THE EDGE OF HISTORY:
By Neolithic times we are in a world full of human variety and potential. This variety was to increase. Some human communities were to progress rapidly; some would not. New forces would operate in human development as different peoples came into contact and learnt from one another, or reflected further upon their own experience and plunged forward into new experiments. More and more, that is to say, human diversity, could stem from mankind's ability to change things consciously as well as from the brute facts of environment. The result would be more untidy still; their have hardly ever been such possibilities of differences of human experience as exists in the world today. But, it was already far from uniform in 5000BC. There is no clear line marking off the end of one human era from another, only a blurred, ragged- edged time zone, with some people forging ahead on their way to civilization and others still stuck firmly in the Stone Age where some of them were to remain for thousands of years yet.
Yet this was a world where there had already been an enormous acceleration of change. It had begun far back in prehistory and it is important to get the perspective right. Someone alive today, who recalls that the aeroplane did not exist in 1900, that nuclear power is only fifty years or so old, that many African nations had not been invented forty years ago, and that AIDS was only identified as a disease in the 1980's may well be excuse the feeling that for centuries on end not much changed in, say, the Middle Ages. Over much of Europe people were still farming in the fifteenth century, for example in the way they did in the ninth. Yet if we look at European art-at buildings, say- in AD 800 and then five hundred years later, it is obvious that there has been a very big change indeed. In the first art of all, though, that of the upper Paleolithic, experts tell us that the great cave-decorations show virtually no stylistic change for five or six thousand years. And if we were to go further back, the long persistence of certain ways of making tools from stone would give us examples of even more gradual development. In even earlier times, the actual physiological evolution of human beings can be observed, but had been of glacier-like slowness by comparison even with the sometimes barely perceptible changes of Paleolithic art.
The crucial reason why change had already speeded up a lot by 5000BC is that by then the main source of innovation had moved from natural forces to human beings themselves. By the end of prehistory the human story is increasingly one of choice. Human beings are making more and more decisions to act and adapt in certain ways to meet their problems and develop certain ways of doing things, to utilize certain materials or skills. This is why what we can reckon the most important change of all came about somewhere right at the beginning, though we can not exactly know when or where, when perhaps some creature barely recognizable to us as human, first began to think of the world as a collection of separate objects distinct from himself. If we knew when it was, it might serve as the best definition of the beginning of the prehistory of man; it opened the way to using the world, and that is the story of the whole change from life shaped blindly by nature to one shaped by human culture and tradition. After that something like compound interest began to work. As more and more human beings appeared, there was not only a bigger pool of talent to draw upon but there was also more human achievement and experience to use. Even small communities did not have to go through the tedious business of learning everything from scratch.
As we know only too well, this has not meant that human beings have not created new problems as fast as they solved old ones, nor that the story of mankind is not full of slippings backwards and tragic failures too. But it helps to emphasis a central fact about human beings as they approached the era when some of them were to create the first civilizations-that they are unique in consciously setting about using and changing the world. One of the few good descriptions of Homo sapiens is that he is, above all, a change-making animal. The evidence of that lies in what he has done-his history.
Roberts, A Short History of the World, pgs 34-35