Anthropologists provide the context for the human presence across planet Earth by describing the ancient migration of nomadic modern humans out of Africa, and beyond the Arabian peninsula, about 70-80,000 years ago (see diagram at foot of page). Modern DNA evidence is rapidly refining our knowledge of how and when these migrations occurred. Ice Ages restricted migration but with ice locked up in the poles, land bridges were available in these times that have subsequently been submerged as the ice melted.
Current evidence suggests India & Australia were colonized c. 65,000-55,000 BP, Europe and E Asia c. 45,000 BP, SE Asia c. 30,000 BP, and the Americas c. 15,000 BP. Reoccupation of northern Europe, notably the British Isles, occurred c. 11,000 BP after the last Ice Age.
Centres of civilization
Though we may divide the world and its peoples in many ways – by religion, ethnicity, language, political, social, and cultural affiliation etc. – there is an underlying geographic basis to a long-term distinction between occidental and oriental cultural traditions.
Civilizations arose after the last Ice Age in regions of the world where there were climatic conditions suitable for agriculture. These were also regions with animals and plants that were amenable to domestication. Historian Ian Morris calls these regions the ‘lucky latitudes’ (c. 20-35o north Old World, 15o south to 20o north New World). With the development of agriculture and settled communities cultivating cereals and raising livestock, there was a rapid acceleration in the degree of social differentiation and complexity (social organization) that we associate with civilization. This included the growth of cities. Nomads had little chance of resisting the armies and other technologies of scale that were established in these urban centres.
Potential cores of civilization included the Near East, the New World, South Asia, and East Asia. In fact, this occurred first in the West – along the river valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, and Indus rivers – in a ‘Fertile Crescent’ of river valleys. In the West influence of the civilizations of the Fertile crescent in Mesopotamia, the Middle East, and Egypt quickly spread to the Indus Valley and Ganges delta. In Asia agriculture developed along the river valley communities of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers before spreading to the north, then south. In the Americas there were the civilizations of Mesoamerica.
The steppes of Central Asia presented a formidable geographic barrier that divided Afro-Eurasia into eastern and western geographic regions as both centres of domestication and cultural spheres of influence.
We are still learning about the material and symbolic cultural exchange that occurred between these two regions in ancient times, and therefore the extent of their true independence of ideas and social traditions. By about 7000 BCE there is some differentiation between the West and the rest of the world (Morris 2011) although agriculture probably developed independently in six or seven sites across the world (in the Americas Oaxaca in Mesoamerica and the Andes of Peru – in Europe in the eastern Sahara, Fertile Crescent, and possibly Indus Valley – in East Asia in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys – and in the Pacific in New Guinea).
The first centre of civilization extended from Mesopotamia across what has been called the Fertile Crescent to Egypt. It included communities that traded along the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers in a geographic region that extended to the Indus River valley in the east and to the eastern Mediterranean in the west.
This centre of civilization has been referred to as the ‘Mesopotamian Core’, defined as ‘the societies that have developed and spread through a combination of colonization and emulation from the westernmost original core of domestication in Eurasia, in the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers‘.
This was a farming culture founded on wheat, barley, and rye around 9000-8000 BCE in a system of agriculture that radiated into Greece c.7000 BCE, Egypt c. 5000 BCE, Italy 6000 BCE, Central Europe c. 5000 BCE, Portugal about 5000 BCE, NW Europe and Britain c. 4000 BCE. The dispersal of agriculture from its origin in the Near East to NW Europe took about 5000 years (see Morris p. 107). This Mesopotamian core also probably influenced the agriculture of the Indus Valley in Pakistan.
Centre of cultural diversity
With increasing population creating the need for greater social organization, people and ideas spread outwards. By 4000 BCE the ‘West’ included much of continental Europe, what is now Egypt, the western edge of today’s Iran, and some of the oases of C Asia.
By 1000 CE it had expanded to include all of today’s Europe, and in the second millennium it had spread further into the Americas, Australasia, the coasts of Africa and elsewhere as ‘Neo-Europes’.
Significantly, the hub of cultural influence of the ‘West’ has shifted considerably over time. Initially it remained in the lands at the east of the Mediterranean (between Iraq, Egypt, and Greece) from about 11,000 BCE until about 1400 CE, except for the 500 years of Roman rule from c. 250 BCE to 250 CE when it moved to Italy. From 1400 CE it moved both north and west: first to northern Italy, tghen top Spain and France, then broadening to include Britain, the Low Countries, and Germany. By 1900 CE it had crossed the Atlantic and in 2000 CE it was firmly established in America.
East Asian Core
In the East there were also interconnected river valley communities in China, one based around the Yellow River and the other along the Yangtze River. These communities are the centre of the ‘East Asian Core’ as ‘. . . those societies that have developed and spread . . . by colonization and emulation from the core of domestication between the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers’.
Movement of peoples outward meant that by 2000 BCE the ‘East’ had grown to include much of today’s SE Asia. By 1500 BCE it included modern Philippines and Korea, and in the first millennium CE it incorporated Japan.
Centre of diversity
The hub of the East Asian Core has remained remarkably stable, situated in the Yellow-Yangzi River zone until 1850 CE, although the major influence shifted northward to the Yellow River’s Central Plain after about 4000 BCE, then south to the Yangzi Valley after 500 CE, and gradually north again after 1400 CE. By 1900 it included Japan, and SE China by 2000 CE.
First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . substantial upgrade 6 November2022
Peopling of the world by early humans during the Upper Paleolithic, following to the Southern Dispersal paradigm. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 6 Nov. 2022.
Peopling of the world (recent out of Africa and Upper Paleolithic). Figures are in thousands of years ago (kya). Time is color coded in a scheme of increasing “frequency”, red at 100 kya to violet at 0 kya. Dotted blueish lines are meant to indicate approximate glaciation during the LGM. Similar map: pleistoproject.wordpress.com Not shown early and abortive expansions to North Africa [300 kya] and West Asia [270 kya, 130 kya] and possible expansion to China by 120 kya. Possible “Australoid” migration to North Asia [Denisovan admixture] and the Americas by 50 kya (these are speculative/controversial and would detract from the functionality as an “overview map” showing generally-accepted scenarios). Features shown: 200 kya East Africa [“200” symbolic of early H. sapiens (est. age of mt-haplogroup L ranges around 180 kya, early divergence in Africa as early as 300 kya but cut-off for “anatomically modern” vs. “archaic” is somewhat arbitrary in this case) 130-100 kya expansion within Africa and to the Levant 70 kya “recent Out of Africa” and coastal migrations 65 kya peopling of Oceania 60 kya “Indian” and “Indochina” (Laos) population centers 50 kya “Near Eastern” population center (Emiran) 40 kya “East Asian” population center 40 kya peopling of Europe (Aurignacian 42 kya) 40 kya approximate peopling of Tasmania (add more detail on dispersal in Australia and to Papua?) 35 kya peopling of the Mammoth steppe (Mal’ta–Buret’ culture 24kya) 35 kya Expansion from East Asian population center (Korea 35 kya, Japan possibly 35 kya / certainly by 14 kya, Taiwan between 30 and 20 kya, Cambodia by 20kya [Sơn Vi culture] — but possibly earlier “Austronesian” presence 70kya?) 25 kya Beringia during the LGM 16-14 kya peopling of the Americas just after the LGM (Clovis) 12 peopling of northern Eurasia after the LGM 12 peopling of the Green Sahara [Mali] 4 Paleo-Eskimo expansion to the Arctic (AST = Arctic small tool tradition) 3-1 Austronesian expansion 1 Norse expansion to Iceland The map only shows the major movements associated with the first lasting “peopling” of the world’s regions: early movements which did not result in lasting populations (such as the early Out of Africa movements before 70kya) are not shown late movements into already populated regions (such as Epipaleolithic and Neolithic migrations associated with Indo-European, Bantu, etc.) are not shown; the Austronesian (Pacific) expansion is shown even though it is much later than such Neolithic movements because it led to the “first peopling” of the Pacific islands. This might be addressed in updated versions (especially knowledge on the early OOA waves are subject to rapid revision) Made for, and based on the information in: en:Early human migrations (see also image gallery below). “Southern Dispersal” and “peopling of Eurasia” population centers: Metspalu, M.; Kivisild, T.; Metspalu, E.; Parik, J.; Hudjashov, G.; Kaldma, K.; Serk, P.; Karmin, M. et al. (2004). “Most of the extant mtDNA boundaries in south and southwest Asia were likely shaped during the initial settlement of Eurasia by anatomically modern humans”. BMC Genetics 5: 26. doi:10.1186/1471-2156-5-26. PMC 516768. PMID 15339343.