The mountain ranges of Europe and Asia

When the Great land masses of Africa and India collide with Europe and asia, about 100 million years ago, they cause the crust of the earth to crumple upwards in a long almost continuous ridge of high ground - from the Alps, through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to the Himalayas. This barrier will have a profound influence on human history.

To the south and east of the mountain range are various fertile regions, watered by great rivers flowing from the mountains. By contrast, north of the mountain range is a continuous strip of less fertile grasslands - the steppes, on which a horseman can ride almost without interruption from Mongolia to Moscow.

This unbroken stretch of land north of the mountains, reaching from the Pacific in the east to the Atlantic in the west, means that the boundary between Asia and Europe is a somewhat vague concept. Indeed Europe is really the western peninsula of the much larger mass of Asia.

In the south there is a natural barrier, long accepted as a dividing line - formed by the waters of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. North from here the boundary is notional. In recent times it has been accepted as passing east from the Black Sea to the Caspian and then stretching north from the Caspian along the eastern slopes of the Ural mountains.

Out of Africa: more than a million years ago

Homo erectus is the variety of human who moves out of the continent of Africa, to spread through much of Asia and Europe. This move from Africa is usually dated to about a million years ago, but this may be too recent. First reports of two skulls found in 1999 at Dmanisi, in South Georgia, describe them as 1.8 million years old.

Fossil remains of this kind have been found as far afield as Java in southeast Asia (the first to be discovered, in 1891), Beijing in northern China, and within Europe in Greece, Germany and England - in addition to numerous sites in Africa. The European skulls differ from the Asian in various ways (larger brains, smaller teeth), causing some anthropologists to classify them not as Homo erectus but as an archaic version of our own species, Homo sapiens.

While it is certain that we all descend from Homo erectus, precisely how we do so is as much disputed as any other topic in this thorny field of human origins.

One theory is that after moving out of Africa around a million years ago Homo erectus evolves towards modern man in different ways in different parts of the globe, but that the regional groups retain enough contact and sufficient interbreeding to prevent any of them evolving into a separate species.

A rival theory involves two waves of exodus from Africa. The first, it is agreed, is that of Homo erectus more than a million years ago. But by this theory Homo erectus then evolves in different parts of the world into increasingly distinct varieties of human.

The variety of human evolving during this period in Africa, according to this theory, is modern man - descending from the original Homo erectus stock.

Modern man, this theory continues, comes out of Africa in a second exodus -- perhaps about 150,000 years ago -- and subsequently becomes the only human species on earth. Other humans known to us during that period (most notably the Neanderthal man of Eurasia) are therefore different varieties evolving locally. They are all eventually replaced by modern man, in a slow colonial expansion from Africa through Asia and, eventually, into Europe.

DNA analysis of different ethnic groups has provided evidence which seems to support this second theory, for it suggests that Africa has had a stable human population longer than any other part of the globe.

Another discovery supporting the 'out of Africa' theory is the date given by new technology to human remains found in the 1930s in caves at Skhul and Qafzeh, in modern Israel. They are of anatomically modern people, similar to ourselves, but they are now known to have lived about 90,000 years ago.

Modern humans spread through Asia (and even reach Australia) by 50,000 years ago, and appear in western Europe 35,000 years ago. The people of Skhul and Qafzeh live, much earlier, in the first habitable region on the land route from Africa. This does seem to cast them as ancestral figures on a long and slow second journey out of Africa.

There are certain undisputed facts which each of the rival theories must accomodate.

We have fossils of several varieties of human from within the last million years. All ultimately derive from the same ancestor, Homo erectus. These fossil varieties differ in many of their characteristics. Yet we ourselves are now the only surving human species. To accomodate these facts, there can only be two possible explanations - regardless of which parts of the planet are involved.

Either we have evolved from several of the various descendants of Homo erectus (among which Neanderthal man is the best known), while nevertheless remaining one species. Or our particular branch of Homo erectus has replaced all the others.

The possibility that our species replaced all other humans sounds dramatic, but need not be so. On an evolutionary scale replacement is not necessarily a scene of battle and carnage.

In Britain, for example, grey squirrels are steadily driving the smaller red squirrels northwards, because the grey variety is more adaptable in its use of the available woodland. The process is likely to lead, in a relatively short time, to the replacement of one species by the other.

But while it happens there is nothing cataclysmic about it.

The spread of our species: from 60000 years ago

After Homo erectus has spread through the linked central land mass of our planet (Africa and Eurasia), he is succeeded within that region by varieties of Homo sapiens - the Neanderthals and then Modern humans. It is Modern humans who take the next step in colonizing the habitable earth.

The dates are still uncertain and much disputed. But at some time after 60,000 years ago people cross from southeast Asia to Borneo, the Philippines, New Guinea and Australia. And at some time after 30,000 years ago humans make the short but difficult leap from northeast Asia to northwest America.

8000 BC - AD 1000

The unsettling and the settled: from 8000 BC

Only nomads can live on the steppes north of Asia's mountain ranges, moving with their flocks of animals to survive together on the meagre crop of grass. It is a tough life, and the steppes have bred tough people - pioneers in Warfare on horseback.

From the Indo-european tribes of ancient times to the Mongols and turks of more recent history, the people of the steppes descend frequently and with devastating suddeness upon their more civilized neighbours. There are many tempting victims. Beneath the mountain ridges Asia offers ideal locations for civilized life.

On a map showing the fertile plains of Asia, between the mountains and the sea, three such areas stand out: Mesopotamia, watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates; the valley of the Indus; and the plains of north China, from the Hwang Ho (or Yellow River) down to the Yangtze.

Other waterways, such as the Ganges or the Mekong, are in areas too heavily forested to make agriculture easy. But in Mesopotamia, western India and northern China, great rivers flow through open plains, providing ample flood water for the nurturing of crops. These regions of Asia become the sites of three of the early Civilizations.

The regions bordering the Asian shores of the Mediterranean are where mankind appears first to have settled in villages and towns - a development requiring at least the beginnings of Agriculture. Two of the earliest settlements to deserve the name of towns are Jericho in Palestine and Catal Huyuk in Anatolia.

For the emergence of a more developed society, justifying the name of civilization, history suggests that there is one incomparable advantage, indeed almost a necessity - the proximity of a large river, flowing through an open plain. In several places Asia provides this.

Indo-Europeans: from 2000 BC

Tribes speaking Indo-european languages, and living as Nomadic herdsmen, are well established by about 2000 BC in the steppes which stretch from the Ukraine eastwards, to the regions north of the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Over the coming centuries they steadily infiltrate the more appealing regions to the south and west - occasionally in something akin to open warfare, and invariably no doubt with violence. But the process is much more gradual than our modern notions of an invading force.

Indo-Europeans in Asia: from 1800 BC

In Asia the first significant movement of this kind is by the Hittites, who establish themselves in Anatolia.

Subsequently the Medes and the persians become the dominant tribes on the Iranian plateau. These Indo-Iranians are related in language and culture to the Aryans who move down into India, profoundly influencing the subcontinent. Their tribal religion contributes largely to Zoroastrianism in Persia and Hinduism in India (see the Gods of the aryans).

At a much later date, one of the Indo-European tribal groups in India makes a further move south. They are the Sinhalese. They settle in Sri lanka, probably in the 6th century BC.

In doing so, they isolate themselves from the Indo-Europeans of north India, for they move to the south of a different linguistic group - the Dravidians, whose origin is unknown but whose language has no links with Indo-European. After another lengthy gap, in about the 11th century AD, members of the largest Dravidian community, the Tamils, move into Sri lanka from southern India and settle in the north of the island.

Western Asia: from 1000 BC

The great civlizations of south and east Asia - India and China - are relatively isolated by the accidents of geography. But western Asia, and in particular the Mediterranean coast, is vulnerable to invaders from all sides.

By about 1000 BC the Hebrews are established in Palestine. The Phoenicians are their neighbours to the north. These desirable territories will be a continuous battleground, first in a triangular rivalry between Mesopotamia, Egypt and anatolia; and later, when strong rulers control the Iranian plateau, in a prolonged struggle between the Persian empire to the east and Greece and Rome to the west.

Between India and China: 1st century BC - 8th century AD

Cultural influence in southeast Asia comes at first either from India or China. In the 1st century BC Indian traders penetrate Burma. Further east, in Vietnam, Bronze Age culture infiltrates gradually from China at some time before the 3rd century BC.

With these exceptions, the region is still occupied at this time by neolithic communities.

The development of more advanced cultures in the region derives largely from the spread of India's two great religions, Hinduism and buddhism.

Both travel east by sea in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Indians at this time are adventurous seafarers. Merchants gradually spread the two religions and their related architectural traditions along coastal regions on the way towards the South China Sea. This religious and cultural imperialism from India, combined with political and military pressure from China (particularly in Vietnam) gives Southeast asia its lasting chararacter.

At a slightly later date Buddhism spreads also from China, which it has reached along the Silk Road from India. After becoming well established in Korea, Buddhist monks bring the faith during the 6th century to Japan.

Buddhism reaches Korea in the 8th century from two directions - from China and from Nepal, the original birthplace of the religion in India.

Western Asia: 1st millennium AD

At the start of the Christian era western Asia is part of the Roman empire which confronts, to the east, a Persian empire of varying size and complexion. The region will remain an uneasy border between these two blocks until the 4th century, when the adoption of Christianity begins to transform the western antagonist from the Roman into the Byzantine empire.

The balance nevertheless remains much the same until it is violently and rapidly upset by the emergence of Islam in the 7th century. For the last centuries of the period western Asia, with the exception of Anatolia, is Muslim.

East Asia: 1st millennium AD

India and China, the two ancient civilizations of east Asia, are large enough to follow their own course at this stage without much influence from outside. It is instead their influence which spreads outwards, profoundly affecting the development of Sri lanka, Korea and Japan - all of which develop their own local and lasting characteristics during this period.

North of the mountain ranges the nomads exert pressure southwards from time to time. For the most part they are easily contained. Early in the next millennium their turn will come, first with minor groups gaining territory in northern China and then with the violent eruption of the Mongols.

From AD 1000

Turks and Mongols: AD 1000-1517

The first half of our own millennium is dominated, in Asia, by the movement of Turks and mongols. Almost every part of the continent (Southern india and Southeast asia are the exceptions) is invaded or occupied in this period by conquerors whose own roots lie in the steppes north of the mountain ranges.

The first is Mahmud of ghazni who raids into India from the year 1000, beginning a long Turkish presence in the north of the subcontinent. Later in the 11th century the Seljuk turks rule from Afghanistan west to the Mediterranean.

In the 13th century the Mongols emerge from the steppes to seize a vast and virtually instant empire; by the time of Kublai khan almost the whole habitable continent is theirs, except Palestine and Syria in the west and India, Southeast asia and Japan in the east. In the 15th century Timur almost repeats their great feat of conquest, but the effect is only to place his Turkish descendants on thrones previously held by Mongols - except for the imperial throne in China, by now returned to a native dynasty (the Ming).

In the 15th century a new Turkish power, that of the Ottomans, wins control of Anatolia.

The first two decades of the 16th century bring renewed upheaval in two areas. A native ruler, the first of the Safavids, wins power in Persia. And in 1517 the Ottoman Turks extend their rule round the eastern Mediterranean and down into Egypt and Arabia.

The resulting situation remains the status quo for some time. The Ottoman empire includes the whole of southwest Asia. Persia is in Persian hands. Much of India is ruled by Muslims of Turkish origin. The steppes remain the province of Turkish and Mongol nomads, though this region and Siberia will increasingly attract Russia.

The involvement of Europeans: 16th - 19th century AD

In 1498 a Portuguese ship reaches Calicut in southern India. Its captain, Vasco da gama, sails away again after three months. But this European visit to Asia is very different from the overland journeys made by Marco polo and others in previous centuries. Europeans now have new maritime skills and ocean-going ships. Over the coming centuries their command of the seas will give them a massive presence in Asia.

The Spice islands, dominated by the Dutch from the 17th century, are the first part of Asia to attract European attention. India, fought over by French and English in the 18th century, is the next focus of colonial attention.

China retains a dignified isolation until brutally subdued by Britain in the two Opium Wars of the 19th century. Meanwhile China is acquiring a European neighbour to the north, with the expansion of the Russian empire to the Pacific. And the French win control of the part of southeast Asia which becomes known as Indo-China.

By the mid-19th century the European presence in Asia is so all-pervasive that wars in Afghanistan derive from imperial rivalries between Russia to the north and the British in neighbouring India. Not till the unscrambling of imperialism in the 20th century are the historic regions of Asia fully restored to Asian control. Japan, only briefly intruded upon by Europe, has been an independent exception.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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