing an indefinitely expansible number of local primary communities. The existence of such communities stabilized city life as never before. Without this invention, it seems improbable that the Eurasian network of interacting cities and civilizations could have flourished as luxuriantly and persistently as it did. That is because life-support for common folk at the bottom of society through religious communities, like the monopolization of organized violence at the top, was probably essential for the stability and expansion of the Eurasian communications net. And they, I claim, derived directly from writing and wagons respectively.

Cavalry and horseback riding had more limited but still very far-ranging effects. Riders could travel faster than ever before, carrying messages about one hundred miles a day when relays of fresh horses could be found. This made imperial government much faster in reacting to challenges from afar. Other news also traveled faster with all the usual advantages this conferred on those with superior information. Internal social structures across most of Eurasia also changed, giving greater importance then before to mounted warriors.

But the most significant effect of the spread of horseback riding was to give the pastoral peoples of the Eurasian steppe an enduring advantage over less mobile populations of the richer, agricultural lands to their south. As a result, the frontier between steppeland and farmland became critical for Eurasian military and political history from the seventh century BC when the first large-scale cavalry raids from the steppes took place until the seventeenth century AD when improvements in Chinese and European military tactics and training put steppe cavalrymen permanently on the defensive. Between those dates, the necessity of mounting guard against raiders from the steppe continually tested the proficiency of civilized armed forces in Eurasia. This had the effect of raising them far above levels attained elsewhere, making global aggression comparatively easy after 1500.

Yet civilized defense was not always successful. When, for whatever reason, frontier guard against the steppe weakened, successful raids quickly built up into conquest. The political history of the agricultural peoples of Eurasia, in fact, consists of little more than alternations between cavalry conquest by outsiders, who derived directly or indirectly from the steppes, and native reactions aimed at throwing the intruders out. The Chinese revolution of 1911 was the last gasp of this long standing political pattern that had commenced in 690 BC with the sudden appearance of the Cimmerians in Anatolia.

It lasted as it did because for something like 2,300 years steppe warriors could concentrate superior force almost at will and at any given point within their horses' radius of action. Speed of march was decisive, together with even speedier communication by special messengers making sure that each separate detachment reached the chosen battleground as planned. By the time of Ghengis Kahn (1162-1227), steppe horsemen had attained truly remarkable proficiency in these skills, and were therefore able to conquer and administer about half of the entire Eurasian landmass.

The principal civilized riposte to the superior mobility of steppe horsemen was the building of roads to allow armies to move faster. Such roads were also used to


concentrate taxes and rents where they were wanted by those who consumed them; and for facilitating peacable commerce as well. Thus wheeled transport, at first confined to use on relatively dry plains, could now cross hilly terrain as well, making far larger empires possible. The Assyrians were the first to build roads systematically; and the enlarged size of the empire they constructed - uniting Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt for the first time - shows how effectually roads reinforced the older devices of wagons, writing, and bureaucracy, allowing them to redistribute resources across very wide territories to meet the needs of their armies and administrators. A second effect was to diminish older barriers between Egypt and Asia, so that, as contacts multiplied, what had been separate civilizations eventually merged into a cosmopolitan Middle Eastern amalgam.

A different line of development rested on improvements in Mediterranean shipping. Minoans, Phoenicians and then Greeks became expert mariners, with vessels that could sail westerly before the summer trade winds and beat their way back by hugging the coastline and exploiting the diurnal on-shore and off-shore winds created by differential heating of land and sea. From very ancient times, manufactures from Egyptian and eastern Mediterranean workshops were exchanged for raw materials, especially metal and timber; but the sea trade of the Mediterranean took on a new dimension when a few Greek cities discovered that by planting their fields with olives and grapes, they could increase their standard of living enormously by sending these rare and precious commodities overseas and exchanging them for grain, fish and other commodities collected by local potentates from coastal populations by various forms of coercion.

Middle Eastern cities got their food from peasants round about by collecting unrequited rents and taxes. Beginning in the sixth century BC a few Greek cities got their food from remote coastlands of the western Mediterranean and Black sea by trade. In effect, coercion of a rural peasantry was exported to barbarian lands along with wine and oil, while at home free and equal farmers could and did assert their right to active, participatory citizenship, thanks partly to their role in producing wine and oil for export, and partly to the prevailing tactics of phalanx and trireme warfare, which put a premium on numbers of well-armed citizen soldiers and of well-trained citizen rowers.

This is not the place to explore the peculiarities of ancient Greek history in detail. All I wish to emphasize here is that exchanges of goods of common consumption with distant coastlands provided an essential base for the efflorescence of Ionian, Corinthian and Athenian society and culture; and these exchanges in turn depended on improvements in navigational skills and ship design, permitting ships to make headway even against the wind.

Exchange of oil and wine for grain and raw materials remained central to Mediterranean society throughout classical times. Diffusion of vineyards and olive groves to suitable regions in the western Mediterranean shifted centers of prosperity westward until climatic limits were reached under the Roman Empire. Roman roads in due course supplemented seaborne exchanges; but overland transport never came close to matching the carrying capacity or social and economic importance of shipping.


Ships became more seaworthy in the Indian ocean and Southeast Asia also, but as far as I know no other part of the world came to depend on long-distance exchange of basic commodities, as some Greek cities did; and me transformative impact of folding local farmers into an urban political-economic system as respected equals was not replicated anywhere else either. Perhaps for that reason the Greek and Roman heritage retains a peculiar resonance in modern times. We, too, exchange goods of common consumption cross long distances, and aspire to participatory citizenship - and even to rationality - as well.

By the time the Romans succeeded in incorporating the coastlands of the entire Mediterranean into their empire, other imperial states had formed a slender band across the Eurasian continent, reaching all the way from China to the Roman empire. Beginning in 101 BC regular caravan connections were established throughout those imperially governed territories, since their rulers all understood that negotiated protection rents yielded them more than confiscatory force could ever do. The so-called Silk route was often interrupted by political upheavals subsequently, but never for very long since by this time the advantages of commerce were patent to all concerned.

A notable magnification of the geographic range and carrying capacity of caravan commerce came when camels displaced mules and horses as the primary beasts of burden. This occurred in the Middle East after about 300 AD and found its most conspicuous military and cultural expression in the rise of Islam after 632. Camels carried larger loads a little faster than mules liked to walk, and could also cross deserts as other animals could not. This made the desert zone of Africa and Asia far more permeable. Accordingly, West Africa, Arabia, and the desert and semi-desert lands of interior Asia were swiftly incorporated into the Eurasian commercial and informational network centering in the ancient cities of the Middle East.

But caravans could not profitably carry cheap goods of common consumption over long distances as ships could do. This inevitably limited me impact of the Eurasian caravan network since for the most part it carried luxuries which only a few could afford. Ideas could and did percolate along the trade routes, and these sometimes affected human life profoundly. The spread of Buddhism, and its multiple impacts upon steppe peoples and Far Eastern agriculturalists offers one conspicuous example; so does the parallel and even more extensive expansion of Islam. Both these faiths traveled by sea as well; and the contemporary cultural geography of Southeast Asia and its onshore islands reflects the varied reception they (along with Hinduism) met among local peoples.

The next major landmark of Eurasian history derived from the serendipitous fashion in which the construction of an elaborately reticulated network of canals in China to regulate supplies of water for rice paddies began to constitute a safe and capacious transport system for the interior of that country. After the valleys of the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers were connected by the Grand Canal (605) simple canal boats became able to carry comparatively enormous quantities of goods across vast, varied and densely populated landscapes. It took a long while for the Chinese to develop attitudes and institutions that gave scope to the commercial


possibilities of such a transport system, but when in 960 the Sung dynasty began to collect taxes in money rather than in kind in more and more pans of the country, common folk found themselves compelled to enter the market to get cash to pay their taxes.

The result was a rapid intensification of market transactions. Even poor peasants began to buy and sell a large part of the produce of their fields, as Greek citizen farmers had done in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Nothing like participatory citizenship resulted. Confucian, bureaucratic principles were far too firmly entrenched for that. But a myriad of local specializations increased economic productivity enormously. Rewards of the market propagated improved artisan skills with unprecedented rapidity, so that China's wealth and power forged far ahead of other parts of the earth, as experienced travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both testified.

Goods of common consumption entered the trade network so that a large proportion of the entire population of China came to depend on market exchanges for necessities of life. Comparable numbers had never done so before;

and when new and improved Chinese goods began to flood abroad along the caravan routes and, more significantly, throughout the coastlands of the Indian ocean by sea, the effect was to intensify commerce across all of Eurasia. Even in the remote Mediterranean, Moslem and Italian cities became marginal participants in a network of commercial exchange that had its principal center and highest intensity in China.

Resulting changes in Eurasian life were profound and multiform. I cannot explore them here, other than to point out that three innovations arriving in western Europe from China - gunpowder, printing and the compass were fundamental in laying the ground work for the Far West's subsequent overseas expansion. That expansion, of course, depended on Europe's own transport system; navigable rivers feeding ports where all-weather ships, painfully developed to withstand Atlantic tides and storms, connected Atlantic and Mediterranean Europe into an exchange network that by 1500 approached the geographic scale and carrying capacity of the reticulated network of Chinese canals.

As in China, goods of common consumption became the staple of European interregional trade: wool, salt, wine, fish and the like. And as in China an increasing proportion of the entire population began to take part by specializing production on whatever they could do best. Western Europe, in short, was catching up with China, thanks largely to its topography and to advances in shipbuilding and navigation that accumulated rapidly from the time that Europeans began to participate actively in the China-centered trade network of Eurasia. Other factors played their part; but they operated within a framework of communication created by new technologies of transport and printing as well.

Europe-based subsequent advances in transport and communications are entirely familiar, and I need only list landmarks around which a sensible world history of modern times might be constructed. Ocean-going sailing ships were overtaken by coal-burning steam ships and then by diesel-driven vessels; but the increases in speed, reliability and carrying capacity that these changes brought


were less dramatic than the improvement in overland transportation that occurred when first canals and graveled roads, then steam-driven railroads, internal combustion motors, hard surfaced roads and airplanes overcame age-old obstacles to the long-distance transportation of people and goods.

Industrial mass production depends on such transport. Its efficiency depends also on the modern revolution in communications: telegraph, telephone, radio, TV and now digitized computer-speak. Each change of transport and communication altered everyday life for an ever increasing proportion of the world's population, and will continue to do so for a long time to come, for we are by no means yet adjusted to instantaneous global communication or to global commerce, finance and division of labor.

Old local autonomies have withered as connections with the wider world increased their impact. In particular, villages no longer stand on their own as viable moral universes. How the human need for support from fellow members of a primary community can be reconciled with global transport and communications remains to be seen. I feel sure this will be one of the pivotal issues for the twenty-first century, since as of today we seem both unable to bear the costs of global entanglement and unable to do without the gains to be had from participation in the global flow-through economy.

Whatever the upshot, it seems evident to me that the most promising way to understand what is happening around us, as well as what has happened in times past, is to focus upon the information nets created by changing communication and transport. Personal identity and social groupings arise from communication and have always done so, while at the individual level it is communication with others that makes us human. Surely, then, it is not surprising that our most distinctive characteristic offers the most appropriate key to a better understanding of the human past.

Back to Contents