A couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of The Outline of History, written in 1920 by H.G. Wells. I’m halfway through the first volume of two. It’s a fine example of post-WWI Progressive-era thinking, and Mr. Wells was of course a wonderful craftsman, so I’ve been enjoying it enormously. (The entire book has been put online in a website of its own, here.)
In Chapters 12 through 14 — The Races of Mankind, The Languages of Mankind, and The First Civilizations, Mr. Wells described the gradual expansion of humanity, and human culture, eastward around the globe. It was a slow process, and it reached the Americas last. The earliest hominid settlers to the Western Hemisphere got here over a land bridge at the Bering Strait, but as the ice receded and the seas rose, that bridge was submerged, and the Americas were cut off.
And in these thousands of years during which man was making his way step by step from the barbarism of the heliolithic culture to civilization at these old-world centres, what was happening in the rest of the world? To the north of these centres, from the Rhine to the Pacific, the Nordic and Mongolian peoples, as we have told, were also learning the use of metals; but while the civilizations were settling down these men of the great plains were becoming migratory and developing from a slow wandering life towards a complete seasonal nomadism. To the south of the civilized zone, in central and southern Africa, the negro was making a slower progress, and that, it would seem, under the stimulus of invasion by whiter tribes from the Mediterranean regions, bringing with them in succession cultivation and the use of metals. These white men came to the black by two routes: across the Sahara to the west as Berbers and Tuaregs and the like, to mix with the negro and create such quasi-white races as the Fulas; and also by way of the Nile, where the Baganda (= Gandafolk) of Uganda, for example, may possibly be of remote white origin. The African forests were denser then, and spread eastward and northward from the Upper Nile.
The islands of the East Indies, three thousand years ago, were probably still only inhabited here and there by stranded patches of Paleolithic Australoids, who had wandered thither in those immemorial ages when there was a nearly complete land bridge by way of the East Indies to Australia. The islands of Oceania were uninhabited. The spreading of the heliolithic peoples by sea- going canoes into the islands of the Pacific came much later in the history of man, at earliest a thousand years B.C. Still later did they reach Madagascar. The beauty of New Zealand also was as yet wasted upon mankind; its highest living creatures were a great ostrich-like bird, the moa, now extinct, and the little kiwi which has feathers like coarse hair and the merest rudiments of wings.
In North America a group of Mongoloid tribes were now cut off altogether from the old world. They were spreading slowly southward, hunting the innumerable bison of the plains. They had still to learn for themselves the secrets of a separate agriculture based on maize, and in South America to tame the lama to their service, and so build up in Mexico and Peru two civilizations roughly parallel in their nature to that of Sumer, but different in many respects, and later by six or seven thousand years….
When men reached the southern extremity of America, the Megatherium the giant sloth, and the Glyptodon, the giant armadillo, were still living.
There is a considerable imaginative appeal in the obscure story of the early American civilizations. It was largely a separate development. Somewhen at last the southward drift of the Amerindians must have met and mingled with the eastward, canoe-borne drift of the heliolithic culture. But it was the heliolithic culture still at a very lowly stage and probably before the use of metals. It has to be noted as evidence of this canoe-borne, origin of American culture, that elephant headed figures are found in Central American drawings. American metallurgy may have arisen independently of the old world use of metal, or it may have been brought by these elephant carvers. These American peoples got to the use of bronze and copper, but not to the use of iron; they had gold and silver; and their stonework, their pottery, weaving, and dyeing were carried to a very high level. In all these things the American product resembles the old-world product generally, but always it has characteristics that are distinctive. The American civilizations had picture-writing of a primitive sort, but it never developed even to the pitch of the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics. In Yucatan only, was there a kind of script, the Maya writing, but it was used simply for keeping a calendar. In Peru the beginnings of writing were superseded by a curious and complicated method of keeping records by means of knots tied upon strings of various colours and shapes. It is said that even laws and orders could be conveyed by this code. These string bundles were called quipus, but though quipus are still to be found in collections, the art of reading them is altogether lost. The Chinese histories, Mr. L. Y. Chen informs us, state that a similar method of record by knots was used in China before the invention of writing there. The Peruvians also got to making maps and the use of counting frames. “But with all this there was no means, of handing on knowledge and experience from one generation to another, nor was anything done to fix and summarize these intellectual possessions, which are the basis of literature and science.”
The chapter ends with this (my emphasis):
When the Spaniards came to America, the Mexicans knew nothing of the Peruvians nor the Peruvians of the Mexicans. Intercourse there was none. Whatever links had ever existed were lost and forgotten. The Mexicans had never heard of the potato which was a principal article of Peruvian diet. In 5,000 B.C. the Sumerians and Egyptians probably knew as little of one another. America was 6,000 years behind the Old World.
This reminded me of something: eleven years ago, I wrote a post about “ring species”. The example I gave was this:
In Britain are two species of seagulls called herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls. They are easy to tell apart; as you might already have guessed, the black-backed gulls have darker backs, and as befits two distinct species, they don’t interbreed. But if you keep an eye on the black-backed gulls as you travel east across the northern latitudes, their coloration becomes lighter and lighter, until, when you get round to North America, they are an intermediate grey. They continue to become lighter and lighter, until we get all the way back round to Britain, where — lo and behold — they are now the herring gulls.
I hadn’t thought of humans as a “ring species” before (well, in one sense, perhaps — see the bit about chimps and humans in the linked post), but as I was reading Wells on the familiar history of the New and the Old World it dawned on me that there was very little difference between the “ring” of black-backed and herring gulls and the story of Europe’s encounter with the Americas, in the latter half of the last millennium.
Well, there’s one big difference: unlike the gulls, when the human species finally closed its ring, it was as predator and prey.