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The Oxford Illustrated History of the World, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

26 April 2019

Richard Chartres looks at themes in story of the human species

WITH the fading of Western hegemony and the resumption by India and China of the central part they have played for much of the human story, it is obvious that we need a new kind of history to prepare for a future very unlike the one foreseen by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History. Fukuyama argued that the combination of liberal democracy and market economics underwritten by American hard power represented the consummation of the human project. The events of the 21st century have dissolved such confidence.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the World takes the long view of the evolution of human societies. This collection of essays seeks to navigate through a mass of material by reference to some general themes. There is the theme of divergence and convergence as Homo sapiens emerged from East Africa, survived the Ice Age, and displayed a remarkable capacity for adaptation, as our species spread over the globe. Human interactions with nature have a prominence in this account which is understandable in view of our present anxieties about climate change. There is also a study of the place of wisdom traditions and the growth of knowledge in engendering a sense of a common humanity.


One of the most stimulating chapters is by the editor of the collection, Felipe Fernández-Armesto. In The Mind in the Ice, he reflects on the testimony of pre-historic art, notably the discoveries made in 1996 of the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, which have been dated to more than 30,000 years ago. The ice sheet only began to retreat 20,000 years ago, but for Stone Age foragers there was affluence with plenty of nutritional fat derived from hunting animals.

There seems to be evidence that Ice Age thinkers were conscious of the reality of invisible things. Access to the spirit realm involves a breakthrough from a passive submission to the constraints of life in a material world into the freedom of a plastic and unpredictable future.

The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and LondonThis colour plate, which shows a Sumerian law code of the late third millennium BC, inscribed on a clay cylinder (The Schøyen Collection, MS 2064), is one of the many in The Oxford Illustrated History of the World

The advent of the plough and the sword engendered the seminal civilisations in the valleys of the ancient Near East, India, and China. They developed within a common ecological framework of warming and drying in which political authority grew from managing seasonally flooded waters and irrigation. Chinese civilisation spread from the millet-growing areas of the Yellow River to embrace the rice fields of the Yangtse which gave some insurance against ecological disaster.

Alongside growing cultural and commercial interaction, diseases were also globalised, and there is a fresh appreciation of the impact of widespread plague in the crisis that engulfed the Roman Empire at the end of the sixth century AD, just before the eruption of Islam. Christianity survived the various climatic shocks as a network of communities that emphasised brotherhood and charity in hard times.

The Islamic world was the dominant force in Western Eurasia from 700 to 1000, until the Medieval Warm Period permitted the initiative to shift to the states and cities of Western Europe.

Events in 18th-century Britain shattered the old limits on growth by unlocking the energy in fossil fuels: the prelude to what has been termed the Anthropocene epoch, 1815-2015, when human beings have acquired a planet-changing dominance.

At a time of accelerated change, as we navigate into the human future in the age of genetic engineering, in which we have developed the capacity to create enhanced human beings, it is obviously vital for Homo sapiens to grow in the wisdom to distinguish between benign and destructive changes. This long view of the human story over 200,000 years sets the context for the decisions that we have to make in our present turbulent period of the Anthropocene.

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the World
Felipe Fernández-Armesto
OUP £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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