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The History of the World, in Five Minutes

As it should have been taught in school. Or what I learned during my travels in Egypt, Israel, and Antarctica.

Homo sapiens, the animal species that we are, has been anatomically the same for at least 100,000 years. But let’s try to visualize only its last 10,000.

It was about then, that the last ice age ended, and the geological parenthesis we are living in began. Geological? Isn’t that about rocks?

The Earth freezes in many places, inhabited today by millions of people, during long periods of time. It thaws for much shorter periods.

Well, since we only have 4 minutes left, how about dividing the time, since the opening of this parenthesis, into three periods:

In the first five thousand, the only hominoid that survived the ice age (that’s us, sapiens) discovered the fertile lands left behind by the receding ice, and the agriculture that was possible on them. It stopped hunting and gathering.

In the next 2,500 years, from Crete to the Indus Valley, the first civilizations, empires, more organized religions, and writing, began to be used. All these empires traded with each other, fought wars, made peace treaties. A copy of the text of the first one known (the Treaty of Kadesh), is displayed at the entrance to the UN Security Council.

In other words, since at least that period, we are more or less the same. Even if we fight other wars, have other gods, tell other legends, our countries have changed their names, speak other languages, and have other technologies. We can see that, anyway, since then, we grieve and rejoice for exactly the same reasons. If you only have five minutes now, then watch the following (six minute) video later. That’s all it takes to get into the shoes of someone who lived at the dawn of civilization. It’s well worth it.

The most recent period, of 2,500 years, is when our current civilization emerged. This is how it is described in a text from the University of Colorado:

«Western civilization refers to the enduring art, literature, culture, and ideas that originated in the Eastern Mediterranean basin in the centuries preceding the Christian era. This developed in myriad ways during the Middle Ages and finally took its modern form after the Renaissance.»

«From the intellectual speculation of the Greeks came the philosophical and scientific thought of our culture, around Latin and Arabic, as well as, finally, the ideals of the early modern Enlightenment. From the Hebrew Bible came the beliefs of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and the ethical framework of modern society. From Greek art and literature came the masterpieces of the Renaissance and beyond.»

So we’ve summed it all up, except that the end of the interglacial era is due soon (inter = parenthesis). After this summary, a few thousand years seems «soon.»

We’ll return to how soon before five minutes are over, but since we live in the Western civilization (and we have a little time), let’s first delve a bit into the history of the Hebrew Bible.

(Let’s remember how it goes: in the interglacial which began 10,000 years ago, civilization arose 5,000 years ago; and Western Civilization arose 2,500 years ago, which is more or less when the Bible was written).

The name of the Jewish people, who wrote it, comes from Judah, the kingdom founded by King David in the mountains of the same name.

Until the destruction of the temple, built by his son Solomon, and the fall of Judah as an independent political entity, at the hands of the Babylonians, only some 350 years passed. It is fascinating to think that Judaism as such did not exist at that time..

The population of the kingdom of Judah was polytheistic! Their religion was Yahwism, which included Jehova in a cult of several other gods of the area. The El of IsraEl was a Canaanite God.

The Hebrew Bible started to be written in exile, in Babylon. It offers a version of the history of the Israelites before and after the foundation of Judah (and the related kingdom, Israel).

In that exile, the beliefs of the scribes were inscribed. They believed that sovereignty had been lost precisely because of the lack of a monotheistic cult. This was finally instituted surrounding the Second Temple, on their return to what was now the Persian province of Judah.

Except for a brief period of independence from the Greeks, sovereignty would not come until 1948. Some historians say that, since the wait for territorial independence was very long, the despair was also very much; and this seems to be captured in the story of Jonah, who worships correctly, but everything goes wrong for him (for starters, he didn’t like living inside a whale).

Christianity arose as a reaction, some say, with a Kingdom of Heaven, to which one ascends after suffering on Earth.

Some of the things related in the Hebrew Bible do not have archaeological or historical support, or not much, or they are flatly denied by evidence, discovered long after I left school. At least by me, although in some cases also recently by archaeologists.

For example, there is no evidence that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, participated in the building of the pyramids, or spent forty years in the desert. Only that at the time this supposedly happened, the Egyptian dominance of the region suddenly collapsed (due to droughts, it is assumed, among other things). Thus, the Israelites, a group that had seemed insignificant to the Egyptians, and was barely mentioned in their stelae, had a chance to flourish.

It is clear, however, that whatever embellishments were written 700 years later, these people gave rise to the first «Western» monotheistic religion 2,500 years ago. 

It would be fun to find a historical novel describing life in Judah and Classical Greece, which were more or less contemporary. Both were under the umbrella of the Persian Empire at some point.

Now, back to the interglacials. These don’t last that long, though more than twice as the 10,000 years we’ve reviewed here.

Let’s see what a US government website says about this:

«The last four interglacials lasted more than 20,000 years, with the warmest part being a relatively stable period of 10,000 to 15,000 years in duration…data suggest that a similarly long duration should also be inferred for the current interglacial period…data from the period 60,000 to 5,000 years ago indicate that the current interglacial temperature conditions may have persisted for as long as 17,000 years. [Gulp, I would say]. Other authors have suggested that the current interglacial could last tens of thousands of years.»

In other words, we don’t know how much longer the warmth will last, but the question is whether we will make it safely to that point. Our summary is missing one very important detail: in less than 200 years (since the start of the industrial use of hydrocarbons), sapiens has gone from being a function of geology, to becoming a geological force himself. More than cooling, the problem is warming and melting.

This begs repetition: we have gone from being a function of the geology of the Earth, to becoming a geological force ourselves!

It is geology, rather than ecology, that drives the point home: the accelerated melting of ice, which can be seen just by standing in front of glaciers and other ancient ice, in some places like Greenland, means that what is happening in our generation is nothing less than a change in our geological era.

This timely event, will always be part of the five (or six or seven) minute summary of history, whether we are talking about 2,500 years of Western civilization, 5,000 of civilization (for there was also civilization before Judah and Socrates), or 10,000 of the interglacial era called the Holocene, or more. 

Hopefully. For it would mean that there is someone to tell it to.

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