Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Introduction

Once upon a time...


The world wasn't always the way it is now. Before the 20th century — a little more than one hundred years ago — no one owned an automobile, because automobiles had not been invented. Television services started about fifty years later, after the Second World War, and it was only a few years ago, at the end of the last century, that the internet and computer appeared.

Nearly all reputable scientists believe that humans "evolved" (or developed from) other animals in the way that was first described by Charles Darwin, an English naturalist. He lived at a time just before the invention of gasoline engines. He travelled the world in a Royal Navy sailing ship called HMS Beagle.

Most people agree that humans have changed from stone-wielding during the Palaeolithic period, or Old Stone Age, to metal-working in the Bronze and Iron Ages, through the Middle Ages or Medieval period into the modern era, when people finally worked out that ancient wisdom was perhaps neither as ancient nor as wise as everyone had assumed.

The age of Reformation and later Enlightenment arrived first in Western Europe about 500 years ago, with the printing press. Religious freedom, and the right to openly question ancient wisdom, arrived very much more recently — about the same time as the horseless motor carriage and the telephone appeared, at the end of the 19th century — maybe only about the time of your great-grandparents were born.

Before modern times, if you wanted to get around, there was always walking! Animals such as donkeys, horses, oxen, elephants, and so on might have been ridden by the rich, but mostly they drew carts used for transporting goods.

Learning & survival


Humans did especially well in learning new skills and educating themselves. Learning from their past experiences and realising the mistakes and consequences, evidence shows that humans evolved much more rapidly than other animals, possibly due to a combination of reasons including walking on two legs and having an opposing thumb for gripping objects.

What chance did primitive humans have to survive when they were much small than the carnivorous predators? How did they survive and come to dominate the planet?

Humans developed survival instincts by running and hiding for safety (caves). The groups survived by scavenging. Instinct and intelligence evolved into Hunter-gatherer groups and migration became a necessity. Curiosity and invention of making fire also was an important factor. Control of fire was very important since the heat, light and smoke contributed to evolving brain with better nutrition (cooking), movement of groups to longer distances with improved confidence (migration).

Human intelligence allowed them to colonise areas that would normally be too hot or cold to survive in. They developed complex communication skills that evolved into languages. Being able to communicate is vital for spreading knowledge and helping survival.

Humans never developed 'canine' teeth in the way carnivorous animals had, but invented tools to help hunt and kill animals. By making it easier to gather food, tools freed up human time for other activities. Cave drawing and carving were primitive communication skills.

Animal hides were improvised as clothing.

Human groups focused on learning and survival.(The question of why and how came in later).

Communication and writing


If you want to be entertained or educated, you have first to learn a language! It is also quite useful to learn to read and write. Curious as it may sound, these are not natural skills. Someone -probably our parents - taught us to speak and understand as infants. Learning another language later in life is much more difficult! Later, as young children, most of us learn to read at schools organized by teachers. Someone had to invent all our different languages and various writing scripts. Before that if you wanted to hear a story, and you had learned only to speak, then someone had to tell you it. Or you had to go to the theater, or just sit around a camp fire gossiping, perhaps memorizing stories.

Although it may seem impossible to us now, it's really true, that back in history, only five thousand years ago, people really did live without reading and writing skills, yet they still organized themselves into truly fabulous empires that we now call the "Ancient Civilizations", and these existed throughout the world.

Why should we study them today, when they are long dead and mostly forgotten? Let us think about that for a moment. Today, to become an engineer or a doctor or follow any of the thousands of different occupations and jobs that keep our modern world working smoothly, then probably you will need to spend almost one quarter of a century - 25 years or about one third of your life - studying, first at school, and later at college or university. The ancient Persians and Egyptians invented numbers and early writing. Phoneticians took the idea and developed it into what we call a phonetic alphabet in their honour.

Before writing was used, Ancient Indians used to memorise `rhythmical chanting` ways of offering worship or passing traditional cultural messages before the invention of transcribing them on dried 'palm'leaves with a sharpened metallic objects. Ancient Greeks and Romans innovated modern scripts for writing philosophy with pens or brushes plus capital letters for carving on stone.

China developed printing at about the same time, but Europe had to wait almost 1200 years before printing was developed. Until Gutenberg invented printing around 500 years ago and so started the modern era, books were written and copied by hand, with lots of errors and variations. Even so, one of the greatest civilizations, the Golden Age of Islam founded the first university which was in Baghdad. They also developed many technical skills such as mathematics, and so on which came to Europe via the Muslim Caliphate which then stretched across North Africa and Spain.

Of Dwarfs and Giants


We truly are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes. This is a metaphor meaning "One who develops future intellectual pursuits by understanding the research and works created by notable thinkers of the past". It was famously used by the seventeenth-century English philosopher who studied Geometry and discovered the laws of gravity. He wrote it as: "Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident". Although that is Latin, one might guess that he used the term Pigmys instead of dwarfs. His name was Issac Newton.

That's why a wise teacher will explain that:

The study of ancient civilizations is not to satisfy your history teacher or to pass exams. Rather it is to study the glories and shames, the successes and downfalls of our ancestors, to understand these interesting people, upon whose many millions of shoulders our modern world stands, that we might broaden our horizons, and deepen our wisdom.

And we hope that perhaps this book might help you begin to understand the rich heritage of antiquity to which we modern people are the very fortunate heirs.