Chapter 4
Humans

About 200,000 years ago, we evolved to become the most important force for change on the planet. Our knack for collective learning — preserving information, sharing it with one another, and passing it to the next generation — helps us create entirely new forms of complexity.

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2:30
Chapter at a Glance
59 Minutes
2 Thresholds
6 Videos
4 Galleries

Human Evolution

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15:41

Crash Course Big History takes a look at Humans, one of the weirdest examples of change in the Universe. Around for only 250,000 years, we are truly one of the most complex things in the cosmos.

We didn't descend from chimps or bonobos — they're just our cousins. We all descended from a common shrew-like ancestor. After a slow 7 million years of evolving, developing bipedalism, collectively learning, and tinkering with primitive tools, a powerful new species ruled the Earth.

Using Tools, Shelter, and Fire

Foraging, Migration, and Beyond

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6:42

Though walking upright with big brains, humans were still a pretty primitive species at the time. They travelled in small groups, foraging for edible foods and hunting animals. But they also survived the ice ages. Tools for survival included the controlled use of fire and better clothing technology. They also met others, told stories, and exchanged knowledge through the development of symbolic language and art, such as drawings on cave walls. Change was slow, but change was on the move.

Early Migration

Hey, where are you going?

Humans had to use collective learning to come up with new adaptive strategies as they migrated in search of food, moving into environments they had never experienced before. They also altered landscapes and hunted many species to extinction.

Activity

Human Migration

Track human migration since the beginning of our existence

  • 90,000
  • 80,000
  • 70,000
  • 60,000
  • 50,000
  • 40,000
  • 30,000
  • 20,000
  • 10,000
  • 1,000
years

Writing and Saving Knowledge

Writing likely originated as a system of accounting as elites and power brokers who were accumulating more and more resources tried to keep track of their wealth. Eventually, the symbols used for accounting evolved to convey all the nuances of everyday languages and generate literature, history, and proper writing.

Quiz: Threshold 6

Collective Learning

  • Ingredients
  • Goldilocks Conditions
  • New Complexity
  • Which of the following is NOT an ingredient for collective learning?

  • Which condition contributed directly to the collective learning process?

  • In addition to connecting with each other and learning new things, how else did collective learning support the advancement of homo sapiens?

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Agriculture

Complex Civilization Begins

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2:25

At the end of the last Ice Age, many humans decided to stay put instead of migrating any further. Communities grew denser and they had to draw more resources from a smaller area. Using their learned knowledge from the environment, humans began to experiment with agriculture, which became a revolution. Farming produced a surplus of food, allowing others to take up new work. Societies became diverse, populations exploded, and collective learning thrived.

The greatest places to eat, 11,000 years ago

The greatest places to eat, 11,000 years ago

Once people learned how to plant crops and domesticate and raise livestock, they no longer had to move around to follow their food. They were able to generate powerful networks of collective learning — civilizations.

The Rise of Civilization

Creating Settlements

Did religion sow the seeds of civilization?

As humans abandoned foraging, farming claims the vast majority of credit in explaining the birth of civilizations. But what if it wasn't farming at all? A recent discovery in the limestone pillar ruins at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that this was a temple. Almost 12,000 years ago nomadic tribes made the pilgrimage here to worship, share community, or perhaps to simply stand in awe.

It would have taken hundreds of people to construct Göbekli Tepe. Yet there were no rooms built for dwelling. No hearths for fire or cooking. Water was about three miles away. There was simply nothing about the site to suggest anything domestic.

As exploration of this site continues, its Big History meaning is still being debated. Most notably, did religious gatherings have a fundamental role in farming technologies — creating the need for settlements and society? Do we need to reevaluate our thinking?

The First Cities and States

A new, more complex society is born

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10:45

Fueled by surplus crops, people living in agrarian civilizations could specialize in jobs other than farming. New roles and complex, interdependent societies emerged. Elites, farmers, and the menial classes became intertwined and the toeholds of the first cities took shape. States began to function as a coordinating mechanism among these sophisticated relationships. And the state could impose its will by force.

Activity

Ancient Cities

Learn about ancient cities around the world

How Cultures Connect

Taking a trip down the silk road

As cities grew, they increasingly reached out to each other. Commerce and conflict exposed once-isolated populations to a diversity of culture, religion, philosophy, language, and technology, as well as disease. And major trade routes such as the Silk Road paved the way for massive growth throughout Afro-Eurasia.

Much of the Silk Road trade also took place by sea, between Roman Egypt and the west coast of India. Sailors discovered the "trade winds," which blow reliably from the southwest in the summer, then reverse direction in the winter. That way, the same ships could make the return journey carrying new cargo.

Though probably few, including the great explorer Marco Polo, travelled its entire 16,000 kilometers, the connectivity among cultures along its route held some of the greatest significance to world history. The associated bonds through trade and exchange became particularly important when world zones collided after 1492. Afro-Eurasia societies quickly dominated the rest of the world and led the modern revolution that followed.

Civilizations Expand

Feeding the empire

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4:23

Many agrarian civilizations grew to control a lot of territory. They had little choice. Maintaining a state with all its complexities, such as rapid population growth, supporting infrastructure, as well as bigger governments, didn't come cheap. As a matter of survival, they had to look toward other populations to offset their own internal costs and shrinking resources.

Quiz: Threshold 7

Agriculture

  • Ingredients
  • Goldilocks Conditions
  • New Complexity
  • In addition to better understanding of the natural world and environment, what else was a key ingredient in the development of agriculture?

  • Which of the following conditions was an essential precursor to agriculture truly flourishing?

  • This new age ushered in the existence of villages, cities, and agrarian civilizations, increased access to food and energy sources, as well as…

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Congratulations, You're a

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You've correctly completed all eight thresholds of complexity.

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Visit the Online Classroom

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