culture, history

The many cradles of civilizations (list)

Civilizations and natures

From time to time, I am tempted to be a prophet of a doom, and like Cassandra abandon myself to “the awful pains of prophecy… maddening as they fall” (Agamemnon); but something in my temperament, holds me back to a more tempered and sane view. History is neither progress nor complete decay. In some times, the archives do burn; but manuscripts are saved from the fire, and cultural life finds a way to go on. There are always losses, which I mourn, and there are so many splendours to celebrate and gardens to cultivate.

My favourite wise companion in maintaining a sane and generous view of our global history is Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. In people and in civilizations, he writes:

“vices and virtues mingle, in the greatest saints, and in the most politically-correct common rooms. For every good intention, there is a frail deed: each provides the standard by which the other is measured. Civilizations, compared with other types of society, certainly have no monopoly of virtue. But a true pluralist has to relish the diversity they add to life.” (Civilizations (2000), p 30)

His experiment in a new way of writing a universal history of civilizations is remarkable for its wit, the range of its allusiveness, and its compelling experiment: to write all history as historical ecology. Civilizations have no common characteristics, but share a process: the effort to transform the natural environment. Humans, unusually, if not uniquely, among animals, have populated all parts of the earth, all types of environment and climates. Our history is inseparable from these many natures – and here too Felipe Fernandez-Armesto insists food is central to the human story, as our most daily and intimate encounter with nature. And, “wherever humans can survive, civilization can happen.” (p 27)

The list: 17 cradles of civilizations

So, in CivilizationsFernandez-Armesto tells the story of how civilizations have adapted, transformed, and remade 17 natural environments. Only a few of these belong to the classic story of the cradles of civilization, and in many of these environments, he celebrates many little-known treasures worth preserving from destructive fire. Here they are complete with his evocative chapter titles, and some brief illustrations of how the world can be explored with this enigmatic balloonist.

The Waste Land (Desert, Tundra, Ice)

1. Ice Worlds and Tundra (The Helm of Ice). The Sami of Arctic Scandinavia created a civilization from the great herds of reindeer. The reindeer supplied most of the needs of life, and indeed their name, jil’ep, in the Nenet language means life. These ways of life were recorded in Olaus Magnus’ Description of the Northern People (1555), the “unacknowledged work of genius” of a Christian bishop who, in voluntary exile from protestant Sweden, travelled to the North to convert pagan souls but still stooped to understand the twenty forms of snow described by the sami.

2. Deserts of Sand (The death of Earth). There is the tantalising mystery of the Garamantes in ancient times in the Fezzan in the Libyan interior, and speculation that the modern day nomads of the Sahara, the Tuareg are their successors. The Tuareg use an alphabet which is very similar to an ancient Libyan writing system, and is used magically, transmitted by women, and to cast spells on household objects, but not to record the ballads and stories of war spoken by the men. Tuareg is an Arabic term meaning abandoned by God; they call themselves Imohag or free men. They continue to practise their martial code,  fighting for Qadaffi and in Mali.

Leaves of Grass (Grasslands)

3. Prairie and Savannah (The sweeping of the wind). Where we learn of old Mali, near the upper reaches of the Niger, and headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal Rivers, a great trading state controlling the passage of gold, and access to the great market and scholarly city of Timbuktu. Here Ibn Battuta described the majesty of Mansa Musa’s court.

atlas catalan image with mansa musa

Image from The Catlan Atlas (1375) showing Mansa Musa holding a globe made of gold. Biblioteque National, Paris

4. Eurasian Steppe (The highway of civilizations). In 1034 the scholar-administrator and poet, Ou-Yang Hsiu, advocated standards of merit, and, in response received the reward that was at hand for the powerful who ran patronage networks in the bureaucracy. He was exiled to Yi-Ling at the mouth of the Yangtze gorges, where he observed the remoulding of Szechwan. He sought a conservative revolution by instilling the “perfection of ancient times” through reforms to the examination system, and he and his like advocated the true, humane diplomat’s policy – “If indeed Heaven… causes the rogues to accept our humaneness and they … extinguish the beacons on the frontiers, that will be a great fortune to our ancestral altars.” (p. 120)

Under the Rain (Tropical Lowlands and Post-Glacial Forests)

5. Post-Glacial and Temperate Woodlands (The Wild Woods). On the Northern shores of the Great Lakes, the Iroquois built distinctive social spaces, the longhouse. The Iroquois built these longhouses, Fernandez-Armesto notes in a small piece of efflorescence of the cultural drive, out of elm, not for practical but aesthetic reasons.


6. Tropical Lowlands (Hearts of Darkness). In the jungle or rainforest of the Peten region of Guatemala was the great Mayan city of Tikal, in which despite the profuse growth there was monumental building from about 400 BC, and inscribed names and memorials of kings from AD 292.

Image source: UNESCO

The Shining Fields of Mud (alluvial soils in drying climates)

7. The Near East [if you live in Europe] (the lone and level sands) Where Fernandez-Armesto takes us to the “the garden of the Lord” that used to exist at the ancient city of Jericho, back eleven millennia ago when it looked over an alluvial plain and not a salted sulphured desert.

8. China and India (Of Shoes and Rice) Where we meet the gentleman archaeologist, Charles Masson, stumbling on the ruins of the Harrapan civilization in 1826, and fooling himself he had rediscovered one of the lost cities of Alexander the Greek.

The Mirrors of Sky (Highlands)

9. Highlands of the New World (The Gardens of the Clouds). Before the Incas, at a vast height, fed by maize and potatoes, lay Tiahuanaco and Chavin de Huantar, a place of pilgrimage thousands of years old.

10. Highlands of the Old World (The Climb to Paradise). We encounter the isolation and the martial culture of the New Guinea Highlands, itself an independently evolved place of agriculture. Here in the 1980s a Kerowagi elder tells an anthropologist interviewer: “We thought no one existed apart from ourselves and our enemies.”

The Water Margins (Seas)

11. Small Islands (The allotments of the Gods) The wonder of Polynesian navigation is told, including the remarkable map produced by the navigator and holy man, Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook.

12. Seaboards (The View from the Shore) Here we learn of the mystery of the sea peoples who raided Ancient Egypt, the Vikings and Phoenicians, and navigators of the Atlantic Rim, including the old Celts who edged out to the outer British Isles.

13. Maritime Asia (Chasing the Monsoon) We rediscover Palembang on Srivijaya, which prospered on Chinese trade for sandalwood and frankincense. Surely proof that wealth has always been built on “experiences”, and the material economy has always been saturated with symbolic significance.

14. Greek and Roman Seaboards (The Tradition of Ulysses) “In spite of the unique contribution made by the ancient Greeks to the rest of the world, we should beware of idealizing them, as so many historians have done in the past. What was most enduring in their heritage was, in its day, the most eccentric: Socrates was condemned to suicide; Aristotle was driven from Athens and died in exile.” (p 425) So true; we create legends from shadows.

Breaking the Waves (Oceans)

15. Oceanic Civilizations (Almost the Last Environment). Fernandez-Armesto retells Ibn Battuta’s travels across the Muslim Lake of the Indian Ocean, and points to the regularity of the monsoonal wind-system as the basis, if such a metaphor is possible for a wind system, of the seafaring traditions of the Indian Ocean. His awareness of the direct effects of varied wind systems on the history of exploration and global exchange is also the basis of one of his many aphorisms: that in the history of the world there should be less hot air, and more wind.

16. Making of Atlantic Civilizations (Refloating Atlantis). Where with deep scholarship of exploration and navigation, he points to the many attempts to launch sea-borne empires in the fifteenth century. What distinguished the Western European seaboard’s creation of the Atlantic civilization was, despite all the founding myths of Western civilization, the accident of being in the right place, so having access to favourable winds and currents.

17. Atlantic Supremacy and Global Outlook (Atlantic and After) In this last chapter, he contemplates the limits and limitations of the Western Civilization floated on this Atlantic environment. So, he zeroes in on the “bewilderingly paradoxical” twentieth century, with superb flowering of culture, creativity and freedom, matched by the most terrifying destructiveness. “It promised so much and betrayed so many. The big mystery of the twentieth century is: why did civilization yield? Why, in other words, did progress fail?” (p 543)

It is an awkward question to end on, and the basis for what may be a true conservative argument, that our values can never be firmly based in progressive beliefs, since progress is an illusion. They all misrepresent a more chaotic experience of change, full of loss and gain. And this means that faced with the many difficulties that our societies and cultures encounter we need to avoid the willing delusion that we are moving with the spirit of the times, and turn to our homes and gardens, and flawed traditions and treasured archives, and take care of them.

So Fernandez-Armesto concludes Civilizations, in a paragraph that resonates with the themes of this blog:

“After all the disillusionments with which the history of civilizations is studded – the triumphs of savagery, the bloodlettings of barbarism, the reversals of progress, the reconquests by nature, our failure to improve – there is no remedy except to go on trying, and keeping civilized traditions alive. Even on the beach and in the shingle, il faut cultiver notre jardin.” ( p. 566)



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