History

We know quite a lot about the past from looking at the things it has left lying around; and the most detailed knowledge we have of the past comes from what people of the time wrote down. When they wrote it with intent to give a future reader a clear account – albeit usually with at least some bias – of what happened, we call it history; when they wrote it for other reasons (such as accounts to keep trade honest or to help an owner keep track of what he owns), one could argue that our interpretation of it is more archeological than historical, but we usually treat the reading of such records as history anyway (they are, if nothing else, more apt to be honest). As a result, the scope of history is limited to the era of written records – to which this page is devoted. For events prior to the invention of writing, see my time-line.

I measure time backwards from the present (nominally 2001 – see below for why) and all of history falls within the range of times ago that I'd naturally represent in kilo-years, a.k.a. millennia – writing emerged within the last ten millennia and anything more recent than a century (tenth of a millennium), while genuinely history, shades into current affairs and the mythology of present political realities, so I chose to leave it to others. If you want information on closer time-scales than the last century, seek elsewhere: and please be sensible enough to bear in mind that any author, whose writings you can hope to read, is close enough to the socio-political realities of the events discussed that you should engage your best talent for skepticism (especially if what they say agrees with your prejudices) in assessing the veracity of their accounts of the recent past.

One such elsewhere that may have a sobering impact on readers is Piero Scaruffi's list of wars and casualties, steadilly expanding outwards from the 20th century as he gathers more information. As Eric Bogle says at the end of No Man's Land (lyrics – PDF), even since the war to end wars, it has all happened again and again and again and again and again.

My main aim here is merely to record the time-line of our past, in which the order of events takes centre stage, even when the events in question are unrelated – proper histories generally (and properly) tell a cogent story of related events, ignoring unrelated events elsewhere; but, here, I want to provide the framework for seeing how those disparate stories' time-lines match up. As a result, although this page treats the last ten millennia because what we know of them is predominantly from written records, I include here the things we know from other sources.

570 to 92 yr ago: superstitious law courts

1431, May 30, Rouen, France: Jean d'Arc burned at the stake for communing with spirits; April 1909, the same maid of Orleans was canonised on grounds of those spirits being deemed angelic.

401 yr ago
Giordano Bruno is burned at the stake for his heresies. There is some debate as to whether his heterodox views on cosmology – identifying stars as suns, with planets of their own, in an infinite universe – contributed to The Inquisition's deciaion.
419 yr ago
Introduction of the Gregorian calendar (named after pope Gregory), on October 15th 1582.
475 yr ago
Thomas Digges publishes a re-telling of Copernicus without the outer celestial sphere, thus introducing the idea of an infinite universe. (In this, he may have been echoing Nocholas of Kues, who espoused similar ideas 540 or more years ago.)
474 to 372 yr ago: John Dee
A curious fellow, at least partially the inspiration for various figures in literature, from magicians to the secret agent 007.
The last 494 years: the era of flight
In 1507 a Scottish alchemist, John Damian, lept off the ramparts of Stirling castle, intent on flying to France. It's not clear how far he got, but modern researchers suspect he actually did fly a short way (before infamously breaking his leg on landing in a midden).
At least 830 years ago
Irish distillation of aqua vitae in abbeys, recorded in 1170 on Henry II's invasion. English taxes were being levied on the alembics used for this as early as 1276.
A millennium ago
Abulcais (Cordoba, 936–1031 CE) perfected the alembic, hence distillation of ethanol.
1130 years ago
Al Kindi (Baghdad, died 873 CE) improved distilling techniques to obtain rose essence.
1.591 k yr ago
Sack of Rome.
1.689 k yr ago: conversion of Constantine
The official date, 312 AD, at which the Roman Empire switched from oppressing christianity to promoting it. The oppression had actually been limited: there was official persecution in 249 AD under Decius and 303–304 AD under Diocletian, probably with other outbursts of varying officialness, but generally the Roman Empire protected all religious minorities from the general population's antipathy. The general population resented the christians because they didn't honour the gods, so all the bad things that happened were clearly their fault, the gods' punishment on the general population for tolerating the atheists in their midst (much as some who now call themselves christians now blame bad things on certain of their fellow citizens).
1.734 k yr ago
Athens sacked by Goths.
2 ky ago: start of the common era
This is the nominal date of Christ's birth: but it's fairly clear that – even for those who accept the historical reality of the man in question – the late Roman and dark age tracking of dates, combined with poor back-tracking through the centuries in which years were referred to relative to the reigns of assorted rulers, introduced something like four years of inaccuracy. (For example, the biblical account of a bright star moving about the sky can fairly sanely be matched to Chinese records of a comet if we accept a four year discrepancy.) The Christian system of year numbering refers to years since this nominal start-point as anno domini or AD; somehow, the world has been persuaded to use the same numbering but described as CE (for Common Era) instead of AD, despite religious and calendrical differences. The year before 1 CE (a.k.a. 1 AD) is thus the first year before the common era, 1 BCE (a.k.a. 1 BC, the first year before Christ, albeit this leaves me a little confused as to whether Christ is supposed to have been born near the end of 1 BC or of 1 AD; there is no year zero in this system); earlier years are correspondingly numbered backwards, so the n-th year BCE is 2000+n years ago – I chose 2001 CE as my nominal reference date to make that arithmetic easy !
2.047 k yr ago (46 BC)
Introduction of the Julian calendar.
2.049 k yr ago: Caesar crosses the Rubicon
49 BCE, January 10th, Julius Caesar paused on the banks of the Rubicon, a river formally marking the border between Italy and Gaul, the province to which he'd been sent with his army. Roman law forbade him to bring his army out of his province: he had to return to Rome and present himself to the senate's judgement of how he'd fared in his campaign; but he knew political machinations were afoot by his enemies. If he took his army with him, he broke the law; if he didn't, he was defenceless against ruthless opponents. While he mulled this dilemma (according to his later account), some of his soldiers crossed the river to enjoy music being played by a shepherd on the other side; Caesar took this as his cue to take his army to Rome, thereby starting a civil war pivotal to the Roman republic's later tranformation into an empire.
2.264 to 2.146 k yr ago
The Punic wars; Rome and Carthage fought for dominance of the Mediterranean.
2.285 to 2.212 k yr ago: Archimedes
The nearest the Romans got to making a decisive contribution to mathematics was killing Archimedes on the beach at Syracuse in 212 BCE. Archimedes, aside from his prolific contributions to mathematics and physics, invented several machines of war which helped keep the Romans at bay for some years.
2.332 k yr ago: Alexandria
Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, in Egypt, in 332 BCE as part of his campaign of conquests. There may well have been an earlier settlment dating back to as much as 3 k yr ago.
2.336 to 2.323 k yr ago
The reign of Alexander III (The Great) of Macedonia; preceded by his father, Philip II, from 2.359 to 2.336 k yr ago.
2.6 to 2.2 k yr ago: the world is a sphere

The Pythagorean school of thought, in the 500s BCE, considered the world a sphere (and believed it to orbit the Sun); Aristotle (384–322 BCE) threw in some supporting evidence; Eratosthenes (276ish–196ish BCE) measured its curvature fairly accurately.

2.6 k yr ago
Foundation of Marseilles, by Greeks from the West of Asia Minor (now Turkey).
2.8 to 2.2 k yr ago: the Axial Age
800 to 200 BCE, a period of major developments in philosophical/religious thinking across several civilisations stretching (at least) from Greece to China.
Since at least 2.7 k yr ago:
Cannabis has been used for its mind-altering effects.
2.775 or 2.753 k yr ago:
Rome founded: April 21, 753 BCE according to tradition; archeological evidence suggests c. 775 BCE. Rome is ruled by kings until 507 BCE.
2.814 k yr ago
Carthage founded by Phoenician settlers fleeing from the political turmoil in the city of Tyre. (814 or 813 BCE, according to a not necessarily reliable source.)
2.9 to 2.7 k yr ago
Villanovan or early Iron Age period in central Italy, followed by an Etruscan period from 2.7 to 2.48 k yr ago.
3 k yr ago
Early proto-Canaanite (precursor of Hebrew alphabet) writing, on a shard of pottery, might be the oldest known text in the Hebrew language.
3.3 to 2.7 k yr ago
The urnfield period of the late bronze age in western Europe.
3.39 to 3.37 k yr ago
Early North European beer. The Egtved girl was buried with, among other things, a bucket of beer.
3.55 to 3.07 k yr ago:
Egypt's new kingdom brought stability to an area spanning 1.2 Mm, from Nubia (now Ethiopia) in the South to Palestine in the North. Rough contemporaries include a Kassite state (3.53 to 3.16 k yr ago) in Lower Mesopotamia, an Assyrrian state (3.4 to 3.05 k yr ago) in Upper Mesopotamia, a Hittite new kingdom (3.4 to 3.2 k yr ago) in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and Cretan palatial civilisations (see the Aegean Bronze age, below). Biblical chronologies put Israel's conquest of Canaan at around 3.2 k yr ago, half way through this period.
3.9 to 3.4 k yr ago:
the Aegean Bronze age

radiocarbon dating puts the volcanic eruption at Santorini, which heralded the age, between 1660 and 1613 BCE. Price and Thonemann divide the period on Crete into a first palace period, 1900–1750 BCE, and a second palace period, 1750–1430 BCE, after which Mycenaeans take control of Crete.

3.8 to 3.2 k yr ago: Iron metalurgy
Early extraction of iron from ores (as distinct from working naturally-occuring meteoric iron) may go back as far as 3.8 k yr in India; certainly by 3.2 k yr ago it was being practiced in southern India and (by hittites) in The Middle East.
4 k yr ago: Banking

The Akkadian karrum (literally quay but meaning market and the traders associated therewith; the goods travelled by river, so arrived at the quay) of Ashur (later: Assyria) controlled trade, levying taxes, keeping its own warehouses and offering warehouse space to merchants; but also holding goods and money on behalf of private merchants and, thus, functioning as a bank of deposit.

4 k yr ago: South American metal-working
Beginning around 4 k yr ago, people in South America began working metals, initially starting with naturally occurring copper and precious metals. This lead (eventually) to the reinvention of metalurgy (around 2 k yr ago).
4.1 to 3.8 k yr ago: Egypt's middle kingdom
had a secure border with Nubia (Ethiopia) to the South.
4.55 k yr ago: the Great Pyramid

Built for the pharoah Cheops, a.k.a. Khufu, and still not fully explored – but Dr. Zahi Hawass is working on it.

4.89 to 4.63 k yr ago
Folk in the Indus valley farm millet for harvest in the summer and pulses for a winter harvest. By 4.52±.06 k yr ago, they'd added horsegram to their summer harvest; by 4.285±.145 k yr ago, they had rice. They likely started with dry-land rice, possibly with some wet-land rice, before switching to more productive wet-land growing methods around 4 k yr ago.
2 to 5 k yr ago

The most recent common ancestor of all currently living humans is estimated to have lived between two and five millennia ago.

5.15 k yr ago: wheel
The Ljubljana Marshes Wheel is a wooden disk with a square hole for an axle; one may fairly guess that folk had been making wheels for a while before this.
5.3 k yr ago
Late Neolithic: Ötzi the iceman was killed, at age 45, but his body was preserved in an alpine glacier. His clothes suggest a pastoral and agricultural life-style. He is now believed to have no surviving relatives.
5.5 k yr ago
Uruk – home city of Gilgamesh (and writing, perhaps).
Early distillation in mesopotamian Iraq; a basic still was depicted around 3500 BC; probably for extracting plant oils as perfumes.
Metalurgy – after two thousand years of metal-working, people work out how to obtain metals from ores and combine them into alloys, starting with bronze, which had spread to India by about 4 k yr ago.
6 to 4 k yr ago: civilization emerges
climate change forced people to live together; and the ones who could cope with that became civilized (i.e. began living together in cities).
6 to 5 k yr ago: writing
The civilisations in and around Mesopotamia (from Egypt to the Indus) evolved writing – a prerequisite of history and a major boon to research, hence technology, of all kinds – out of their assorted systems of markings.
6.714 k yr ago
Start-point of the Julian day numbering system; its day 0 is 4714 BC, Nov 24 in the proleptic Gregorian calendar (see 419 yr ago); or 4713 BC Jan 1 in the proleptic Julian calendar (see 2047 yr ago).
7.3 k yr ago
Proto-writing in south-eastern Europe. Diverse cultures throughout the Eurasian-African super-continent have developed systems of marks (for example, on pottery – which, by now, has spread all over) for various purposes.
8.6 k yr ago
Ancient chinese proto-writing. There's some debate about what it was, what it was used for or exactly how long ago it happened, but they definitely made some interesting markings on tortoise shells.
8 to 7 k yr ago: metal-working
Balkan sites show the most ancient evidence of metal-working. Initially, people worked with naturally-occurring copper, precious metals and even iron.
10ish k yr ago
Mesopotamians begin using clay tokens to represent (at least) agricultural goods; in time, they take to enclosing sets of such tablets in sealed clay containers, then to marking such containers with symbols indicating what tokens are within; these markings ultimately develop into writing.

Sources

As in my pages on the scale of things, I link to relevant sources where practical: but books aren't amenable to HREFs and I may yet find some sites so worthy of plunder as to justify mentioning the site URL here as well as the URLs of particular quotes above.


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