History of the world
The history of the world, in common parlance, is the history of humanity (or human history), as determined from archaeology, anthropology, genetics, linguistics, and other disciplines; and, for periods since the invention of writing, from recorded history and from secondary sources and studies.
Humanity's written history was preceded by its prehistory, beginning with the Palaeolithic Era ("Early Stone Age"), followed by the Neolithic Era ("New Stone Age"). The Neolithic saw the Agricultural Revolution begin, between 8000 and 5000 BCE, in the Near East's Fertile Crescent. During this period, humans began the systematic husbandry of plants and animals. As agriculture advanced, most humans transitioned from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle as farmers in permanent settlements. The relative security and increased productivity provided by farming allowed communities to expand into increasingly larger units, fostered by advances in transportation.
Whether in prehistoric or historic times, people always needed to be near reliable sources of potable water. Settlements developed on river banks as early as 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia, on the banks of Egypt's Nile River, in the Indus River valley, and along China's rivers. As farming developed, grain agriculture became more sophisticated and prompted a division of labour to store food between growing seasons. Labour divisions led to the rise of a leisured upper class and the development of cities, which provided the foundation for civilization. The growing complexity of human societies necessitated systems of accounting and writing.
With civilizations flourishing, ancient history ("Antiquity," including the Classical Age, up to about 500 CE) saw the rise and fall of empires. Post-classical history (the "Middle Ages," c. 500–1500 CE ) witnessed the rise of Christianity, the Islamic Golden Age (c. 750 CE – c. 1258 CE), and the early Italian Renaissance (from around 1300 CE). The mid-15th-century invention of modern printing, employing movable type, revolutionized communication and facilitated ever wider dissemination of information, helping end the Middle Ages and ushering in the Scientific Revolution. The Early Modern Period, sometimes referred to as the "European Age", from about 1500 to 1800, included the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Discovery. By the 18th century, the accumulation of knowledge and technology had reached a critical mass that brought about the Industrial Revolution and began the Late Modern Period, which started around 1800 and has continued through the present.
This scheme of historical periodization (dividing history into Antiquity, Post-Classical, Early Modern, and Late Modern periods) was developed for, and applies best to, the history of the Old World, particularly Europe and the Mediterranean. Outside this region, including ancient China and ancient India, historical timelines unfolded differently. However, by the 18th century, due to extensive world trade and colonization, the histories of most civilizations had become substantially intertwined. In the last quarter-millennium, the rates of growth of population, knowledge, technology, communications, commerce, weapons destructiveness, and environmental degradation have greatly accelerated, creating opportunities and perils that now confront the planet's human communities.
Genetic measurements indicate that the ape lineage which would lead to Homo sapiens diverged from the lineage that would lead to chimpanzees and bonobos, the closest living relatives of modern humans, around 4.6 to 6.2 million years ago. Anatomically modern humans arose in Africa about 300,000 years ago, and reached behavioural modernity about 50,000 years ago.
Modern humans spread rapidly from Africa into the frost-free zones of Europe and Asia around 60,000 years ago. The rapid expansion of humankind to North America and Oceania took place at the climax of the most recent ice age, when temperate regions of today were extremely inhospitable. Yet, humans had colonized nearly all the ice-free parts of the globe by the end of the Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. Other hominids such as Homo erectus had been using simple wood and stone tools for millennia, but as time progressed, tools became far more refined and complex.
Perhaps as early as 1.8 million years ago, but certainly by 500,000 years ago, humans began using fire for heat and cooking. They also developed language in the Paleolithic period and a conceptual repertoire that included systematic burial of the dead and adornment of the living. Early artistic expression can be found in the form of cave paintings and sculptures made from ivory, stone, and bone, showing a spirituality generally interpreted as animism, or even shamanism. During this period, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, and were generally nomadic. Archaeological and genetic data suggest that the source populations of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers survived in sparsely wooded areas and dispersed through areas of high primary productivity while avoiding dense forest cover.
Rise of civilization
The Neolithic Revolution, beginning around 10,000 BCE, saw the development of agriculture, which fundamentally changed the human lifestyle. Farming developed around 10,000 BCE in the Middle East, around 7000 BCE in what is now China, about 6000 BCE in the Indus Valley and Europe, and about 4000 BCE in the Americas. Cultivation of cereal crops and the domestication of animals occurred around 8500 BCE in the Middle East, where wheat and barley were the first crops and sheep and goats were domesticated. In the Indus Valley, crops were cultivated by 6000 BCE, along with domesticated cattle. The Yellow River valley in China cultivated millet and other cereal crops by about 7000 BCE, but the Yangtze River valley domesticated rice earlier, by at least 8000 BCE. In the Americas, sunflowers were cultivated by about 4000 BCE, and corn and beans were domesticated in Central America by 3500 BCE. Potatoes were first cultivated in the Andes Mountains of South America, where the llama was also domesticated. Metal-working, starting with copper around 6000 BCE, was first used for tools and ornaments. Gold soon followed, with its main use being for ornaments. The need for metal ores stimulated trade, as many of the areas of early human settlement were lacking in ores. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, is first known from about 2500 BCE, but did not become widely used until much later.
Though early "cities" appeared at Jericho and Catal Huyuk around 6000 BCE, the first civilizations did not emerge until around 3000 BCE in Egypt and Mesopotamia. These cultures gave birth to the invention of the wheel, mathematics, bronze-working, sailing boats, the pottery wheel, woven cloth, construction of monumental buildings, and writing. Writing developed independently and at different times in five areas of the world: Egypt (c. 3200 BCE), India (c. 3200 BCE), Mesopotamia (c. 3000 BCE), China (c. 1600 BCE), and Mesoamerica (c. 600 BCE).
Farming permitted far denser populations, which in time organized into states. Agriculture also created food surpluses that could support people not directly engaged in food production. The development of agriculture permitted the creation of the first cities. These were centres of trade, manufacturing and political power. Cities established a symbiosis with their surrounding countrysides, absorbing agricultural products and providing, in return, manufactured goods and varying degrees of military control and protection.
The development of cities was synonymous with the rise of civilization.[a] Early civilizations arose first in Lower Mesopotamia (3000 BCE), followed by Egyptian civilization along the Nile River (3000 BCE), the Harappan civilization in the Indus River Valley (in present-day India and Pakistan; 2500 BCE), and Chinese civilization along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers (2200 BCE). These societies developed a number of unifying characteristics, including a central government, a complex economy and social structure, sophisticated language and writing systems, and distinct cultures and religions. Writing facilitated the administration of cities, the expression of ideas, and the preservation of information.
Entities such as the Sun, Moon, Earth, sky, and sea were often deified. Shrines developed, which evolved into temple establishments, complete with a complex hierarchy of priests and priestesses and other functionaries. Typical of the Neolithic was a tendency to worship anthropomorphic deities. Among the earliest surviving written religious scriptures are the Egyptian Pyramid Texts, the oldest of which date to between 2400 and 2300 BCE.
Cradles of civilization
The Bronze Age is part of the three-age system (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) that for some parts of the world describes effectively the early history of civilization. During this era the most fertile areas of the world saw city-states and the first civilizations develop. These were concentrated in fertile river valleys: the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in the Indian subcontinent, and the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China.
Sumer, located in Mesopotamia, is the first known complex civilization, developing the first city-states in the 4th millennium BCE. It was in these cities that the earliest known form of writing, cuneiform script, appeared around 3000 BCE. Cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs. These pictorial representations eventually became simplified and more abstract. Cuneiform texts were written on clay tablets, on which symbols were drawn with a blunt reed used as a stylus. Writing made the administration of a large state far easier.
Transport was facilitated by waterways—by rivers and seas. The Mediterranean Sea, at the juncture of three continents, fostered the projection of military power and the exchange of goods, ideas, and inventions. This era also saw new land technologies, such as horse-based cavalry and chariots, that allowed armies to move faster.
These developments led to the rise of territorial states and empires. In Mesopotamia there prevailed a pattern of independent warring city-states and of a loose hegemony shifting from one city to another. In Egypt, by contrast, first there was a dual division into Upper and Lower Egypt which was shortly followed by unification of all the valley around 3100 BCE, followed by permanent pacification. In Crete the Minoan civilization had entered the Bronze Age by 2700 BCE and is regarded as the first civilization in Europe. Over the next millennia, other river valleys saw monarchical empires rise to power. In the 25th – 21st centuries BCE, the empires of Akkad and Sumer arose in Mesopotamia.
Over the following millennia, civilizations developed across the world. Trade increasingly became a source of power as states with access to important resources or controlling important trade routes rose to dominance. By 1400 BCE, Mycenaean Greece began to develop. In India this era was the Vedic period, which laid the foundations of Hinduism and other cultural aspects of early Indian society, and ended in the 6th century BCE. From around 550 BCE, many independent kingdoms and republics known as the Mahajanapadas were established across the subcontinent.
As complex civilizations arose in the Eastern Hemisphere, the indigenous societies in the Americas remained relatively simple and fragmented into diverse regional cultures. During the formative stage in Mesoamerica (about 1500 BCE to 500 CE), more complex and centralized civilizations began to develop, mostly in what is now Mexico, Central America, and Peru. They included civilizations such as the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Moche, and Nazca. They developed agriculture, growing maize, chili peppers, cocoa, tomatoes, and potatoes, crops unique to the Americas, and creating distinct cultures and religions. These ancient indigenous societies would be greatly affected, for good and ill, by European contact during the early modern period.
Beginning in the 8th century BCE, the "Axial Age" saw the development of a set of transformative philosophical and religious ideas, mostly independently, in many different places. Chinese Confucianism, Indian Buddhism and Jainism, and Jewish monotheism are all claimed by some scholars to have developed in the 6th century BCE. (Karl Jaspers' Axial-Age theory also includes Persian Zoroastrianism, but other scholars dispute his timeline for Zoroastrianism.) In the 5th century BCE, Socrates and Plato made substantial advances in the development of ancient Greek philosophy.
In the East, three schools of thought would dominate Chinese thinking well into the 20th century. These were Taoism, Legalism, and Confucianism. The Confucian tradition, which would become particularly dominant, looked for political morality not to the force of law but to the power and example of tradition. Confucianism would later spread to the Korean Peninsula and toward Japan.
In the West, the Greek philosophical tradition, represented by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers, along with accumulated science, technology, and culture, diffused throughout Europe, Egypt, the Middle East, and Northwest India, starting in the 4th century BCE after the conquests of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great).
The millennium from 500 BCE to 500 CE saw a series of empires of unprecedented size develop. Well-trained professional armies, unifying ideologies, and advanced bureaucracies created the possibility for emperors to rule over large domains whose populations could attain numbers upwards of tens of millions of subjects. The great empires depended on military annexation of territory and on the formation of defended settlements to become agricultural centres. The relative peace that the empires brought encouraged international trade, most notably the massive trade routes in the Mediterranean, the maritime trade web in the Indian Ocean, and the Silk Road. In southern Europe, the Greeks (and later the Romans), in an era known as "classical antiquity," established cultures whose practices, laws, and customs are considered the foundation of contemporary Western culture.
There were a number of regional empires during this period. The kingdom of the Medes helped to destroy the Assyrian Empire in tandem with the nomadic Scythians and the Babylonians. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was sacked by the Medes in 612 BCE. The Median Empire gave way to successive Iranian empires, including the Achaemenid Empire (550–330 BCE),the Parthian Empire (247-224 BCE to CE) and the Sasanian Empire (224–651 CE).
Several empires began in modern-day Greece. First was the Delian League (from 477 BCE) and the succeeding Athenian Empire (454–404 BCE), centred in present-day Greece. Later, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), of Macedon, founded an empire of conquest, extending from present-day Greece to present-day India. The empire divided shortly after his death, but the influence of his Hellenistic successors made for an extended Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE) throughout the region.
In Asia, the Maurya Empire (322–185 BCE) existed in present-day India; in the 3rd century BCE, most of South Asia was united to the Maurya Empire by Chandragupta Maurya and flourished under Ashoka the Great. From the 3rd century CE, the Gupta dynasty oversaw the period referred to as ancient India's Golden Age. From the 4th to 6th centuries, northern India was ruled by the Gupta Empire. In southern India, three prominent Dravidian kingdoms emerged: the Cheras, Cholas, and Pandyas. The ensuing stability contributed to heralding in the golden age of Hindu culture in the 4th and 5th centuries.
In Europe, the Roman Empire, centered in present-day Italy, began in the 7th century BCE. In the 3rd century BCE the Roman Republic began expanding its territory through conquest and alliances. By the time of Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), the first Roman Emperor, Rome had already established dominion over most of the Mediterranean. The empire would continue to grow, controlling much of the land from England to Mesopotamia, reaching its greatest extent under the emperor Trajan (died 117 CE). In the 3rd century CE, the empire split into western and eastern regions, with (usually) separate emperors. The Western empire would fall, in 476 CE, to German influence under Odoacer. The eastern empire, now known as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, would continue for another thousand years, until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
In China, the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), the first imperial dynasty of China, was followed by the Han Empire (206 BCE – 220 CE). The Han Dynasty was comparable in power and influence to the Roman Empire that lay at the other end of the Silk Road. Han China developed advanced cartography, shipbuilding, and navigation. The Chinese invented blast furnaces, and created finely tuned copper instruments. As with other empires during the Classical Period, Han China advanced significantly in the areas of government, education, mathematics, astronomy, technology, and many others.
In Africa, the Kingdom of Aksum, centred in present-day Ethiopia, established itself by the 1st century CE as a major trading empire, dominating its neighbours in South Arabia and Kush and controlling the Red Sea trade. It minted its own currency and carved enormous monolithic steles such as the Obelisk of Axum to mark their emperors' graves.
Successful regional empires were also established in the Americas, arising from cultures established as early as 2500 BCE. In Mesoamerica, vast pre-Columbian societies were built, the most notable being the Zapotec Empire (700 BCE – 1521 CE), and the Maya civilization, which reached its highest state of development during the Mesoamerican Classic period (c. 250–900 CE), but continued throughout the Post-Classic period until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century CE. Maya civilization arose as the Olmec mother culture gradually declined. The great Mayan city-states slowly rose in number and prominence, and Maya culture spread throughout the Yucatán and surrounding areas. The later empire of the Aztecs was built on neighbouring cultures and was influenced by conquered peoples such as the Toltecs.
Some areas experienced slow but steady technological advances, with important developments such as the stirrup and moldboard plough arriving every few centuries. There were, however, in some regions, periods of rapid technological progress. Most important, perhaps, was the Mediterranean area during the Hellenistic period, when hundreds of technologies were invented. Such periods were followed by periods of technological decay, as during the Roman Empire's decline and fall and the ensuing early medieval period.
Declines, falls, and resurgence
The ancient empires faced common problems associated with maintaining huge armies and supporting a central bureaucracy. These costs fell most heavily on the peasantry, while land-owning magnates increasingly evaded centralized control and its costs. Barbarian pressure on the frontiers hastened internal dissolution. China's Han dynasty fell into civil war in 220 CE, beginning the Three Kingdoms period, while its Roman counterpart became increasingly decentralized and divided about the same time in what is known as the Crisis of the Third Century. The great empires of Eurasia were all located on temperate and subtropical coastal plains. From the Central Asian steppes, horse-based nomads, mainly Mongols and Turks, dominated a large part of the continent. The development of the stirrup and the breeding of horses strong enough to carry a fully armed archer made the nomads a constant threat to the more settled civilizations.
The gradual break-up of the Roman Empire, spanning several centuries after the 2nd century CE, coincided with the spread of Christianity outward from the Middle East. The Western Roman Empire fell under the domination of Germanic tribes in the 5th century, and these polities gradually developed into a number of warring states, all associated in one way or another with the Catholic Church. The remaining part of the Roman Empire, in the eastern Mediterranean, continued as what came to be called the Byzantine Empire. Centuries later, a limited unity would be restored to western Europe through the establishment in 962 of a revived "Roman Empire", later called the Holy Roman Empire, comprising a number of states in what is now Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy, and parts of France.
In China, dynasties would rise and fall, but, by sharp contrast to the Mediterranean-European world, dynastic unity would be restored. After the fall of the Eastern Han Dynasty and the demise of the Three Kingdoms, nomadic tribes from the north began to invade in the 4th century, eventually conquering areas of northern China and setting up many small kingdoms. The Sui Dynasty successfully reunified the whole of China in 581, and laid the foundations for a Chinese golden age under the Tang dynasty (618–907).
The Post-classical Era, though deriving its name from the Eurocentric era of "Classical antiquity", refers to a broader geographic sweep. The era is commonly dated from the 5th-century fall of the Western Roman Empire, which fragmented into many separate kingdoms, some of which would later be confederated under the Holy Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire survived until late in the Post-classical, or Medieval, period. The Post-classical period also encompasses the Early Muslim conquests, the subsequent Islamic Golden Age, and the commencement and expansion of the Arab slave trade, followed by the Mongol invasions in the Middle East and Central Asia, and the founding around 1280 of the Ottoman Empire. South Asia saw a series of middle kingdoms of India, followed by the establishment of Islamic empires in India.
In western Africa, the Mali Empire and the Songhai Empire developed. On the southeast coast of Africa, Arabic ports were established where gold, spices, and other commodities were traded. This allowed Africa to join the Southeast Asia trading system, bringing it contact with Asia; this, along with Muslim culture, resulted in the Swahili culture. China experienced the successive Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, and early Ming dynasties. Middle Eastern trade routes along the Indian Ocean, and the Silk Road through the Gobi Desert, provided limited economic and cultural contact between Asian and European civilizations. During the same period, civilizations in the Americas, such as the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, reached their zenith; all would be compromised by, then conquered after, contact with European colonists at the beginning of the Modern period.
Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia
Prior to the advent of Islam in the 7th century, the Middle East was dominated by the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Sasanian Empire, which frequently fought each other for control of several disputed regions. This was also a cultural battle, with the Byzantine Hellenistic and Christian culture competing against the Persian Iranian traditions and Zoroastrian religion. The formation of the Islamic religion created a new contender that quickly surpassed both of these empires. Islam greatly affected the political, economic, and military history of the Old World, especially the Middle East.
From their centre on the Arabian Peninsula, Muslims began their expansion during the early Postclassical Era. By 750 CE, they came to conquer most of the Near East, North Africa, and parts of Europe, ushering in an era of learning, science, and invention known as the Islamic Golden Age. The knowledge and skills of the ancient Near East, Greece, and Persia were preserved in the Postclassical Era by Muslims, who also added new and important innovations from outside, such as the manufacture of paper from China and decimal positional numbering from India.
Much of this learning and development can be linked to geography. Even prior to Islam's presence, the city of Mecca had served as a centre of trade in Arabia, and the Islamic prophet Muhammad himself was a merchant. With the new Islamic tradition of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the city became even more a centre for exchanging goods and ideas. The influence held by Muslim merchants over African-Arabian and Arabian-Asian trade routes was tremendous. As a result, Islamic civilization grew and expanded on the basis of its merchant economy, in contrast to the Europeans, Indians, and Chinese, who based their societies on an agricultural landholding nobility. Merchants brought goods and their Islamic faith to China, India, Southeast Asia, and the kingdoms of western Africa, and returned with new discoveries and inventions.
Motivated by religion and dreams of conquest, European leaders launched a number of Crusades to try to roll back Muslim power and retake the Holy Land. The Crusades were ultimately unsuccessful and served more to weaken the Byzantine Empire, especially with the 1204 sack of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire began to lose increasing amounts of territory to the Ottoman Turks. Arab domination of the region ended in the mid-11th century with the arrival of the Seljuq Turks, migrating south from the Turkic homelands in Central Asia. In the early 13th century, a new wave of invaders, the Mongol Empire, swept through the region but were eventually eclipsed by the Turks and the founding of the Ottoman Empire in modern-day Turkey around 1280.
North Africa saw the rise of polities formed by the Berbers, such as the Marinid dynasty in Morocco, the Zayyanid dynasty in Algeria, and the Hafsid dynasty in Tunisia. The region will later be called the Barbary Coast and will host pirates and privateers who will use several North African ports for their raids against the coastal towns of several European countries in search of slaves to be sold in North African markets as part of the Barbary slave trade.
Starting with the Sui dynasty (581–618), the Chinese began expanding into eastern Central Asia, and confronted Turkic nomads, who were becoming the most dominant ethnic group in Central Asia. Originally the relationship was largely cooperative, but in 630 the Tang dynasty began an offensive against the Turks, capturing areas of the Mongolian Ordos Desert. In the 8th century, Islam began to penetrate the region and soon became the sole faith of most of the population, though Buddhism remained strong in the east. The desert nomads of Arabia could militarily match the nomads of the steppe, and the early Arab Empire gained control over parts of Central Asia.
The Hephthalites were the most powerful of the nomad groups in the 6th and 7th centuries, and controlled much of the region. In the 9th through 13th centuries the region was divided among several powerful states, including the Samanid Empire the Seljuk Empire, and the Khwarezmid Empire. The largest empire to rise out of Central Asia developed when Genghis Khan united the tribes of Mongolia. The Mongol Empire spread to comprise all of Central Asia and China as well as large parts of Russia and the Middle East. After Genghis Khan died in 1227, most of Central Asia continued to be dominated by a successor state, Chagatai Khanate. In 1369, Timur, a Turkic leader in the Mongol military tradition, conquered most of the region and founded the Timurid Empire. Timur's large empire collapsed soon after his death, however. The region then became divided into a series of smaller khanates that were created by the Uzbeks. These included the Khanate of Khiva, the Khanate of Bukhara, and the Khanate of Kokand, all of whose capitals are located in present-day Uzbekistan.
Europe during the Early Middle Ages was characterized by depopulation, deurbanization, and barbarian invasion, all of which had begun in Late Antiquity. The barbarian invaders formed their own new kingdoms in the remains of the Western Roman Empire. In the 7th century, North Africa and the Middle East, once part of the Eastern Roman Empire, became part of the Caliphate after conquest by Muhammad's successors. Although there were substantial changes in society and political structures, most of the new kingdoms incorporated as many of the existing Roman institutions as they could. Christianity expanded in western Europe, and monasteries were founded. In the 7th and 8th centuries the Franks, under the Carolingian dynasty, established an empire covering much of western Europe; it lasted until the 9th century, when it succumbed to pressure from new invaders—the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens.
During the High Middle Ages, which began after 1000, the population of Europe increased greatly as technological and agricultural innovations allowed trade to flourish and crop yields to increase. Manorialism—the organization of peasants into villages that owed rents and labour service to nobles—and feudalism—a political structure whereby knights and lower-status nobles owed military service to their overlords in return for the right to rents from lands and manors—were two of the ways of organizing medieval society that developed during the High Middle Ages. Kingdoms became more centralized after the decentralizing effects of the breakup of the Carolingian Empire. The Crusades, first preached in 1095, were an attempt by western Christians from nations such as the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire to regain control of the Holy Land from the Muslims and succeeded for long enough to establish some Christian states in the Near East. Italian merchants imported Armenians, Balts, Circassians, Georgians, Greeks and Slavs to work as household slaves and in processing sugar. Intellectual life was marked by scholasticism and the founding of universities, while the building of Gothic cathedrals was one of the outstanding artistic achievements of the age.
The Late Middle Ages were marked by difficulties and calamities. Famine, plague, and war devastated the population of western Europe. The Black Death alone killed approximately 75 to 200 million people between 1347 and 1350. It was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. Starting in Asia, the disease reached Mediterranean and western Europe during the late 1340s, and killed tens of millions of Europeans in six years; between a third and a half of the population perished.
The Middle Ages witnessed the first sustained urbanization of northern and western Europe. Many modern European states owe their origins to events unfolding in the Middle Ages; present European political boundaries are, in many regards, the result of military and dynastic events during this tumultuous period. The Middle Ages lasted until the beginning of the Early modern period in the 16th century, marked by the rise of nation states, the division of Western Christianity in the Reformation, the rise of humanism in the Italian Renaissance, and the beginnings of European overseas expansion which allowed for the Columbian Exchange.
In Central and Eastern Europe, in 1386, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (the latter including territories of modern Belarus and Ukraine), facing depredations by the Teutonic Knights and later also threats from Muscovy, the Crimean Tatars, and the Ottoman Empire, formed a personal union through the marriage of Poland's Queen Jadwiga to Lithuanian Grand Duke Jogaila, who became King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland. For the next four centuries, until the 18th-century Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by Prussia, Russia, and Austria, the two polities conducted a federated condominium, long Europe's largest state, which welcomed diverse ethnicities and religions, including most of the world's Jews, furthered scientific thought (e.g., Copernicus's heliocentric theory), and—in a last-ditch effort to preserve their sovereignty—adopted the Constitution of 3 May 1791, the world's second modern written constitution after the U.S. Constitution that went into effect in 1789.
Medieval Sub-Saharan Africa was home to many different civilizations. The Kingdom of Aksum declined in the 7th century as Islam cut it off from its Christian allies and its people moved further into the Ethiopian Highlands for protection. They eventually gave way to the Zagwe dynasty who are famed for their rock cut architecture at Lalibela. The Zagwe would then fall to the Solomonic dynasty who claimed descent from the Aksumite emperors and would rule the country well into the 20th century. In the West African Sahel region, many Islamic empires rose, such as the Ghana Empire, the Mali Empire, the Songhai Empire, and the Kanem–Bornu Empire. They controlled the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ivory, salt and slaves.
South of the Sahel, civilizations rose in the coastal forests where horses and camels could not survive. These include the Yoruba city of Ife, noted for its art, and the Oyo Empire, the Benin Empire of the Edo people centred in Benin City, the Igbo Kingdom of Nri which produced advanced bronze art at Igbo-Ukwu, and the Akan who are noted for their intricate architecture.
Central Africa saw the birth of several states, including the Kingdom of Kongo. In what is now modern Southern Africa, native Africans created various kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Mutapa. They flourished through trade with the Swahili people on the East African coast. They built large defensive stone structures without mortar such as Great Zimbabwe, capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, Khami, capital of Kingdom of Butua, and Danangombe (Dhlo-Dhlo), capital of the Rozwi Empire. The Swahili people themselves were the inhabitants of the East African coast from Kenya to Mozambique who traded extensively with Asians and Arabs, who introduced them to Islam. They built many port cities such as Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa, which were known to Chinese sailors under Zheng He and Islamic geographers.
In northern India, after the fall (550 CE) of the Gupta Empire, the region was divided into a complex and fluid network of smaller kingly states. Early Muslim incursions began in the west in 712 CE, when the Arab Umayyad Caliphate annexed much of present-day Pakistan. Arab military advance was largely halted at that point, but Islam still spread in India, largely due to the influence of Arab merchants along the western coast. The Tripartite Struggle for control of northern India took place in the ninth century. The struggle was between the Pratihara Empire, the Pala Empire and the Rashtrakuta Empire. Some of the important states that emerged in India at this time included the Bahmani Sultanate and the Vijayanagara Empire. Post-classical dynasties in South India included those of the Chalukyas, the Hoysalas, the Cholas, the Islamic Mughals, the Marathas and the Mysores. Science, engineering, art, literature, astronomy, and philosophy flourished under the patronage of these kings.
After a period of relative disunity, China was reunified by the Sui dynasty in 581 and under the succeeding Tang dynasty (618–907) China entered a Golden Age. The Tang Empire competed with the Tibetan Empire for control of areas in Inner and Central Asia. The Tang dynasty eventually splintered, however, and after half a century of turmoil the Song dynasty reunified China, when it was, according to William McNeill, the "richest, most skilled, and most populous country on earth". Pressure from nomadic empires to the north became increasingly urgent. By 1142, North China had been lost to the Jurchens in the Jin–Song Wars, and the Mongol Empire conquered all of China in 1279, along with almost half of Eurasia's landmass. After about a century of Mongol Yuan dynasty rule, the ethnic Chinese reasserted control with the founding of the Ming dynasty (1368).
In Japan, the imperial lineage had been established by this time, and during the Asuka period (538–710) the Yamato Province developed into a clearly centralized state. Buddhism was introduced, and there was an emphasis on the adoption of elements of Chinese culture and Confucianism. The Nara period of the 8th century marked the emergence of a strong Japanese state and is often portrayed as a golden age. During this period, the imperial government undertook great public works, including government offices, temples, roads, and irrigation systems. The Heian period (794 to 1185) saw the peak of imperial power, followed by the rise of militarized clans, and the beginning of Japanese feudalism. The feudal period of Japanese history, dominated by powerful regional lords (daimyōs) and the military rule of warlords (shōguns) such as the Ashikaga shogunate and Tokugawa shogunate, stretched from 1185 to 1868. The emperor remained, but mostly as a figurehead, and the power of merchants was weak.
Postclassical Korea saw the end of the Three Kingdoms era, the three kingdoms being Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. Silla conquered Baekje in 660, and Goguryeo in 668, marking the beginning of the North–South States Period (남북국시대), with Unified Silla in the south and Balhae, a successor state to Goguryeo, in the north. In 892 CE, this arrangement reverted to the Later Three Kingdoms, with Goguryeo (then called Taebong and eventually named Goryeo) emerging as dominant, unifying the entire peninsula by 936. The founding Goryeo dynasty ruled until 1392, succeeded by the Joseon dynasty, which ruled for approximately 500 years.
The beginning of the Middle Ages in Southeast Asia saw the fall (550 CE) of the Kingdom of Funan to the Chenla Empire, which was then replaced by the Khmer Empire (802 CE). The Khmer's capital city Angkor was the largest city in the world prior to the industrial age and contained over a thousand temples, the most famous being Angkor Wat. The Sukhothai (1238 CE) and Ayutthaya (1351 CE) kingdoms were major powers of the Thai people, who were influenced by the Khmer. Starting in the 9th century, the Pagan Kingdom rose to prominence in modern Myanmar. Other notable kingdoms of the period include the Srivijayan Empire and the Lavo Kingdom (both coming into prominence in the 7th century), the Champa and the Hariphunchai (both about 750), the Đại Việt (968), Lan Na (13th century), Majapahit (1293), Lan Xang (1354), and the Kingdom of Ava (1364). Taiwanese indigenous peoples formed tribal alliances such as the Kingdom of Middag. It was during this period that Islam spread to present-day Indonesia (beginning in the 13th century) and saw the emergenece of the Malay states, including the Malacca Sultanate and the Bruneian Empire. Several Philippine polities have also risen during this period such as Caboloan, the Rajahnate of Maynila, the Rajahnate of Cebu, and the Sultanate of Sulu.
In the region of Oceania, the Tuʻi Tonga Empire was founded in the 10th century CE and expanded between 1200 and 1500. Tongan culture, language, and hegemony spread widely throughout Eastern Melanesia, Micronesia and Central Polynesia during this period, influencing East 'Uvea, Rotuma, Futuna, Samoa and Niue, as well as specific islands / parts of Micronesia (Kiribati, Pohnpei and miscellaneous outliers), Vanuatu and New Caledonia (specifically, the Loyalty Islands, with the main island being predominantly populated by the Melanesian Kanak people and their cultures). At around the same time, a powerful thalassocracy appeared in Eastern Polynesia centred around the Society Islands, specifically on the sacred Taputapuatea marae, which drew in Eastern Polynesian colonists from places as far away as Hawaii, New Zealand (Aotearoa), and the Tuamotu Islands for political, spiritual and economic reasons, until the unexplained collapse of regular long-distance voyaging in the Eastern Pacific a few centuries before Europeans began exploring the area. Indigenous written records from this period are virtually non-existent, as it seems that all Pacific Islanders, with the possible exception of the enigmatic Rapa Nui and their currently undecipherable Rongorongo script, had no writing systems of any kind until after their introduction by European colonists; however, some indigenous prehistories can be estimated and academically reconstructed through careful, judicious analysis of native oral traditions, colonial ethnography, archaeology, physical anthropology and linguistics research.
In North America, this period saw the rise of the Mississippian culture in the modern-day United States c. 800 CE, marked by the extensive 12th-century urban complex at Cahokia. The Ancestral Puebloans and their predecessors (9th – 13th centuries) built extensive permanent settlements, including stone structures that would remain the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century. In Mesoamerica, the Teotihuacan civilization fell and the Classic Maya collapse occurred. The Aztec Empire came to dominate much of Mesoamerica in the 14th and 15th centuries. In South America, the 14th and 15th centuries saw the rise of the Inca. The Inca Empire of Tawantinsuyu, with its capital at Cusco, spanned the entire Andes Mountain Range, making it the most extensive Pre-Columbian civilization. The Inca were prosperous and advanced, known for an excellent road system and unrivaled masonry.
Modern history (the "modern period," the "modern era," "modern times") refers to the history of the period following the Middle Ages, spanning from about 1500 to the present day. In contrast, "Contemporary history" is history that covers events from around 1945 to the present day.
Early modern period
"Early modern period"[b] is a term used by historians to refer to the period between the Middle Ages (Post-classical history) and the Industrial Revolution—roughly 1500 to 1800. The Early Modern period is characterized by the rise of science, and by increasingly rapid technological progress, secularized civic politics, and the nation state. Capitalist economies began their rise, initially in northern Italian republics such as Genoa. The Early Modern period also saw the rise and dominance of the mercantilist economic theory. As such, the Early Modern period represents the decline and eventual disappearance, in much of the European sphere, of feudalism, serfdom, and the power of the Catholic Church. The period includes the Protestant Reformation, the disastrous Thirty Years' War, the Age of Discovery, European colonial expansion, the peak of European witch-hunting, the Scientific revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment.[c]
Europe's Renaissance, meaning "rebirth," referring to the rebirth of classical culture, beginning in the 14th century and extending into the 16th, consisted of the rediscovery of the classical world's scientific contributions, and of the economic and social rise of Europe. The Renaissance also engendered a culture of inquisitiveness which ultimately led to Humanism and the Scientific Revolution. Although it saw social and political upheaval and revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, the Renaissance is perhaps known best for its artistic developments and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term "Renaissance man."
During this period, European powers came to dominate most of the world. Although the most developed regions of European classical civilization were more urbanized than any other region of the world, European civilization had undergone a lengthy period of gradual decline and collapse. During the Early Modern Period, Europe was able to regain its dominance; historians still debate the causes.
Europe's success in this period stands in contrast to other regions. For example, one of the most advanced civilizations of the Middle Ages was China. It had developed an advanced monetary economy by 1000 CE. China had a free peasantry who were no longer subsistence farmers, and could sell their produce and actively participate in the market. According to Adam Smith, writing in the 18th century, China had long been one of the richest, most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, most urbanized, and most prosperous countries in the world. It enjoyed a technological advantage and had a monopoly in cast iron production, piston bellows, suspension bridge construction, printing, and the compass. However, it seemed to have long since stopped progressing. Marco Polo, who visited China in the 13th century, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness almost in the same terms as travelers would in the 18th century.
One theory of Europe's rise holds that Europe's geography played an important role in its success. The Middle East, India and China are all ringed by mountains and oceans but, once past these outer barriers, are nearly flat. By contrast, the Pyrenees, Alps, Apennines, Carpathians and other mountain ranges run through Europe, and the continent is also divided by several seas. This gave Europe some degree of protection from the peril of Central Asian invaders. Before the era of firearms, these nomads were militarily superior to the agricultural states on the periphery of the Eurasian continent and, as they broke out into the plains of northern India or the valleys of China, were all but unstoppable. These invasions were often devastating. The Golden Age of Islam was ended by the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. India and China were subject to periodic invasions, and Russia spent a couple of centuries under the Mongol-Tatar yoke. Central and western Europe, logistically more distant from the Central Asian heartland, proved less vulnerable to these threats.
Geography contributed to important geopolitical differences. For most of their histories, China, India, and the Middle East were each unified under a single dominant power that expanded until it reached the surrounding mountains and deserts. In 1600 the Ottoman Empire controlled almost all the Middle East, the Ming dynasty ruled China, and the Mughal Empire held sway over India. By contrast, Europe was almost always divided into a number of warring states. Pan-European empires, with the notable exception of the Roman Empire, tended to collapse soon after they arose. Another doubtless important geographic factor in the rise of Europe was the Mediterranean Sea, which, for millennia, had functioned as a maritime superhighway fostering the exchange of goods, people, ideas and inventions.
Nearly all the agricultural civilizations have been heavily constrained by their environments. Productivity remained low, and climatic changes easily instigated boom-and-bust cycles that brought about civilizations' rise and fall. By about 1500, however, there was a qualitative change in world history. Technological advance and the wealth generated by trade gradually brought about a widening of possibilities.
Many have also argued that Europe's institutions allowed it to expand, that property rights and free-market economics were stronger than elsewhere due to an ideal of freedom peculiar to Europe. In recent years, however, scholars such as Kenneth Pomeranz have challenged this view. Europe's maritime expansion unsurprisingly—given the continent's geography—was largely the work of its Atlantic states: Portugal, Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands. Initially the Portuguese and Spanish Empires were the predominant conquerors and sources of influence, and their union resulted in the Iberian Union, the first global empire on which the "sun never set". Soon the more northern English, French and Dutch began to dominate the Atlantic. In a series of wars fought in the 17th and 18th centuries, culminating with the Napoleonic Wars, Britain emerged as the new world power.
Persia came under the rule of the Safavid Empire in 1501, succeeded by the Afsharid Empire in 1736,Zand Empire in 1751 and the Qajar Empire in 1794. Areas to the north and east were held by Uzbeks and Pashtuns. The Ottoman Empire, after taking Constantinople in 1453, quickly gained control of the Middle East, the Balkans, and most of North Africa.
In Africa, this period saw a decline in many civilizations and an advancement in others. The Swahili Coast declined after coming under Portuguese (and later Omani) control. In west Africa, the Songhai Empire fell to the Moroccans in 1591 when they invaded with guns. The South African Kingdom of Zimbabwe gave way to smaller kingdoms such as Mutapa, Butua, and Rozwi. Ethiopia suffered from the 1531 invasion from neighbouring Muslim Adal Sultanate, and in 1769 entered the Zemene Mesafint (Age of Princes) during which the Emperor became a figurehead and the country was ruled by warlords, though the royal line later would recover under Emperor Tewodros II. The Ajuran Empire, in the Horn of Africa, began to decline in the 17th century, succeeded by the Geledi Sultanate. Other civilizations in Africa advanced during this period. The Oyo Empire experienced its golden age, as did the Benin Empire. The Ashanti Empire rose to power in what is modern day Ghana in 1670. The Kingdom of Kongo also thrived during this period. European exploration of Africa reached its zenith at this time.
In the Far East, the Chinese Ming Dynasty gave way (1644) to the Qing, the last Chinese imperial dynasty, which would rule until 1912. Japan experienced its Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568–1603), followed by the Edo period (1603–1868). The Korean Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) ruled throughout this period, successfully repelling 16th- and 17th-century invasions from Japan and China. Japan and China were significantly affected during this period by expanded maritime trade with Europe, particularly the Portuguese in Japan. During the Edo period, Japan would pursue isolationist policies, to eliminate foreign influences.
On the Indian subcontinent, the Delhi Sultanate and the Deccan sultanates would give way, beginning in the 16th century, to the Mughal Empire. Starting in the northwest, the Mughal Empire would by the late 17th century come to rule the entire subcontinent, except for the southernmost Indian provinces, which would remain independent. Against the Muslim Mughal Empire, the Hindu Maratha Empire was founded on the west coast in 1674, gradually gaining territory—a majority of present-day India—from the Mughals over several decades, particularly in the Mughal–Maratha Wars (1681–1701). The Maratha Empire would in 1818 fall under the control of the British East India Company, with all former Maratha and Mughal authority devolving in 1858 to the British Raj.
In 1511 the Portuguese overthrew the Malacca Sultanate in present-day Malaysia and Indonesian Sumatra. The Portuguese held this important trading territory (and the valuable associated navigational strait) until overthrown by the Dutch in 1641. The Johor Sultanate, centred on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, became the dominant trading power in the region. European colonization expanded with the Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies, and the Spanish in the Philippines. Into the 19th century, European expansion would affect the whole of Southeast Asia, with the British in Myanmar and Malaysia, and the establishment of French Indochina. Only Thailand would successfully resist colonization.
The Pacific islands of Oceania would also be affected by European contact, starting with the circumnavigational voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, who landed on the Marianas and other islands in 1521. Also notable were the voyages (1642–44) of Abel Tasman to present-day Australia, New Zealand and nearby islands, and the voyages (1768–1779) of Captain James Cook, who made the first recorded European contact with Hawaii. Britain would found its first colony on Australia in 1788.
In the Americas, the western European powers vigorously colonized the newly discovered continents, largely displacing the indigenous populations, and destroying the advanced civilizations of the Aztecs and the Inca. Spain, Portugal, Britain, and France all made extensive territorial claims, and undertook large-scale settlement, including the importation of large numbers of African slaves. Portugal claimed Brazil. Spain claimed the rest of South America, Mesoamerica, and southern North America. Britain colonized the east coast of North America, and France colonized the central region of North America. Russia made incursions onto the northwest coast of North America, with a first colony in present-day Alaska in 1784, and the outpost of Fort Ross in present-day California in 1812. In 1762, in the midst of the Seven Years' War, France secretly ceded most of its North American claims to Spain in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Thirteen of the British colonies declared independence as the United States of America in 1776, ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the American Revolutionary War. Napoleon Bonaparte won France’s claims back from Spain in the Napoleonic Wars in 1800, but sold them to the United States in 1803 as the Louisiana Purchase.
In Russia, Ivan the Terrible was crowned (1547) the first Tsar of Russia, and by annexing the Turkic Khanates in the east, transformed Russia into a regional power. The countries of western Europe, while expanding prodigiously through technological advancement and colonial conquest, competed with each other economically and militarily in a state of almost constant war. Often the wars had a religious dimension, either Catholic versus Protestant, or (primarily in eastern Europe) Christian versus Muslim. Wars of particular note include the Thirty Years' War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years' War, and the French Revolutionary Wars. Napoleon came to power in France in 1799, an event foreshadowing the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century.
Late Modern period
The Scientific Revolution changed humanity's understanding of the world and led to the Industrial Revolution, a major transformation of the world's economies. The Scientific Revolution in the 17th century had had little immediate effect on industrial technology; only in the second half of the 18th century did scientific advances begin to be applied substantially to practical invention. The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain and used new modes of production—the factory, mass production, and mechanization—to manufacture a wide array of goods faster and using less labour than previously required. The Age of Enlightenment also led to the beginnings of modern democracy in the late-18th century American and French Revolutions. Democracy and republicanism would grow to have a profound effect on world events and on quality of life.
After Europeans had achieved influence and control over the Americas, imperial activities turned to the lands of Asia and Oceania. In the 19th century the European states had social and technological advantage over Eastern lands. Britain gained control of the Indian subcontinent, Egypt and the Malay Peninsula; the French took Indochina; while the Dutch cemented their control over the Dutch East Indies. The British also colonized Australia, New Zealand and South Africa with large numbers of British colonists emigrating to these colonies. Russia colonized large pre-agricultural areas of Siberia. In the late 19th century, the European powers divided the remaining areas of Africa. Within Europe, economic and military challenges created a system of nation states, and ethno-linguistic groupings began to identify themselves as distinctive nations with aspirations for cultural and political autonomy. This nationalism would become important to peoples across the world in the 20th century.
During the Second Industrial Revolution, the world economy became reliant on coal as a fuel, as new methods of transport, such as railways and steamships, effectively shrank the world. Meanwhile, industrial pollution and environmental damage, present since the discovery of fire and the beginning of civilization, accelerated drastically.
The advantages that Europe had developed by the mid-18th century were two: an entrepreneurial culture, and the wealth generated by the Atlantic trade (including the African slave trade). By the late 16th century, silver from the Americas accounted for the Spanish empire's wealth. The profits of the slave trade and of West Indian plantations amounted to 5% of the British economy at the time of the Industrial Revolution. While some historians conclude that, in 1750, labour productivity in the most developed regions of China was still on a par with that of Europe's Atlantic economy, other historians like Angus Maddison hold that the per-capita productivity of western Europe had by the late Middle Ages surpassed that of all other regions.
The 20th century opened with Europe at an apex of wealth and power, and with much of the world under its direct colonial control or its indirect domination. Much of the rest of the world was influenced by heavily Europeanized nations: the United States and Japan. As the century unfolded, however, the global system dominated by rival powers was subjected to severe strains, and ultimately seemed to yield to a more fluid structure of independent nations organized on Western models.
This transformation was catalysed by wars of unparalleled scope and devastation. World War I destroyed many of Europe's empires and monarchies, and weakened Britain and France. In its aftermath, powerful ideologies arose. The Russian Revolution of 1917 created the first communist state, while the 1920s and 1930s saw militaristic fascist dictatorships gain control in Italy, Germany, Spain and elsewhere.
Ongoing national rivalries, exacerbated by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, helped precipitate World War II. The militaristic dictatorships of Europe and Japan pursued an ultimately doomed course of imperialist expansionism, in the course of which Nazi Germany orchestrated the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust and of millions of Poles, Russians, and other Slavs, while Imperial Japan murdered millions of Chinese. An earlier, World War I model of genocide had been provided by Turkey's mass murder of Armenians. The World War II defeat of the Axis Powers opened the way for the advance of communism into Central Europe, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, China, North Vietnam, and North Korea.
When World War II ended in 1945, the United Nations was founded in the hope of preventing future wars,[d] as the League of Nations had been formed following World War I. The war had left two countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, with principal power to influence international affairs. Each was suspicious of the other and feared a global spread of the other's, respectively capitalist and communist, political-economic model. This led to the Cold War, a forty-five-year stand-off and arms race between the United States and its allies, on one hand, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. With the development of nuclear weapons during World War II, and with their subsequent proliferation, all of humanity were put at risk of nuclear war between the two superpowers, as demonstrated by many incidents, most prominently the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Such war being viewed as impractical, the superpowers instead waged proxy wars in non-nuclear-armed Third World countries.
The Cold War ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, in part due to inability to compete economically with the United States and western Europe. However, the United States likewise began to show signs of slippage in its geopolitical influence,[e] even as its private sector, now less inhibited by the claims of the public sector, increasingly sought private advantage to the prejudice of the public weal.[f][g][h]
In the early postwar decades, the colonies in Asia and Africa of the Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and other west European empires won their formal independence. But the newly independent countries faced challenges in the form of neocolonialism, sociopolitical disarray, poverty, illiteracy, and endemic tropical diseases.[i][j]
Most Western European and Central European countries gradually formed a political and economic community, the European Union, which expanded eastward to include former Soviet-satellite countries. The European Union's effectiveness was handicapped by the immaturity of its common economic and political institutions, somewhat comparable to the inadequacy of United States institutions under the Articles of Confederation prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution that came into force in 1789. Asian, African, and South American countries followed suit and began taking tentative steps toward forming their own respective continental associations.
Cold War preparations to deter or to fight a third world war accelerated advances in technologies that, though conceptualized before World War II, had been implemented for that war's exigencies, such as jet aircraft, rocketry, and electronic computers. In the decades after World War II, these advances led to jet travel, artificial satellites with innumerable applications including global positioning systems (GPS), and the Internet—inventions that have revolutionized the movement of people, ideas, and information.
However, not all scientific and technological advances in the second half of the 20th century required an initial military impetus. That period also saw ground-breaking developments such as the discovery of the structure of DNA, the consequent sequencing of the human genome, the worldwide eradication of smallpox, the discovery of plate tectonics, manned and unmanned exploration of space and of previously inaccessible parts of Earth, and foundational discoveries in physics phenomena ranging from the smallest entities (particle physics) to the greatest entity (physical cosmology).
The century saw many global threats emerge or become more serious or more widely recognized, including nuclear proliferation, global climate change, air pollution, deforestation, ocean acidification and pollution, overpopulation, deadly epidemics of microbial diseases, near-Earth asteroids and comets, supervolcano eruptions, lethal gamma-ray bursts, geomagnetic storms, and the dwindling of natural resources (particularly fossil fuels) worldwide.
The 21st century has been marked by growing economic globalization and integration, with consequent increased risk to interlinked economies, as exemplified by the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s; and by the expansion of communications with mobile phones and the Internet, which have caused fundamental societal changes in business, politics, and individuals' personal lives, including the advent of social-media platforms such as Facebook.
The early 21st century saw escalating intra- and international strife in the Near East and Afghanistan, stimulated by vast economic disparities, by dissatisfaction with governments dominated by Western interests, by inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian feuds, and by the longest war in the history of the United States, the proximate cause for which was Osama bin Laden's provocative 2001 destruction of New York City's World Trade Center.[k] The Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Near East in the early 2010's, produced power vacuums that led to a resurgence of authoritarianism and the advent of reactionary groups like the Islamic State.
U.S. military involvements in the Near East and Afghanistan[l], along with a financial crisis and resultant recession, have drained U.S. economic resources at a time when the U.S. and other Western countries are experiencing mounting socioeconomic dislocations aggravated by the robotization of work and the export of industries to cheaper-workforce countries.[m][n][o] Meanwhile, ancient and populous Asian civilizations, namely India and especially China, have been emerging from centuries of relative scientific, technological, and economic dormancy to become potential economic and political rivals for Western powers.
Worldwide competition for resources has risen due to growing populations and industrialization, especially in India, China, and Brazil.[p] The increased demand is contributing to increased environmental degradation and global warming. That, and a need for safe, reliable energy supplies independent of politically volatile regions, has spurred the development of renewable sources of energy, chiefly solar and wind energy, in place of the "fissile-fossil complex" of nuclear energy and carbon-based energy (petroleum, coal, natural gas). In recognition of the existential threat posed by climate change,[q][r] in December 2015 195 countries signed the Paris Climate Agreement, though in 2017 President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal of the United States from the Agreement.[s][t][u][v][w][x]
International tensions were heightened in connection with the efforts of some nuclear-armed states to induce North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.[y]
- The very word "civilization" comes from the Latin civilis, meaning "civil," related to civis ("citizen") and civitas ("city" or "city-state").
- "Early Modern," historically speaking, refers to Western European history from 1501 (after the widely accepted end of the Late Middle Ages; the transition period was the 15th century) to either 1750 or c. 1790–1800, by whichever epoch is favored by a school of scholars defining the period—which, in many cases of periodization, differs as well within a discipline such as art, philosophy or history.
- The Age of Enlightenment has also been referred to as the Age of Reason. Historians also include the late 17th century, which is typically known as the Age of Reason or Age of Rationalism, as part of the Enlightenment; however, contemporary historians have considered the Age of Reason distinct to the ideas developed in the Enlightenment. The use of the term here includes both Ages under a single all-inclusive time-frame.
- Historian Samuel Zipp writes that "the Allies had no plan – during [World War II] – for a new world body to replace the League of Nations. Here Wendell Willkie distinguish[ed] himself from [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, who favored a limited procedural role for most countries in what would become the United Nations. Smaller nations could "blow off steam" in a legislative assembly, Roosevelt... commented, while the "Four Policemen" – the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China – would run things from an executive body. Willkie [advocated for] a more egalitarian international body with the power to curb national sovereignty, not just a debating society run by the great powers.... Roosevelt's vision won out. The United Nations was shaped to fit American, British, and Soviet strategic demands. The members of the Security Council, as the executive body came to be called after France was added to the ranks of FDR's policemen, enjoyed a veto over any initiatives that endangered their interests. Smaller nations looked on from the General Assembly, while the UN had no international police powers that might infringe upon national sovereignty. It would oversee the gradual progress of some colonies toward self-determination, but many others would be left to the whims of their prewar masters. The United States helped establish a multilateral "rules based order" designed to contain communism and allow the European powers to fortify their colonial holdings – a decision that would end in tears in Vietnam."
- "In the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union..." writes Graham Allison, "Americans were... caught up in a surge of triumphalism." Francis Fukuyama, in a 1992 best-selling book, proclaimed The End of History, the victory of free-market economics, and the permanent ascendancy of Western liberal democracy. But it soon became evident, writes Allison, that "the end of the Cold War [had] produced a unipolar moment, not a unipolar era. [T]he U.S. economy, which [had] accounted for half of the world's GDP after World War II, had fallen to less than a quarter of global GDP by the end of the Cold War and stands at just one-seventh today. For a nation whose core strategy has been to overwhelm challenges with resources, this decline calls into question the terms of U.S. leadership."
- "In the advanced economies of the West, from 1945 to around 1975," writes Robin Varghese in Foreign Affairs, "voters showed how politics could tame markets, putting officials in power who pursued a range of social democratic policies without damaging the economy. This period... saw a historically unique combination of high growth, increasing productivity, rising real wages, technological innovation, and expanding systems of social insurance in Western Europe, North America, and Japan.... Since the 1970s, businesses across the developed world have been cutting their wage bills not only through labor-saving technological innovations but also by pushing for regulatory changes and developing new forms of employment. These include just-in-time contracts, which shift risks to workers; noncompete clauses, which reduce bargaining power; and freelance arrangements, which exempt businesses from providing employees with benefits such as health insurance. The result has been that since the beginning of the twenty-first century, labor's share of GDP has fallen steadily in many developed economies.... The challenge today is to identify... a mixed economy that can successfully deliver what the [1945–75] golden age did, this time with greater gender and racial equality to boot."
- Historian Christopher R. Browning writes: "In the first three postwar decades, workers and management effectively shared the increased wealth produced by the growth in productivity. Since the 1970s that social contract has collapsed, union membership and influence have declined, wage growth has stagnated, and inequality in wealth has grown sharply."
- Economics Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in Scientific American, in part: "[T]he U.S. has the highest level of economic inequality among developed countries.... Since the mid-1970s the rules of the economic game have been rewritten... globally and nationally [to] advantage the rich... in a political system that is itself rigged through gerrymandering, voter suppression and the influence of money.... [Enforcement of] anti-trust laws, first enacted [in 1890] in the U.S. to prevent the agglomeration of market power, has weakened... Technological changes have concentrated market power in the hands of a few global players... part[ly] because of "network effects"... [E]stablished firms with deep war chests have enormous power to crush competitors and ultimately raise prices.... A concerted attack on unions has almost halved the fraction of unionized workers in the [U.S.], to about 11 percent.... U.S. investment treaties such as NAFTA protect investors against a tightening of environmental and health regulations abroad. [Such] provisions... enhance the credibility of a company's threat to move abroad if workers do not temper their demands.... [I]t is hard to imagine meaningful change without a concerted effort to take money out of politics..."
- The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, urges the governments of both developed and developing countries to invest more in human capital, "which is the sum total of a population's health, skills, knowledge, experience, and habits." Increased levels of quality education increase a person's income. "Socioemotional skills, such as grit and conscientiousness, often have equally large economic returns.... Health also matters. [I]n Kenya, [administration of inexpensive] deworming drugs in childhood [has] reduced school absences and raised wages in adulthood by... 20 percent... Proper nutrition and stimulation in utero and during early childhood improve physical and mental well-being later in life. [F]ocusing on human capital during the first 1,000 days of a child's life is one of the most cost-effective investments governments can make.... Human capital doesn't materialize on its own; it must be nurtured by the state."
- William Hardy McNeill, in his 1963 book The Rise of the West, appears to have interpreted the decline of the European empires as paradoxically being due to Westernization itself, writing that "Although European empires have decayed since 1945, and the separate nation-states of Europe have been eclipsed as centers of political power by the melding of peoples and nations occurring under the aegis of both the American and Russian governments, it remains true that, since the end of World War II, the scramble to imitate and appropriate science, technology, and other aspects of Western culture has accelerated enormously all round the world. Thus the dethronement of western Europe from its brief mastery of the globe coincided with (and was caused by) an unprecedented, rapid Westernization of all the peoples of the earth.":566 McNeill further writes that "The rise of the West, as intended by the title and meaning of this book, is only accelerated when one or another Asian or African people throws off European administration by making Western techniques, attitudes, and ideas sufficiently their own to permit them to do so".:807
- In consequence, write Robert Malley and Jon Finer in Foreign Affairs, "The United States has become captive to a national security paradigm that ends up magnifying the very fears from which it was born.... One possible explanation for the resilience of the terrorist threat is that an overly militarized approach aggravates the very conditions on which terrorist recruitment thrives. The destruction of entire cities and the unintentional killing of civilians, in addition to being tragic, serve as powerful propaganda tools for jihadists. Such incidents feed resentment, grievances, and anti-Americanism."
- Andrew J. Bacevich urges "a fundamental reassessment of US national-security policy in those parts of the Islamic world [at a time when US] political elites... manifest... indifference to endless war [and when] American wars continue as if on autopilot." The public, writes Bacevich, needs to be informed that "the national security of the United States may not require... stationing... US troops in [over] 170 countries around the world, a massive military budget... or the continuous dropping of ordnance on targets in distant lands of marginal or nonexistent relevance to [the US's] well-being."
- Shlomo Ben-Ami writes that "the West is beset by deep social inequalities, reinforced in recent decades by poorly managed globalization." He urges the necessity of [g]iving a humane face to the embrace of globalization and innovation..."
- The socioeconomic dislocations have prompted, in several countries, proposals for, and experiments with, citizens' guaranteed basic incomes, which had been proposed in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and in Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice (1797). The proposals' purposes and prospects are discussed in Benjamin M. Friedman, "Born to Be Free" (review of Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Harvard University Press, 2017), The New York Review of Books, vol. LXIV, no. 15 (12 October 2017), pp. 39–41.
- Nathan Heller writes that a Universal Basic Income in the United States, of perhaps $1,000 a month per individual, would automatically provide a modest social safety net for everyone who could become redundant in the job market due to automation or job exportation – without the current cumbersome, often demeaning bureaucratic mechanisms for means testing and beneficiary supervision. UBI would create, for many persons, life choices not now available to them, and might reduce criminality spawned by desperate living conditions. UBI's supporters have included politicians across the political spectrum such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney.
- See List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
- The threats caused by the greenhouse effect and global warming, their remedies, and the broader, growing matergetic crisis facing Earth were fairly comprehensively discussed in the December 1970 Scientific American "Biosphere" issue.
- The "greenhouse effect", substantially responsible for Earth's global warming, was first described in 1824 by the French mathematician Joseph Fourier. The greenhouse effect is a natural mechanism that becomes dangerous if the atmosphere's greenhouse-gas concentrations exceed environmentally safe levels, as they have gradually been doing since the start of the Industrial Revolution. As predicted, this is already increasing the frequency and severity of floods and droughts due to accelerated melting of icecaps, glaciers, and snowpacks; flooding of low-lying coasts; storms; agricultural disruption and famines; ecological displacements; ocean acidification with havoc to marine life; release, from thawing Arctic permafrost, of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide; and intra- and intersocietal conflicts, with increased crime and warfare. The multifarious, irreversible damage from global warming will accelerate as environmental tipping points are reached. The late physicist–cosmologist Stephen Hawking on 2 July 2017, belatedly celebrating his 75th birthday, warned that planet Earth is rapidly approaching an irreversible tipping point that will leave the planet with an uninhabitable environment like that of Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees and sulfuric-acid rain. The U.S. military are already forced to factor global-warming effects into their planning for military infrastructure, war, and disaster relief.
- On 8 October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C stating that, if drastic changes in the global energy base and lifestyle are not made by about 2030—within a dozen years—civilization on planet Earth will become unsalvageable.
- Astrophysicist John Gribbin, writing in Scientific American, contemplates the evolution of the cosmic infrastructure that made the history of the world possible, and concludes that "we are probably the only intelligent life in the Milky Way galaxy.... And if our planet is so special, it becomes all the more important to preserve this unique world for ourselves, our descendants and the many creatures that call Earth home." He explains that the universe's first stars after the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago, could not have had planets because chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium had not yet been cooked up inside stars. By the time our star, the Sun, came into being 4.5 billion years ago, there were sufficient amounts of heavier elements available to form Earth. The Sun resides within a fairly narrow "galactic habitable zone" that is at reduced risk from destructive supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. An orderly arrangement of planets in nearly circular orbits providing long-term stability – as in our solar system – is uncommon. "Earth-like planets" that have been discovered are generally uninhabitable, by contrast with Earth with its thin mobile crust where tectonic activity brings ores and nutrients to the surface through volcanism. Earth also has a large metallic core that, coupled with Earth's rapid rotation, produces a strong magnetic field that shields Earth from harmful cosmic radiation; without this screen, "our atomosphere would probably erode, and any living thing on the surface would get fried." These planetary attributes are diredtly related to our Moon, which probably formed early in the solar system's history when a Mars-size object struck the nascent Earth a glancing blow, causing both protoplanets to melt; the metallic material from the two objects settled into Earth's center, and much of Earth's original lighter rocky material splashed out to become the Moon, leaving Earth with a thinner crust. Without that impact, Earth would lack its crucial magnetic field and plate tectonics. The presence of such a large Moon stabilizes Earth, preventing it from toppling far from the vertical, as happened with Mars. Once the Earth-Moon system settled down, "life emerged with almost indecent rapidity": fossils of single-celled prokaryotes have been found in rocks 3.4 billion years old – about a billion years younger than Earth. But it was only about 1.5 billion years ago that more complex, eukaryote cells, the stuff of all plants and animals, arose from a single merging of two types of primordial single-celled organisms: bacteria and archaea. "It is a measure of how unlikely such a single fusion of cells was that it took two billion years of evolution to occur." Even then, little changed for about a billion years, apart from early eukaryotes forming flat, soft-bodied multicellular organisms, until the Cambrian explosion some 550 million years ago. DNA analysis, showing extremely close similarities among the most diverse human populations, indicates that all humans are descended from a tiny population, possibly survivors of some catastrophe or catastrophes. DNA evidence pinpoints two evolutionary bottlenecks: 150,000 years ago, the human population was reduced to no more than a few thousand breeding pairs; and about 70,000 years ago, the entire human population fell to about 1,000. "Is life likely to exist elsewhere in the galaxy?" asks John Gribbin. "Almost certainly, given the speed with which it appeared on Earth. Is another technological civilization likely to exist today? Almost certainly no, given the chain of circumstances that led to our existence."
- Historian Christopher R. Browning concludes an article on "The Suffocation of Democracy": "[W]ithin several decades after Trump's presidency has ended, the looming effects of ecological disaster due to human-caused climate change—which Trump not only denies but is doing so much to accelerate—will be inescapable. Desertification of continental interiors, flooding of populous coastal areas, and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, with concomitant shortages of fresh water and food, will set in motion both population flight and conflicts over scarce resources that dwarf the current fate of Central Africa and Syria. No wall will be high enough to shelter the US from these events....".
- Environmentalist Bill McKibben explains that the 2018 IPCC Special Report understates the climatic perils to Earth and adds: "[E]ngineers have [made] remarkable advances, and the price of [electrical energy] generated by the sun or wind has continued to plunge... these are now the cheapest sources of power across much of the globe. Battery storage technology has progressed too; the fact that the sun goes down at night is no longer the obstacle to solar power many once presumed.... California, the planet's fifth-largest economy, promise[s] to be carbon-neutral by 2045.... [The] paramount reason we didn't heed... earlier warnings [is] the power of the fossil fuel industry.... [But] the relentless floods and storms and fires have gotten Americans' attention... 93 percent of Democrats want more solar farms; so do 84 percent of Republicans.... In October  the [New York State] attorney general...filed suit against Exxon-Mobil, claiming the company defrauded shareholders by downplaying the risks of climate change. In January  New York City joined the growing fossil fuel divestment campaign... Mayor Bill de Blasio is working with London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, to convince their colleagues around the world to do likewise. In July  Ireland became the first nation to join the campaign... This kind of pressure on [fossil-fuel] investors needs to continue..."
- The U.S. Government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, released on November 23, 2018, describes the horrific prospects for the “U.S. economy, human health, and the environment” if emissions of greenhouse gases are not curtailed substantially on an urgent basis.
- Bill McKibben sees encouraging signs of progress in the worldwide campaign to replace the fissile-fossil complex with solar energy, direct and indirect (wind power). "Over the last decade, there has been a staggering fall in the price of solar and wind power, and of the lithium-ion batteries used to store energy.... Who is going to invest in [a fossil-fuel] industry that is clearly destined to shrink?... [Petroleum's] price should fall if it has to compete with the price of sunshine.... [T]he world's largest private-sector coal-mining company, [Peabody, went from the Fortune 500 list of most prosperous U.S. corporations] to bankrupt[cy] in 2016.... [O]ver the first nine months of 2018, India installed forty times more capacity for renewable than for coal-fired power.... Even "cheap" natural gas is... starting to look expensive compared to... sun, wind, and batteries.... [Once-powerful] General Electric [has become] "a thermal-power-reliant basket case" [and in 2018] was dropped from the Dow Industrial Index... The world's leading car companies have become convinced that electric vehicles will account for all the growth in demand by the early 2020s.... An effort... launch[ed] in 2012 to persuade universities and churches to divest their fossil fuel shares has... become the largest divestment campaign in history.... Countries in Africa and South Asia have a[n] opportunity to avoid expensive fixed investments in fossil fuels and centralized grids by adopting mini-grids and decentralized solar and wind energy deployed off-grid – just as they jumped straight to mobile phones and obviated the need to lay expensive copper-wired telephone networks.... Imagine a world in which the tortured politics of the Middle East weren't magnified in importance by the value of the hydrocarbons beneath its sands.... The question, of course, is whether we can reach that new world in time."
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