3.V: Outside Eurasia


Before 1500, there were a number of isolated empires outside of Eurasia. Eventually, they all fell or were absorbed into colonial European empires. The largest was the Inca Empire, which flourished in 1500. Machu Picchu is the site of the Incan capital city high in the Andes of Peru.

At this point, traditional histories jump directly to European colonization of the “New World”. Of course, that new world had its own history. There are arguments for and against studying medieval African and American civilizations. A world history should be truly global and not too Eurocentric. On the other hand, precisely because of European colonization, these civilizations did not have a chance to leave much of a lasting influence. It is still worthwhile to devote some study to pre-colonial cultures. It provides a more complete perspective on human experience, including colonization.

A.  African Sahara and Sahel

B.  The Americas

C.  Where Time Stood Still

D.  Citations

A.  African Sahara and Sahel

Northern Africa is spanned by the Sahara, which was almost entirely untraversable in ancient times. The desert effectively isolated the Mediterranean shore from the rest of the continent.  Additionally, the west coast of Africa was non-navigable because currents only permitted southward sailing.  The only sub-Saharan points of contact with ancient civilizations were at the Nile River and Africa’s east coast.  That contact germinated the sub-continent’s earliest states, the Nubian and Axum kingdoms.

Northern Africa is spanned by the Sahara, which was almost entirely untraversable in ancient times. The desert effectively isolated the Mediterranean shore from the rest of the continent.  Additionally, the west coast of Africa was non-navigable because currents only permitted southward sailing.  The only sub-Saharan points of contact with ancient civilizations were at the Nile River and Africa’s east coast.  That contact germinated the sub-continent’s earliest states, the Nubian and Axum kingdoms.

The Nubians lived along the Nile above Egypt (present Sudan).  A Nubian dynasty took brief control of Egypt and ruled as pharaohs around -700, restoring older traditions including pyramid-building.  The Nubian culture survived until 350, long enough to be reached by Christian monks.  The subsequent kingdom of Axum was also Christian, as was Ethiopia, which arose nearby in the Middle Ages.  This unique pocket of Christianity was isolated from Europe for a millennium.

The other great cradle of African civilization was the Western Sahara and Sahel, where the Sahara meets the savannah.  This region’s greatest resources were salt mines in the Sahara and gold mines to the south.  Salt was essential in such a hot climate, not only to preserve food but to prevent desalinization due to sweating.  The salt / gold trade accelerated and expanded after Saharans domesticated the camel around the 3rd century. 1 Civilization developed on the Niger River between the mines.  In the Middle Ages, the Sahel was dominated by the Ghana, Mali, Songhay, and Kanem empires.

The best known personage of this era was Mansa Musa, the 14th century Mali Emperor.  Bandits on trade routes were a serious problem in his time, and he brought law and order for more secure trade. 2 He founded a university and brought new architecture to Mali.  Outside of Africa, Musa made Mali famous with his pilgrimage to Mecca.  He was accompanied by a caravan of 60,000 finely dressed citizens, thousands of camels, and enough gold to depress Egypt’s gold market. 3 Mali was the second largest empire in the world at the time, 4 and according to some metrics Mansa Musa was the richest man in world history. 5

644px-african-civilizations-map-imperialFrom the 9th century onward, Africa was influenced strongly by Arab culture.  Northern Africans invaded the Sahel a few times, but there was no centrally directed imperial expansion into the Sahara.  For the most part, Arabs penetrated Africa peacefully as traders and scholars. 6 Moslems had a monopoly on the African market, blocking European access.  Traders were enticed by Africa’s gold as well as ivory, copper, and slaves. 7 For West Africans, the most treasured Arabian commodity was the war horse. 8 Islam itself had mixed success in Africa.  Urban elites took to the new religion, but most kings were not able to convert their rural subjects.

Small independent states continued to rise and fall throughout sub-Saharan Africa without a dominant empire. 9 This was the Africa that Europeans encountered in the 15th century.

B.  The Americas

Both American cradles of civilization – Mesoamerica and Pacific South America – were conquered by upstart tribes in the 15th century.  They had minimal (if any) contact with each other, but they developed in striking parallel.  The South American Inca Empire was much larger, and in fact it was one of the world’s largest empires in its time.  Aztecs (who called themselves Mexica) ruled the smaller Mesoamerican Empire.  Coincidentally, these two empires were established within a decade of each other, just a century before European arrival.  Since neither the Aztecs nor the Incas had an ancient history, each tribe adopted the culture it dominated.

Olmec influences still endured throughout Mesoamerica, from the ballgame to pyramid temples 10 and a pantheon of animalistic gods. 11 The most iconic deity was Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent feathered serpent.  In the 1st millennium, the Mayan civilization was the most advanced.  Mayan civilization was reminiscent of ancient Greece, a plurality of warring-but-trading city-states with unusually high cultural development.  In addition to their famous astronomical calendar, they had a written language and the number zero.  These innovations were conceived independently only a few times in world history.

Human sacrifice became a notorious hallmark of Mesoamerican culture.  The Aztecs took up this ritual with great zeal.  It served religious purposes such as feeding the sun so he could continue to rise and shine. 12 Mayan and Aztec sacrifices were violent ordeals; priests would commonly decapitate the victim or cut out his heart.  Most victims were prisoners of war from nearby tribes, making the Aztecs an unpopular neighbor.  On the more civil side, the Aztecs are also known for centralizing their educational system 13 and engineering major water works. 14

Andean culture remained similar to the Norte Chico civilization, with an economy based on llamas and staple crops.  The Incas added an administrative structure, as they had thousands of kilometers of coastline to govern.  As the Incas themselves were a small ruling minority, they appointed local leaders in their numerous provinces.  Provinces were further divided into family groups, ayllu.  Each ayllu was responsible for a certain amount of agricultural product and / or labor for the state. 15 This highly centralized system has been compared to socialism. 16 Incas had no writing, but they imposed their Quecha language universally for efficiency.  They integrated the numerous road systems that were already in place and employed a network of runners to convey messages orally.  Materially, metal working was more highly developed here than further north.  Incan masonry skills are still on display at Machu Picchu, a palace built without mortar.

The Inca, too, practiced human sacrifice, albeit a much quieter form.  The Andes are subject to climate extremes, earthquakes, and volcanoes.  To mollify the gods, Inca sometimes sent them their own children.  Several mummified children have been found high in the mountains and can now be seen in museums.

C.  Where Time Stood Still

The growth of states and empires had not yet touched everyone by 1500.  Large swaths of peoples continued to live Paleolithic lifestyles, some farming but not yet urbanized, and others still hunting. 17

South of the Sahel, most of Africa was inhabited by peoples speaking the Bantu family of languages.  Originating in western equatorial Africa, over the last few millennia Bantu migrated eastward and southward into Africa’s interior. 18 Without strong states, they were easily exploited.  African kingdoms enslaved Bantu prisoners of war since ancient times. 19 The increase of Arab wealth created high demand for these slaves.  Since at least the 7th century, millions of Africans were exported to Arabs and Asians in international trade of an unprecedented scale. 20

Hundreds of Native American tribes or nations are recognized, from the Arctic Eskimos to the nearly Antarctic Ona.  A large North American economic zone, the Mississippian Culture, once spanned the US from Florida to Wisconsin.  It was characterized by abundant agriculture, river trade, earthworks and temples, fairly large towns, priestly chiefdoms, and class structure.  Mississippian settlements scattered into small tribes after 1350 for unknown reasons. 21 Eastern tribes warred regularly.  Some started to coalesce into powerful alliances before European settlers arrived.  The Iroquois Confederacy (present New York) was a union of five tribes formed for internal peace, which then proceeded to conquer its neighbors.  It had a sophisticated (oral) constitution with republican representation, two centuries before the US version. 22

Native South Americans were very distinct from North Americans.  East of the Andes, the Amazon rainforest was home to infamous headhunters and cannibals.  The Caribs were a seafaring tribe who settled and gave their name to the Caribbean Sea.  Nearby at the Isthmus of Panama were the Muisca, expert goldsmiths whose women specialized in salt mining.

Australia was the only continent untouched by farming or ranching until modern times.  As far as can be told, aboriginal life was much the same 500 as 5,000 years ago.  An aboriginal invention of these last few thousand years was their unique musical instrument, the didgeridoo.

Asian island hoppers had made it to Melanesia (northeast of Australia) by -1000.  Migration then continued in small boats to islands as remote as Hawaii and Easter Island by 1000.  Hawaiian culture, famous for surfing, was also unique for allowing open homosexual relationships. 23 Maori people discovered New Zealand around 1200 – the last spot on Earth settled by man.

Continue to Section 3.VI: The European Age

D.  Citations

  1. Kurlansky, Mark, Salt: A World History, Penguin Books (2002), ISBN 978-0-698-13915-2, p. 37, https://books.google.com/books?id=GhpNc1YU6wsC&pg=PT37 (accessed 10/08/16)
  2. Lemoine, Florence, “Mansa Musa”, Lives and Legacies: An Encyclopedia of People who Changed the World: Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activists, ed. David Del Testa, Oryx Press (2001), 1-57356-153-3, p. 116, https://books.google.com/books?id=vSwi2TYabS4C&pg=PA116 (accessed 10/09/16)
  3. The best known account of Musa’s pilgrimage, including his impact on the Egyptian gold market, was reported by historian al-Umari when he visited Cairo a decade later.  He wrote his second-hand account in Masalik al-absar fi mamalik al-amsar (1338), translated into English as Pathways of Visions in the Realm of Metropolises by Levitzion and Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, Cambridge University Press (1981), pp. 269 – 273, https://www.amazon.com/Corpus-Arabic-Sources-African-History/dp/1558762418 (accessed 10/09/16).  The cited excerpt is reprinted at http://www.bu.edu/africa/outreach/k_o_mali/ (accessed 10/09/16).
  4. Berit and Strandskogen, “Mansa Musa (Kankan Musa)”, Lifelines in World History Vol. 2: The Medieval World, Routledge (2015), p. 182, https://books.google.com/books?id=wHqsBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA182 (accessed 10/09/16)
  5. Warner, Brian, “The 25 Richest People Who Ever Lived – Inflation Adjusted”, Celebrity Net Worth (4/14/14), http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/25-richest-people-lived-inflation-adjusted/ (accessed 10/09/16)
  6. McCissack, Patricia and Fredrick, The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa, Henry Holt and Company (1994), eBook ISBN 978-1-2501-1351-1, locations 242 – 254.
  7. Haywood, John, Atlas of Past Times, Borders Press, 2003, ISBN 0-681-88961-6, p. 100.
  8. Oliver, P. James, Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali (2013), ebook, ISBN 146805354X, p. 20.
  9. I recommend the Time Maps webpage http://www.timemaps.com/history/africa-3500bc , which shows the political map of Africa from -3500 to the present.
  10. Gascoigne, Bamber, The Maya, Aztecs, Incas and Conquistadors: a Brief Introduction, HistoryWorld Ltd (2011), eBook ISBN 978-1-908143-06-8, locations 60 – 75.
  11. Covarrubias, Miguel, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America, Alfred A. Knopf (1957).  Also  Coe, Michael, “The Olmec heartland: evolution of ideology” in Robert J. Sharer and David C. Grove (ed), Regional Perspectives on the Olmec (1989), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-36332-7, p. 71.
  12. Encyclopedia Britannica, “Huitzilopochti” (5/09/15), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Huitzilopochtli (accessed 10/16/16)
  13. Gascoigne, Bamber, The Maya, Aztecs, Incas and Conquistadors: a Brief Introduction, HistoryWorld Ltd (2011), eBook ISBN 978-1-908143-06-8, location 370. 
  14. For an excellent non-academic account, see Mundy, Barbara, “Water and the Aztec Landscape in the Valley of Mexico”, Mexicolore (3/24/12), http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/water-in-valley-of-mexico (accessed 10/16/16)
  15. Staff writer, “Economy of the Inca Empire”, Boston University / Peru Cultural Society, http://www.discover-peru.org/inca-economy-society/ (accessed and saved 10/23/16) 
  16. Baudin, Louis, A Socialist Empire: The Incas of Peru, 1961.  Current editions listed at https://books.google.com/books?id=ApTKygAACAAJ&sitesec=buy&source=gbs_atb
  17. Rubenstein, James, The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography, Pearson Publishers (2013), ISBN 978-0321831583, p. 49. https://www.amazon.com/Cultural-Landscape-Introduction-Human-Geography/dp/0321831586 (accessed 10/23/16)
  18. Newman, James, The Peopling of Africa, Yale University Press (1997), ISBN 978-0300072805, p. 140 ff, https://books.google.com/books?id=pDjlC1ws158C&pg=140 (accessed 10/22/16)
  19. Perbi, Akosua, “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Pre-Colonial Africa”, 4/05/01, http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/slavery/perbi.pdf (accessed and saved 10/22/16)
  20. Fatunde, Tunde, “Scholars focus on the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade”, University World News, Issue 217 (4/13/12), http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120413180645205 (accessed and saved 10/22/16)
  21. Brown, LaDonna, “Mysteries of the Mounds: The Abrupt Decline” (video), Chickasaw.TV, https://www.chickasaw.tv/history-timeline/video/mysteries-of-the-mounds-the-abrupt-decline (accessed 10/23/16)
  22. For a great discussion of the Iroquois Confederacy, including its formation, constitution, influence, and images, see Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., 500 Nations, Alfred E. Knopf publishers (1994), ISBN 0-679-42930-1, pp. 44 – 53
  23. William Kornblum, Sociology in a Changing World, 9ed (Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011), p. 165, https://books.google.com/books?id=DtKcG6qoY5AC&pg=PA189  (accessed 1/04/17)
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