"Neither the Emperor nor the Empress can buy back a single day" - Chinese proverb.
A lot happens in one thousand years. Forty or fifty generations walk through history. Dynasties, economies and cultures come and go. Commonly-held realities shift. The world-views of people at the end a millennium bear little relation to those of people at the beginning. Here we shall do a quick fly-past of past millennia.
The tides of human history don’t fit neatly into pigeon-holes, yet there’s a distinct flavour to each millennium – and to half-millennia too. The tone is often set 60-100 years before a millennium starts. Many of the issues and factors looming large in year 2000 were decided around 1900 and 1800.
One millennium ago, much of Europe was peripheral and underdeveloped, except for Byzantium and Arabic Spain. Across the world, between 1000 and 1500, several buoyantly advanced cultures were reaching their peak. Some were definitely assertive and militaristic (the Maoris, Mongols, Aztecs and Incas), some materialistic (Songhai Mali and Moghul India), and some dominated by dynastic big government (Ottoman Turkey and China). They were all culturally rich in architecture, art, religion and natural philosophy.
Let’s go further back. Medieval Europe took shape during chaotic and insecure times, its Dark Ages (400-1000). Actually, these were Light Ages for most of the world: all was well and thriving in Ethiopia (Axum), Byzantium, the Arabic world, India, Cambodia, Java, China, and also in Hopewell North America (Ohio) and Mayan Mexico. Religion, tradition and culture played a central role in all of these different worlds, though grief, excess and manipulation were, as always, also present. Humanity was at the time becoming increasingly complex.
Earlier, the Old World classical cultures, which had built on ancient traditions while also germinating seeds of things to come, had been deeply shaken in the 300s and 400s. Central Asian nomad-warriors such as the Hsiung-Nu (Huns) and Juan-Juan (Avars), proceded to shake up China, India, Persia and Byzantium – and they felled Rome. This was a big divide in history, separating ancient and later times.
The classical civilisations had seen remarkable developments from -600 onwards. Dramatic new ideas eroded the ancient magical, tribal or priestly-defined world-views of former times. Oracles, pharaohs, multiplicities of gods and complex mythologies slowly began to surrender to new perspectives. In China, the insights of Confucians and Taoists helped unify China, laying the foundations of classical Chinese culture. In India, the Buddha challenged brahmanic tradition with a new psychology and spiritual pragmatism.
Persian Zoroastran beliefs, a modernised faith derived from the High Altai, could have become a new world religion. In Greece, its philosopher-scientists outlined a new individualism and rationalism. In Mesopotamia, the Old Testament was being written down by exiled Jews. Things were changing. They were being written down too.
Raucous, mercantile imperialism, town life, trade and macho attitiudes took root at this time too. These transitional civilisations achieved a creative peak around the -200s. Trade and ideas travelled the roads and sea-lanes from China to Rome. In the Americas, the Olmec, Zapotec and Chavin cultures thrived in a world of their own - though there is a possibility they had contact with Eurasia too, through the Chinese, Phoenicians and Africans.
Going much further back into ‘prehistoric’ times, a sudden breakthrough had occurred around -3200, leading to the founding of highly-developed, long-lasting urban cultures in Sumer and Assyria (Iraq), Crete, Egypt, Harappa (Pakistan), China and Mexico.
Lesser cultures existed in Nigeria, Equador, Britain, Indochina, Turkestan, Polynesia and Ohio too. These were connected by striking worldwide similarities in architecture, myth, technology and mathematics - was this fortutious or a remnant of a more ancient world culture? These we commonly regard as the first civilisations, though this might not be so.
Previous to this, agricultural and trading villages arose in the Middle East and India as early as -8000. The earliest activity at Stonehenge dates from this time too. There was village-centred activity in China, Java, Mexico, the Sahara, West Africa and the Mediterranean. Many notable basic innovations arose at this time: agriculture, medicine, sewing, script, the wheel and many domestic technologies, and many formative ideas and social structures too.
New evidence proposes the existence of advanced cultures earlier than this, before -10,000, in Egypt, Mexico and Peru, even Central Asia and Antarctica. Humanity’s early evolution is still a mystery - and a new frontier. In coming times there is a lot more to discover about our origins.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
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