By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean
Oxford Univ, $29.95
Today’s globalized, interconnected, in-your-face world has a complex backstory. In By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean, archaeologist Barry Cunliffe unravels events in Eurasia between 12,000 and 700 years ago, a pivotal stretch of time that witnessed a transformation of the first farmers into seagoing traders who created the first global networks.
It’s a fascinating tale of survival, ingenuity, power, greed, cooperation and brutality. Scheming characters on the TV show Empire have nothing on the Mongol empire, a band of nomadic horsemen that conquered much of Eurasia during the 1200s. This empire’s ruling family held its vast domain together for three generations before internal rivalries tore the realm apart.
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Cunliffe uses the archaeological record to identify developments that forced widespread social changes in the ancient world. He sees those transitions as driven by several key forces: geography, climate shifts, population growth and humans’ intense need to acquire goods and knowledge.
Consider the transition from foraging to farming. Rising temperatures triggered cultivation in two regions: West Asia’s Fertile Crescent and China. To the west, farming started nearly 12,000 years ago and spread rapidly through open geographic corridors to South Asia and Europe by 7,000 years ago. In the east, plant cultivation spread throughout much of China between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago. But mountains, deserts and forests deterred agriculture’s advance into Southeast and Central Asia. Food surpluses in West and East Asian farming regions set the stage for political states to emerge.
Then it was off to the civilizational races, especially with the introduction of horseback riding roughly 6,000 years ago in Central Asia. Herding communities there became long-distance travelers, trading goods with states to the west, east and south.
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Starting around 2,900 years ago, Central Asian nomadic societies grew in size and complexity, leading to expanded trade across the continent’s midsection. Ascending Chinese and Roman empires accelerated the growth of trade networks across previously unbreachable deserts and oceans. Finally, warlike nomads such as the Mongols conquered sedentary societies throughout Eurasia until the nomad-run empires fell apart largely from internal discord. Societies then turned to long-distance ocean trade, opening the way to European contacts with the Americas and beyond.
In tracing the rise of Eurasian civilization, Cunliffe makes clear that history is much more than just one thing after another. As migrations and conquests pile up in the book, it becomes apparent that a dizzying array of forces interacted to produce the modern world.
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