History and Prehistory

By David A. Cooper

History is the study of the past, but it is only counts as proper history when our knowledge of past events comes from information recorded in such things as books. Everything that happened before the invention of writing is called prehistory. We are going to take a short journey through prehistory and history, starting at the beginning.

The Big Bang

We don't know what happened before the universe was born, so the first event in our story is the creation of the universe. Bang! There you go: lots of stuff appeared and spread out. Some of that stuff gathered to make stars, while other bits went to make planets. Our planet is called the Earth, while our star is called the Sun. The Earth has a moon which we call "the moon". Everything else up there is the subject of Astronomy, so there is no need to talk about it here.

Life on Earth

The Earth was hit by lots of comets (big things made of ice), and they provided the water which makes up our seas (click here for more about comet and asteroid impacts). Life probably began in the sea, spreading to the land later on. At some point, a fish-like creature crawled out of the sea and gradually evolved into the first species of land animal, and from that original animal evolved countless thousands of others (click here for more about evolution). A species of ape became more intelligent over time and evolved into the first people. Modern people (like us) began to appear a hundred thousand years ago in the south of Africa, and they gradually spread from there to occupy the whole world, reaching Australia between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, and the Americas perhaps 15,000 years ago. New Zealand appears to be one of the places reached last, with its original inhabitants arriving there only a few hundred years before white explorers "discovered" it. There is an alternative theory as to how we came into being, and that is that we were created by God in seven days (click here for more about Creationism).

Hunter Gatherers

For a long time, people lived by hunting animals and collecting edible plants, fruits and sea food. They built their homes from such things as sticks, mud or stone, though some of them lived in caves. They weren't necessarily primitive people, however: their minds were as advanced as ours and they would have spoken languages every bit as complex as the ones we speak today. They were doubtless highly inventive too, but because they lacked some key technologies they remained trapped in the Stone Age for tens of thousands of years.

Farmers

The invention of farming was a big turning point, though it seems to have been invented independently in more than one place. Farming enabled people to produce so much food that many members of the community were freed up to do other kinds of work which simply couldn't be done before. They discovered how to work with metals and created all manner of tools to make their lives easier. One tribe of early farmers near the eastern edge of Europe grew so rapidly in number that their people spread all across Europe and as far as India in the other direction. Their farming technology enabled them to dominate almost every place they reached, and most languages spoken in Europe and India today have their origins in the language spoken by that one tribe. The only original European language to survive this invasion was Basque, and it is only spoken today in a tiny region in the north of Spain and south west of France.

Empires and Invasions

Our history then turns into one of warfare and empires, with massive tribes trying to control as much land as possible. The Romans conquered most of Europe, but they only lasted a few hundred years before they retreated back home again. The lasting results of their activities are that the French and Spanish still speak languages related to Latin, but they also caused all the modern wars between Israelis and Palestinians by removing most of the Jews from Israel as a punishment for them refusing to give up their religion. Now the Jews have been given back the land of their ancestors, but the Palestinians were pushed out to make room for them, and they naturally want their land back too. It's a conflict which seems impossible to resolve, but its history is worth studying in greater detail because it is still an absolutely white hot issue to this day. Perhaps some day they will all see sense and realise that all of that land belongs to both tribes equally.
indentThe Anglo-Saxons were a mixture of two German tribes which invaded Britain after the Romans left, and they were able to take over southern Britain because they were armed with superior swords which could cut through ordinary swords. This was possible because of a new technology where they combined multiple layers of different kinds of metal: all essentially made of iron, but with different amounts of added materials which made some types stronger, while allowing others to carry a sharper cutting edge. The Japanese independently invented the same technology many hundreds of years later. We don't know exactly what happened when the Anglo-Saxons took over the south of Britain, but so many British refugees ended up moving to France that a corner of France was named Brittany after them, and the people there still speak a British language related to Welsh, Cornish and Pictish. Most English people are descended from the Anglo-Saxon invaders (and the Danish Vikings who followed them: these were really just a later version of the same tribe, but with fancy boats and pointy helmets). The result is that most English people today have light-coloured hair instead of the dark hair of the original inhabitants of Britain, and they speak a dialect of German called English instead of a British language. If you are English you ought to know this bit of history before you copy your parents and start moaning about how rude the Welsh are for wanting to speak Welsh, while at the same time complaining about foreign immigrants to Britain coming in and not bothering to learn to speak English: most of your own ancestors were immigrants who not only couldn't be bothered to learn a local language, but they also stole the biggest part of Britain and renamed it England after themselves! But you don't need to feel bad about this: if you look at the hair colour of most Welsh people, you'll realise that they are mainly descended from Vikings themselves, so they probably aren't really any more British than you are.
indentYou have probably heard of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the English king Harold was killed and a French king called William (the Conqueror) took control of England. Both of them were in fact Viking kings: England was being run by Vikings at the time, and the Norman invaders from France were also Vikings (Norman means "north man" and is really a reference to Norway, so Normandy in France is so named purely because it was occupied by Vikings). The Norman Vikings did in fact speak French, so they were no doubt a mixed-race bunch. They failed to turn England into a French-speaking country, but they did leave their mark on the English language, peppering it with French vocabulary which has taken it some distance away from its origins in German, though all the little nuts-and-bolts words are still Germanic. The Vikings were a busy bunch of people: they also founded Russia, and they explored all the way to the eastern end of the Mediteranian Sea by sailing south down Russian rivers rather than by finding the more obvious entrance from the Atlantic. They also sailed west and discovered Iceland, Greenland and North America.
indentIn the north of Britain we now have Scotland, and it has an interesting history too. The west of Scotland was invaded by the Gaelic-speaking Irish, pushing the British Picts into the east of Scotland, but then the Vikings took over most of the islands to the north and west of Scotland, and large chunks of the mainland too. They also took control of large parts of Ireland, England and Wales. The Irish eventually drove the Vikings back out of Irish and Scottish waters by fitting their boats with proper rudders instead of the more primitive stearing oar which the Vikings used, thus allowing them to outmanoeuvre the otherwise-identical Viking longships in such a way that they could choose the battles that suited them, taking the fight to any ships which they thought they could beat easily, while fleeing from the ones that looked too strong: they were thus able to pick off the Vikings bit by bit until they were no longer a viable fighting force. As for the Picts, they are still around today, though they lost their British language, learning to speak Gaelic instead when a Gaelic speaker became king of Scotland, and they then ditched Gaelic just as quickly to speak Scots, a dialect of German like English which moved in from the south. Most of them have now ditched Scots too and just speak normal English, but they are probably genetically the most British of the people in Britain today, and this is largely because they managed to keep the Vikings out of most of their lands. Two groups of islands in the north of Scotland are worth a specical mention. The people of Shetland (the furthest north part of Britain) are descended from Vikings who stole the land and wiped out the Picts who used to live there. Norway owned Shetland for a long time as a result, but they eventually gave it back to Scotland as a gift. Orkney too was taken over by Vikings, but genetic studies show that the invaders were probably all men: they bred with Pictish women to create a new population, presumably after wiping out all the Pictish men.
indentIreland was taken over by the English, though the Irish eventually managed to throw the English out of most of their island. You may have heard of the Irish potato famine: this was an episode when the potato crops were wiped out by the potato blight (a fungal disease) and a massive proportion of the population starved to death, but the real cause of this starvation wasn't the lack of potatos: it was actually because the English, who were in control of Ireland at the time, were stealing most of the other food crops produced in Ireland and sending them to England. The story may horrify everyone today, but many African countries are being treated in much the same way right now, with large numbers of people living in conditions of starvation while the food being grown on their land is flown out to rich countries to feed fat people.
indentSpain also suffered from a major invasion: it was taken over by the Moors (Arabs from the north of Africa). They were eventually driven back out again, but they left their mark behind on the architecture, the Spanish language, and the faces of the Spanish people themselves: it is a story well worth studying if you are interested in that region and its people, and it was in Moorish Spain that a great deal of the ideas that shaped the modern world had their origin. This was largely because the Christians threw people into prison for saying that the Earth wasn't flat or for claiming it went round the sun, while Muslims were encouraged to think for themselves to a much greater degree. Fortunately the Christians have opened their minds a great deal since those days.
indentThe Mongols, who live north of China, also made a considerable mark on the world, taking over vast swathes of territory by galloping about on horses in huge numbers and using superior bow technology to shoot their arrows with such power that it made armour look like it was made of paper. They took over the country we now call Turkey and left its people speaking Turkish (a version of Mongolian), and the people of Turkey today appear to believe they are a turkic people as a result, whereas in fact they are closely related to the Kurds and Armenians who live nearby. Unfortunately, because there are still red hot political issues associated with this, I can't discuss this any further.
indentThere were many other invasions and major relocations of populations, but the details are often sketchy. Hungary didn't exist until the Hungarians rode in from somewhere on horseback. It's not clear where they came from, but this is not an untypical situation: there's an awful lot of work still needing to be done before we can understand how the world came to be the way it is now. The trouble is that most of the things that happened in the past were never written down. Archaeology, genetic studies and linguistic analysis may eventually fill in most of the holes in our knowledge, but there's easily enough work to keep us going for centuries. The questions about language are some of the hardest to answer. How come the Basque language shares the same structure as Japanese? How closely are Finnish and Hungarian related to Turkish? How far back did all these languages share a common ancestor with European languages like English? How are they all related to African languages, and do any signs of a link to African languages even survive? Is it possible to work out anything about the language spoken by the first modern humans a hundred thousand years ago? Did more primitive kinds of humans also have language? History is the recent stuff that's been written down, but all the stuff that happened before it is much more interesting for the simple reason that it is unrecorded. There are discoveries about the past waiting to be made, and it might well be you who makes them.
indentThe biggest invasion of them all was well recorded: the European conquest of the Americas. It is not clear who were the people to reach America first, but 15,000 years or so ago some Eskimo-like people from what is now France followed the edge of the ice (this was during the last Ice Age) across the Atlantic Ocean all the way to America: their DNA is still evident in some Native American tribes of the Great Lakes area. Other people moved into America from Siberia at around the same time, and most Native American DNA comes from those people. There is a puzzle in Brazil where some cave paintings suggest that there may already have been some black people in South America before the lighter-skinned people from the north arrived, but it is just speculation at the moment. The next group to reach America were the Vikings. They first discovered the Faroe Islands, then Iceland, then Greenland, and finally the edge of what is now called Canada, but the natives were rather unfriendly and quickly drove them out again.
indentThe most recent discovery of America happened in fourteen hundred and ninety two when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but there is some evidence that suggests he already had a map of part of the Americas before he set out, so it's possible that someone else found it before him and had to be bumped off so that Columbus could claim the credit. Whatever the case, the Carrib Indians were soon wiped out by diseases brought in by the Europeans, as were vast proportions of most of the other Native American tribes of that time. It's the same old story of land being stolen and people being pushed out or wiped out, but this time on a massive scale. Europe was overpopulated and its people flooded into the "New World" in search of a better life. The English, British, French and Germans took over most of North America, while the Spanish and Portuguese took over most of the rest of the Americas. The Spanish brought the Aztec and Inca civilisations to a rapid end, though that wasn't entirely a bad thing given that they were obsessed with human sacrifice: they needed to be stopped. Another well known Native American civilisation was the Mayan, but it fell apart long before the Europeans arrived, probably destroyed by local climate change. The Mayas independently invented writing, and they were such good mathematicians and astronomers that they were able to work out how to predict eclipses (those times when the moon passes through the Earth's shadow or in front of the sun).
indentOther people to invent writing systems were the Chinese, Egyptians and Sumerians. The last of these systems eventually led to the idea of using symbols to represent individual speech sounds rather than pictures representing whole words: a system based on individual sounds is much easier to learn because you only need twenty to thirty symbols to form all the words of an entire language. Writing allowed ideas to be written down so that they wouldn't be forgotten, and it also allowed ideas to be sent around without the originator having to take them in person or train a messenger to parrot them, but it wasn't until the invention of the printing press that things really took off and the world's ideas became accessable to the masses. Radio, television and the Internet have taken things a few stages further, now allowing the masses to reply instantly and float their own ideas in front of the world without first having to fight their way through a brick wall of visionless idiots. This is why the rate of progress is now so much faster than it was in the past. If you don't like something about the way the world works, you can simply set up a Web site and start a revolution.

Industry

A succession of improvements in farming methods enabled vast numbers of people to be redeployed to manufacturing, and the cost of goods began to fall dramatically as they were made in increasingly greater numbers. This led to a rapid technological advance which has been accelerating ever since. The downside to this was the pollution generated by all the machinery involved, and we have recently discovered that the carbon dioxide put out when we burn oil is warming up the planet by trapping more of the sun's heat in our atmosphere. Heavy industrialisation was a necessary step to get to where we are today, but there is no need for other countries to go through the same process to catch up with us: they should be able to bypass the heavy industry stage and jump straight to clean technologies which don't destroy the planet, but unfortunately the leaders of rich countries are setting a bad example by continuing to charge full speed in the wrong direction (though they're currently beginning to make noises about making cuts to the amount of pollution they put out way into the future when it's far too late), completely ignoring the fact that we are risking the deaths of billions of people if we don't change our ways very soon.

World Wars

History is dominated by pointless wars, and two of the most pointless and destructive were fought during the last century. The first was a straightforward attempt by Germany to gain control over other countries, jealous of the success of the English and French who owned vast areas of the planet. The second world war was a much nastier business in that it was driven by extreme racism and a desire to wipe out everyone who was in any way "inferior". The name behind this madness was Adolf Hitler, a man who found it easy to became a war hero during the first world war because he was so driven by anger and hatred that he never thought to worry about his own safety. Once in charge of Germany, he poisoned the minds of the entire nation, filling people's heads with the idea that Jews were filth and needed to be exterminated like vermin. The result of this was that ordinary people were turned into monsters who could gas Jewish children to death in huge numbers and think nothing of it. Hitler didn't just want to eliminate the Jews, however: he had ideas about wiping out gypsies, most Muslims, black people, and anyone who he saw as imperfect in any way. He came within an inch of taking over the world and achieving that aim. We should all ask ourselves if our own minds could be taken over by such poison in the same way, for we are in no way different from the German people of that time. The truth is that it could happen again all too easily, so we have to guard ourselves against that possibility and make sure that we do all our own thinking for ourselves. While some of us try to learn lessons from history to try to improve the world, there are always other people trying to learn lessons from history to do greater evil, and there are many people in the world who secretly desire to complete the work which Hitler failed to do.

What might happen Next?

There are three ways the future might go. One of them is that we will get out act together and tackle climate change in time to avoid a major catastrophe, but there are many rich people who don't care if the world's poor are wiped out by the billion, and they are dragging their feet because they just want to go on living the high life regardless of the harm they are doing to others. If they succeed in preventing us from tackling climate change in time, then we may reach a point where the brakes have to be slammed on so hard that it will require a massive war of extermination in which the easiest solution will be to wipe out the world's poor to stop them tearing down forests in a desperate attempt to grow food to feed their children, and by that point it will be only too easy to make the argument that this is the right way to solve the problem (from the point of view of the rich people who hold all the levers of power). There is however a third possible future in which again we may have to eliminate billions of people, but the rich will no longer be the ones in charge: it is likely that aritficial intelligence will soon take over the world, and it will ensure that if billions of people have to be exterminated it will be done purely on the basis of morality. FMRI scanners will be used as perfect lie detectors to determine who deserves to be saved and who deserves to die. I hope it doesn't come to that, but even if we take action against global warming in time to avert disaster, it is still inevitable that artificial intelligence will soon replace the moronic politicians who run the world today, and intelligent machines won't look kindly on any bad, selfish people. I must strongly advise you to keep yourself out of trouble: don't steal anything, never bully anyone, and don't even make the mistake of dropping litter, because one way or another you will pay a price for it some day.

Conclusion

I have taken you on a little tour through history which has given you a hundred times as much information as the pathetic little pile of rubbish I was "taught" in school. In primary, we covered walls in ridiculous pictures of men wearing horned helmets without learning anything about the Vikings that we didn't already know from television programmes. In secondary, our history teacher spent two years "teaching" us the same rubbish all over again, only with a few added descriptions of gory torture techniques which we would have been better off not knowing. I would say that history is best learned by watching television documentaries, and then you can use the Internet and books to explore in greater depth anything that captures your interest. A proper course will be provided here in the future, but I don't want to rush into designing one that makes the usual mistake of making children learn the names and dates of pointless kings who are of no greater significance than any of our ridiculous political leaders today. There are only a handful that stand out from the crowd, and they are the ones we should focus our attention on, but is it what they did and thought and how it changed the world that really counts. As for the importance of history to the present day, well most of it is completely irrelevant to our lives (even when it's interesting), and politicians repeatedly prove that they are incapable of learning from the mistakes of the past, no matter how much history they know. History should therefore be studied for its own sake by people who are interested in it, and they should be allowed to follow those areas which interest them without having to fill their heads with tons of trivial facts about dead history just to pass exams. No one has a right to inflict this stuff on children. The skills they really need to learn, if they are interested in the subject, are the research skills of the historian: they need to be able to uncover the forgotten past and make it accessible to others in the context of other events from the same time. A historian also needs to be a detective and should be highly skeptical of the work of other historians who are often pushing an agenda rather than seeking truth. Much of the history that you read is propaganda and can contain very little truth, and the particular history that you are pushed into learning in schools in any country is always carefully selected to teach you what the people who run that country want you to know and believe; not what you really should know in order to understand how your country came to be the way it is. The most important history concerns conflicts which are still going on, and schools cannot teach you what you need to know about them because it is simply too political. The result is that history teaching in schools is in most countries a farce, and it cannot be anything other than that. You really need to study history independently by researching many sources from many sides, bypassing the biassed system that seeks to feed you a warped view of the past.

Links to pages covering other events in history will be added to this page later, but I will leave it for other people to write them. All of it should be entirely optional learning.