Big History: understanding the radical shift in the study of human history : part 1

The Big Frame of History: After the Ice Age, 12000 to 9000 BC / hunting-gathering to the first villagers

Writing and speaking about world history has undergone a massive shift in the past few years or we could say decades. Rather than look at history through texts (especially religious texts) we now build our new models based on archaeological evidence. Archaelogical evidence put together with anthropological research has given us a bigger frame for understanding world history as an unfolding story of the human settlement of the world.

ALSO WATCH: Geopolitics of Early Human Migrations: Part 1

why focus on settlement

This idea of human settlement is in fact the key framework for understanding the march of human history over the centuries. Settlement and movement are the twin key frameworks of human history. The idea that human beings move from place to place, adapting to their environments, especially by developing new technologies is the core theme of ‘big history’.

Why do human beings move and settle in new places? Most often, it has to do with population growth or geological changes.

Geological insights regarding the history of climate change in the world have really

An artist’s representation of the Earth during the Ice Age (Source: Wikipedia)

enhanced understanding of settlement and movement. Now climate change in our times is often associated with global warming. When I speak of climate change in the geological sense this refers to natural variations in the climate of the earth. So till about 12,500 BC (14,500 years ago) earth witnessed a 100,000 year long Ice Age. During this time most land north of the tropics was frozen, covered under thick sheets of ice. The middle tropics were somewhat warmer, yet much cooler than they are today.

This Ice Age was followed by a warming spell of 2,000 years. During this period as the ice sheets began to melt, there were rapid rises in water levels in the ocean, emergence of new Great Lakes – as in North America. The geography of the earth became more or less like it is today.

Ice sheets cover the northern latitudes during the Ice Age – image centred on the North Pole (Source: Wikipedia)

The period following the Ice Age also saw the most active phase of human migration across the world – motivated my geological changes.

the first great migration of man

This was a remarkable age of exploration and technological development. During this period human beings reached almost every corner of the earth. Making foraging camps

A ‘caveman’ family by the fireside (Source: Wikipedia)

in warmer places, then moving on reverting to the previous hunting lifestyle, then finding new places to settle. In the warmer middle latitudes – especially along the band from the Mediterranean through the Indian subcontinent to central China – human settlements became more and more permanent as groups returned to older sites season after season.

Then, almost all of a sudden, it had to end. There was a smaller ice age called the Younger Dryas which lasted for about a thousand years.

During this much colder age, human beings who had spread out to the far corners of the earth were compelled by changes in geology to create houses, develop new weapons and strategies for hunting, make thick clothes with the furs of animals they killed. Again, geological changes compelled adaptation.

life after the second Ice Age of human history

What we do know for fact is during this shorter Ice Age human beings began wandering the earth again as hunter gatherers. This was the age of the Cro-Magnon. The classic ancient man covered in furs, hides and animal skin, carrying weapons made from stones and rocks, hunting the many larger animals that still wandered the earth like deer, gazelle, in the middle tropics, and mammoth, in colder northern reaches, tracking them over long ranges, while living in caves in constant fear of the sabretooth tiger!

Humans hunting Glyptodon, by Heinrich Harder (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, as this long ice age came to an end something really remarkable began to happen which would change the course of human history forever. As the ice began to thaw, from the soil below, grasses, bushes, trees of all kinds began to emerge. So, some parties of wandering hunter gatherers began to make foraging camps from place to place, to gather these new sources of food. One might wonder what kind of food our early ancestors got from bushes and grasses. The bushes offered nuts, berries and small fruit. The grasses were the ancestors of the grains that farmers now grow in fields, which form the staple of our current diets.

These early settlers were still not farmers. They would move from one site to another as soon as resources became thin. It would take many generations before wild grasses became domesticated grains . But at least the first moves towards settled life leading to the emergence of civilisations had been made. Human beings had learnt to make houses. They lived in villages, very small, often temporary, villages. They began to develop semi-settled cultures, which involved not just gathering food from the surroundings but also making stone utensils for grinding and cooking. Then also importantly, beginning to reshape the landscapes around them, nurturing the growth of wild plants, and sometimes clearing land with fire so new growth could emerge in the next season, by the time they returned.

Now there was no direct movement from these early foraging villages to later farming villages. Sometimes when the surrounding landscape began running out of nutritious resources the village would just disband. So these early settled human beings could often revert to a wandering lifestyle.

To move from the first settled villages to the first farming villages we have to wait for a while. Such foraging villages had existed even during the brief period (in terms of the long range of big history) between the First and the Second Ice Age (also known as the Younger Dryas).

At the end of the Younger Dryas, when the earth was more conducive to settled life again, the next great evolutionary step was ripe for the picking. The beginning of agriculture.

Let us return to the story in the next essay.


Le Moustier Neanderthals by Charles R. Knight, 1920 (Source: Wikipedia)

One interesting unsliced riddle is whether human beings shared the earth with other humanoid species during this era. Such as, the Neanderthal or even the tiny Denisovians. Could they be the source of our myths – say, Orcs, Hobbits, Elves? Recently, in Canada, archaeologists discovered a village dating to the era of the Old Ice Age. Remarkably, the native peoples of the region spoke of old stories which mentioned that particular village. So, human memory does extend to that early age of humanity’s wandering over the earth. Enticing.

FOR MORE ON THIS: Hominid Species that coexisted and battled with Homo Sapiens till 10,000 years ago !