Lecture Note 1 - History of the World - 1500CE

I started my study last night and have decided to start a little earlier than the Middle Ages as I came across a set of online lectures given on world history by Richard Bulliet, former lecturer at Columbia University. I thought this lecture series would give me a good grounding for history prior to my particular area of interest and help me get my hand in at studying again. So far I have not been disappointed. Below are my notes from lecture 1. I have some further reading to do for a few sections of the lecture that I didn't grasp fully, and a few terms to explore. I have recorded the letters FR (further reading) next to these sections in my notes and will post my follow up studies as I go.

The overriding message of this lecture for me was that this study was not going to be a narrative, but an exploration of theory or as the lecturer states a philosophical outlook, and my interest has been fired by this approach.

There are 25 lectures in all and I hope to study one a week. I am trying to avoid buying all of the recommended reading; as much as I would like the books it kind of defeats the object of me looking for free online study and costs are a factor in my learning. Instead I hope that I can further my study through online research however if text books do become necessary I will purchase them. There is a link to these lectures in my sidebar and if anyone has a comment I would be happy to discuss any aspect of this or future posts.

Course: History of the World to 1500CE
Columbia University
YouTube Lectures - Richard Bulliet (RB)
Lecture 1
Introduction to World History - Youtube upload 2010

The lecture commences with an introduction on how world history started being taught in US schools. It came about following the civil rights and feminist movements of the 60’s and 70’s which promoted a more diverse approach to history. Up until this point the US only taught American history. RB explains how the subject syllabus was created and introduced to schools, from there the subject spread upwards into higher levels of education although some of the universities still don't offer world history as a subject. As such RB considers the US to be leading the way in teaching world history which is significant in terms of the text books it produces to supplement study.

RB then states that history can be broken down into 3 categories and lists the first as a narrative, he does not state at this point what the other two are.

RB discusses the likelihood of the world moving towards a leading dominance in terms of culture, as such converging (globalisation) with one particular civilisation taking dominance and leading the way but discussed that perhaps this is not the inevitable outcome. There is no reason for the world to converge and perhaps instead we will continue through cycles of dominant civilisations that rise and fall, leaving room for others to develop in their place.

Has there always been a shift in diversity and dominance? And is this in fact not an issue of history but one of philosophy and/ or economics? Are there common denominators, or aspects of behaviour common to societies that aid their dominance however short lived?

Suggested common denominators: environment and technology (ENT), diversity and dominance. Spirituality is also a common denominator but is inconsistent in its preservation to allow it to be studied. Another common denominator RB suggests is humans relations with animals and the natural world…although this perhaps falls under (ENT).

RB introduces the term Contact Approach to history which states that history is a story of when humans come into contact. He says that while this is a true statement it is boring and instead proposes a thematic approach.

(Thematic analysis is one of the most common forms of analysis in qualitative research, i.e. It is used to gain an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations. It emphasises pinpointing, examining, and recording patterns (or "themes") within data. Themes are patterns across data sets that are important to the description of a phenomenon and are associated to a specific research question. Source - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thematic_analysis)

The discussion then moves on to pre-history. As we have such a term it requires definition. If we are looking at world history what is our starting point? The original definition of this was what happened before written records however this is no longer used as a definition as it clearly excludes significant parts of world history that have no written records and have been discovered through archeology and related studies.

So where do we start? Perhaps with the first civilisations which are widely thought to have been established in the river valleys of the middle east, e.g. Mesopotamia and Egypt. RB states that this is not likely to be true but is a starting point for now. Perhaps history starts at the Neolithic Revolution (10,000 - 8000 BC) with the start of domesticated plants and animals when humans ceased to be hunter/ gatherers and started cultivating crops. RB points out that is is difficult to pin point a period where we may have ceased one and started another and that we could have had domesticated plants before or after we had domesticated animals. 


Image Credit: CWGC

The sites where we have proof of early civilisations are termed pre-metallic archeological sites where large quantities of small pieces of flint were found. 


Image Credit: Mr Dowling

He then illustrates a sickle made of wood that has many small flints or stones set into the inside curve of the blade that would have been used to harvest crops, cutting through the grass stems. This is known as we have evidence of such stones with residue of the grass still on the stones. As such this gives evidence of crops being harvested in these areas. 


Image Credit: Land Schafts Museum

FR 1.1 - The lecture has a small section on the domestication of animals and discussed the mesolithic period. This section requires further reading.

RB then introduces a third approach to world history termed big history which states that if hominid species (human like beings) have been around for 3 million years why are we only looking at the past 8000 - 10,000 years? However he states that this approach requires an understanding of the complicated sciences utilised to explore this period of time such as carbon dating but states that the sciences change over time as well.

FR 1.2 - RB briefly discussed carbon dating (rate of deterioration of carbon 14 to carbon 12) the process for which has altered and is now termed corrected carbon dating. This is related to the consistency of carbon 14 in the atmosphere. Further reading required.

Corrected carbon dating made everything perviously tested much older than originally thought.

FR 1.3 - We also discovered, when comparing results of carbon dating between humans and animals, that fish was a very high factor in our diet in early civilisations. This is related to other chemicals found during the carbon dating process, further reading required.

The theory at present is that early civilisations established near water when we were able to cultivate and domesticate crops such as wheat and barley, as is evident in pre-metallic archeological sites from remnant harvesting tools. As such the assumption is that dense settlements were able to become established because of the cultivation of these crops, thus leading to civilisation.

However, wheat and barley are not high in calories, there were many other crops in existence at the time with a much higher calorie content such as potatoes and yams, so why didn't civilisation  start in areas where they grew? These other plants do not leave archeological remains so this is difficult to investigate however if there is evidence of fish forming a big part of our diet perhaps civilisations established along the river beds because of the source of fish and as such this allowed dense settlements and crop cultivation followed.

FR 1.4 - RB stated - Perhaps some evidence of humans consuming other high calorie food is the banana plant, of which there are 4 genus but only one edible and it has no seeds. This has to be an evolutionary factor. As such the only way the edible banana can be spread is by humans transporting cuttings thus this plant has been totally domesticated. Further reading required on family, genus and species of banana. 

Conclusion to lecture - world history is a philosophical outlook and not just a narrative.

Reading - 

Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers RB - focusing on how domestic animals came into being

Vol 1 The Earth and its Peoples RB (1 chapter per week to be covered to supplement the lectures.)

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