Great transitions in World History

In yesterday’s post, I argued that dividing history up into manageable chunks and attaching labels to them, like Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, is a useful thing to do. It doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, in that change usually comes gradually and incrementally; nevertheless, dividing up the past like this imposes structure and order on an otherwise indigestible mass of information.

How would I divide history up?

The reason why I wrote this post is that I had received a comment to the effect that we today remain in the Iron Age. Nothing of importance has changed since the time of the Romans to move us on.

This made me ask, what do I myself think? How would I divide up world history?

I was brought up on the old divisions of Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and then, what? well, different civilizations; and then, smaller divisions within our own national history (Tudors, Stuarts, Georgians and so on).

New divisions needed

The traditional divisions actually aren’t too daft, in my opinion; or at least, so far as Britain is concerned. The Ancient Britons were at a classic stage of Iron Age development when the Romans came along and imposed “civilization” (following that word’s exact meaning, “city-living”) on us. Before the coming of the Iron Age, Bronze Age Britain had produced Stonehenge and other megalithic monument – the remarkable material remains of a society dominated by a powerful ruling class; and before that, the Stone Age saw Britain peopled, first by hunter-gatherers and then by early farmers.

However, in other parts of the world, these divisions are useless as a way of understanding what went on.

In the Middle East, the coming of farming, and then of cities, of pottery, weaving, organized states, and other accoutrements of civilization – including the beginnings of writing – had occurred by the end of the Stone Age. The coming of the Bronze Age represented no fundamental advance, although it was certainly not without significance, as I have argued elsewhere.

The coming of the Iron Age was a great deal more significant than that of the Bronze Age, in that the spread of iron farming implements greatly expanded the scope of civilization; however, it was not really on the same level of importance as the development of civilization in the first place. In my opinion, the rise of cities was such an epochal event in world history that it really does represent a mark in the sand.

Not just living in the landscape – shaping it

The only development which surpasses the rise of cities is surely the coming of agriculture – the domestication of plants and animals. Before that time, humans were essentially part of the landscape, subsisting side-by-side with other animals in the natural state. As farmers, however, they were shaping the landscape, and creating their own habitats separate from nature. This was THE decisive step in human history after the appearance of the human race in the first place.

So – the most important dividing line in human history, according to this idea, is therefore between the pre-farming and farming eras. In the old scheme, this equates to the boundary between the Middle and Late Stone Ages, as farmers continued to use Stone Age technologies for thousands of years after taking up agriculture.

However, I do have a caveat.

We live in interesting times!

I am pretty sure that we are today living in a similarly major dividing line in world history. I would hazard a guess that future historians will look back and see a seismic transition beginning in, say, the 15th century, when Europeans first began to explore and colonise the rest of the world. It is a transition which will, in my view, move us from a farming to a post-farming world.

Notice that I do not say “post-industrial” world. I believe the industrial phase is a transitory one, unsustainable in the longer term but leading us into the post-industrial – or, better, post-agricultural, world.

This of course does not mean we will be free from the need to consume the fruits of farming and industry. Rather, it means that the society which will emerge will be free from having to devote the greater part of its labour to growing crops and making things.

It should, in theory, be a good society. My worry is that human beings have such a knack for mucking things up that it won’t be as good as it could be. Our stupidity is such that developments which should be beneficial often turn out to be harmful.

What I have no doubts about, is that the transition to such a world will continue to be as it has been thus far – usually messy, at times violent, often tense, and always unbalanced. These are times of change, and by their very nature such times are troubled. As the Chinese curse goes, “may you live in interesting times.”


By Peter Britton