Wikijunior:Introduction to History

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People have been around for a long time. More than four thousand years ago, they were building pyramids in Egypt. Three thousand years ago, the Zhou dynasty ruled in China, King David sat on the throne in Israel, and the Greeks were fighting a war against Troy. Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ and Augustus Caesar were alive. A thousand years ago, William the Conqueror invaded England. And just a few dozen years ago, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The fascinating thing about history that by re-telling the past, it teaches us about the present and in doing so, it lays the foundation for our future. Think about that! Everything you see around you every day, every item you use and every word you say has is own unique history. So, on the one hand, history is a linear sequence of events while on the other it is the story that explains why things are they way they are.

People learn history for many reasons. You may want to understand how things happen, and why. You may be interested in the great art or the great scientific discoveries of the past. You may want to learn the truth behind stories you have heard about Helen of Troy or Romeo and Juliet. Or you may just want to hear entertaining stories that are true.

How to begin? One way is to begin at the beginning, with the history of people who lived near river banks, such as the Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley, the Huanghe Valley and the Nile Valley civilisations. The trouble with that is that you may grow up and grow old before you ever get to the history that your parents and grandparents lived through. Some people begin by learning the history of their own land, and leave for later the history of other lands and other peoples. Some people are only interested in things that are happening now, or in their lifetimes, or in their parents or grandparents lifetimes.

It seems to me that the best way to learn history is to make several quick passes through history -- like the one you read in the first paragraph of this Wikibook. If you want to know more, you can branch off to study any of the many topics that are lightly covered here.

Things that are the same; things that are different[edit]

All human beings, in all places and at all times, are born, grow up, and die, we laugh and cry, we sing and dance, we trade, we raise families, we eat and drink, we sleep. These are things that we have in common with the people of the past.

But people live in many different ways. There are times when many people grow old, and other times when most people die young. There are times when people live in peace, and other times when they are caught up in wars. Some people hunt, some farm, some work in factories. Art, music, religion, family life, customs and laws all differ widely from place to place and time to time. Each culture has its unique forms of expression: the dances of the Bantu peoples, the music of the Beatles.

Big changes[edit]

There have been people on earth for more than a million years if, by a person, you mean someone who walks on their hind legs and can make a spear. The first million years of human existence is sometimes called the stone age. People spread out over the earth, from the steaming jungles to the frigid north. A few tens of thousands of years ago, something wonderful happened. All over the world people began to develop new tools, new forms of art, musical instruments, and began to bury their dead. Before that time, primitive tools from widely separated places look very much alike. After that time, human artifacts take on an almost infinite variety of distinctive forms. This is the age of the cave paintings, of the European drawings of buffalo and the African drawings of antelope. These works of art differ not only in subject but in style. This age is called the Neolithic age (or new stone age). In 2005, scientists isolated two genes that they think may be the cause of this wonderful change, but the discovery is too new for anybody to say for sure.

Stone age peoples were hunter/gatherers. They ate animals and what roots and berries they could find growing wild. There was never enough food, and so people organized into tribes and constantly fought with other tribes. Many of the bones dug up from this period show signs of wounds from spears or clubs. Life was, as a writer named Hobbes put it, "nasty, brutish, and short."

Banding Together[edit]

The next big change came about ten thousand years ago, when some people learned to farm. You need a lot of water to farm, and the first farms were along the banks of rivers. Farmers also tamed animals, and used them for milk and food, and their skins for shelter and clothing. The start of farming is called the agricultural revolution.

These farmers were the first people to invent writing; the earliest writing comes down to us from this period. It is mostly very practical writing -- lists of trade goods, tax records, and laws. There are also religious books, and stories. One of the earliest stories is the story of Gilgamesh.

These farmers were surrounded by people who still lived as hunter/gatherers, and there was constant warfare between the two groups. Farmers organized into city states, and then into empires. They called the hunter/gatherers "barbarians". When the city states and empires were not fighting off invasions by barbarians, city would fight city, empire would fight empire. There was seldom enough food to go around, a problem made worse by war, disease, insects, and drought. Still, farming could support many more people than hunting, and the number of people grew rapidly all over the earth, until it soon reached the limit that farming could support. Many of these farming people, of all races and in all lands, captured slaves in battle and forced them to work the land. Life was hard. The men must plow and sow and reap. A woman's life was even harder, spinning, weaving, sewing, preparing the food, and looking after the children. There was a saying, "A man must work from sun to sun, but a woman's work is never done." The children had to work, too, and many children died young. A woman would often have a dozen children, and many women died giving birth.

For a few people, life was not so hard. People who were stronger, or were natural leaders, or were smarter, or maybe just lucky, set themselves up as kings, and took for themselves and their families the lion's share of everything. Sometimes, the kings enjoyed art, music, and philosophy, and would provide for people who could write or draw or sing or make interesting conversation. Most kings were interested in hunting and fighting. And most people were farmers. They were born, and worked all their lives, and died within a few miles of the place they were born. They knew nothing about the wider world. Still, they sang and danced at harvest time, prayed to their gods for rain, held festivals and fairs at which traders could offer their wares. Traders were a special class; they were almost the only people who traveled and who knew something of the wider world.

This is how people lived for thousands of years. The history of these times is almost exclusively a history of kings and the wars they fought. A few great works of art were created that have survived: The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching, religious books such as The Bible and the Koran, the plays of the ancient Greeks, the laws and letters of the ancient Romans, the mathematics of Euclid, Archimedes, and Brahamagupta, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the history of Heroditous and Thucidides. And there are the great works of stone and marble: the pyramids, the sphinx, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra.

But most of the famous names of history are famous kings and warriors: Ashurbanipal, Nebuchadnezzar, Agamemnon, David, Alexander, Caesar, Chandragupta ... the list is endless.

In various places and at various times, science made a fitful beginning in advancing our understanding of nature. The Greek scientist Eratosthenes discovered the size of the earth. A Chinese scientist whose name has not come down to us invented gunpowder. In India, a mathematician invented a marvelous new number system, called the Base Ten numbers, which spread across the entire world. But these scientists lived and died and the people returned to superstition and forgot what had been learned.

The Beginnings of the Modern Age[edit]

That changed about five hundred years ago, in Europe, in a period called the Renaissance. Human life began to change, and change dramatically. Beginning with a Polish scientist, Nicholas Copernicus, in 1543, modern science grew to a point where it was self sustaining. No nation without science could successfully compete with a nation that knew science, and mankind entered the scientific age. This change is called the industrial revolution. The majority of people were still, as always, ignorant and superstitious, but governments were usually careful to nurture scientists, because of the wonderful inventions they could make.

People flocked to cities to work in factories. While in earlier ages most people lived in the country, working on farms, today most people live in cities. At first, industrial cities were crowded, dirty, and disease ridden. In London, the skies were black with soot, and after working for twelve hours in a factory, the people would crowded into bars, called gin mills, to spend their hard earned coins and drink themselves into a stupor -- it was the only way they could sleep amid the stench and the crowds. Children had to work, too, and the gin mills had steps that small children could climb to exchange their hard earned coins for a shot of gin. If the cities were such horrible places, why did people flock to them in such numbers? Because it beat farming.

Then several things began to happen. The number of people that modern farms could feed was much greater than the number that the old style of farming could provide for. Also, as the science of medicine began to cure diseases, people began to live longer, and fewer babies died. The population began to explode.

How Things are Today[edit]

Today, the people of the world are divided into two groups, the "haves" and the "have nots". The rich nations use new inventions to produce great wealth, and the people who live in these countries have decided to have fewer children, so there is more to go around. The poor nations have less technology, people have many children, and there is never enough to go around.

Very gradually, things are getting better. For the first time since the age of science began, the rate of population growth is beginning to slow, and each year there are fewer starving people in the world.

Not everyone likes all of these new things, however. Many people yearn for the days when each generation lived in the same way that their ancestors did.

Notice how change is getting quicker and quicker. The stone age lasted more than a million years. The Neolithic age lasted tens of thousands of years, the agricultural age lasted thousands of years. The industrial age has, so far, only lasted hundreds of years.

Some people believe we are on the brink of a new age, the information age, which may change our lives as much as the change from life on a farm to life in a modern city. Nobody knows what the future holds.

Religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists[edit]

A wise king can make a difference in the lives of his subjects, and a cruel or stupid king can cause a great deal of suffering, but few kings have any lasting effect on their society. So much of written history is about kings because kings are powerful enough to make sure their names get written down a lot.

The people who really make a lasting difference are religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists.

Between the building of the pyramids more than four thousand years ago and the Greek attack on Troy about three thousand years ago, one of the world's leading religions began in India. The Hindu religion has more than 800,000,000 followers, about 90% of them on the Indian subcontinent. If you want to learn about Hinduism, a good place to start is by reading the Bhagavad Gita, which is a conversation between a man, Prince Arjuna, and his charioteer Lord Krishna, who just before an epic battle reveals himself as, Vishnu, God Incarnate.

A few hundred years after the Greeks invaded Troy, the Greek poet, Homer, wrote down the story of the Trojan War in two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Greek writers and thinkers treated these two books in much the same way that Christian writers and thinkers draw on the Bible, as a source inspiration.

Midway between the Trojan war and the days of the Caesars, about 400 B.C., several great philosophers and religious leaders lived.

In China, Kung Fu Tze (sometimes called Confucius) wrote The Analects, one of the most influential books in history. Confucius taught that respect for order, for family, for authority, and for ancestors was the cornerstone of all right action. In India, Guatama Buddha taught that the cause of all suffering is desire. In Greece, the philosopher Plato wrote a number of dialogs which still make delightful reading today, and the philosopher Aristotle became the first person to write down the rules of logical thinking. Greek speaking people, especially Euclid, in Egypt, and Archimedes, in Sicily, wrote down the foundations of modern science and mathematics, but the people of Europe turned away from science and mathematics and toward religion and superstition. After age of the Greeks there were no new scientific or mathematical discoveries in Europe for more than a thousand years.

While Augustus Caesar was ruling the Roman Empire, Jesus Christ was born. We date our calendar from the approximate year of his birth. Jesus Christ was a Jew, and the Christian religion was based on the Hebrew religion. The Christian holy book, the Bible, includes two parts. The Old Testament describes how God created the world, and includes Jewish law, history, philosophy, and song. The New Testament describes the life of Jesus Christ and his followers. Jesus summed up his message in these words, in Matthew 22: 37-39, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

Between the days of the Caesars, and the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, Muhammad founded the religion of Islam. A follower of Islam is called a Muslim. The teachings of Muhammad are given in the Koran. The Five Pillars of Islam are profession of faith, ritual prayer five times each day, fasting during Ramadan, charity given to the needy, and pilgrimage to Mecca.

In the year 1543 of the Common Era, in Poland, Nicholas Copernicus published a book demonstrating that the Earth circles the sun. This was the beginning of the Age of Science. Galileo used the telescope to examine the planets of the solar system; Isaac Newton invented the mathematics called calculus, and was the father of modern physics; Charles Darwin spent many years traveling around the world, observing nature, and discovered evolution; Albert Einstein defined relativity and discovered the photoelectric effect.

Science, democracy, and capitalism remade the world into a place far richer that it had ever been before, richer in material goods, in knowledge, in health, in art, and in ideas.

When your grandparents were young[edit]

The best way to learn history is to talk to people who are older than you. Many people love to talk about when they were young. When you read about the past in a history book, it can be hard to remember that real people lived through all of those famous events. By talking to someone about their life you can hear what happened in history first hand!