Tag Archives: supercontinent

The world in 1600

World population, about 545 million

Pangaea reunited. In the century after 1492, Europeans mastered the winds and currents of the world’s oceans. The shock to the rest of the world would be comparable in some ways to the earlier shock resulting from the spread of nomadism on the Eurasian steppes. In the Americas, the immediate results were devastating, with the loss of most of the population to introduced diseases, helped along by conquest and enslavement. But the spread of new crops and animals in both directions also helped fuel a population boom in the Old World.

Mega-empires. In Eastern Europe and Asia, the results of European expansion by 1600 were less dramatic. There the landscape was dominated by huge empires: Russia, the Ottomans, Safavid Persia, Mughal India, Ming China. These have sometimes been called “gunpowder empires,” emphasizing the role of cannon in establishing centralized power. But they could also be considered the aftermath of the Mongol conquests, either arising from the overthrow of Mongol rule (Russia, China) or claiming direct Mongol descent (Mogul India). In other words, these empires developed in centrifugal fashion, with power collapsing at the old Mongol center, and new states arising along the Mongol marches.

Charlemagne + 800. Another centrifugal process took place in Western and Central Europe, on a smaller scale, over a longer period of time. As the Carolingian Empire disintegrated, new states arose along its marches, in Iberia, in France, England and Scandinavia, and in Eastern Germany, and neighboring Slavic territory, while the Western Germany and Northern Italy remained fragmented. By earlier Roman or Asian standards, medieval states in Europe, even when they controlled large areas, were feeble things. The state’s power to collect taxes had more or less collapsed, and Medieval monarchs were forced to concede substantial privileges to their subjects in exchange for their support. By 1600, however, military competition had produced more powerful absolutist states. Medieval liberties survived best in countries where military threats had been less intense, on islands (England and Scotland), on an isolated peninsula (Scandinavia), in the mountains (Switzerland) or soggy lowlands (Holland), or just far from the madding crowd (Poland).

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Mythopoeia

17.2-16.3 thousand years ago

Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.

The worst of times

260 million years ago: the Capitanian mass extinction

A capsule summary of the evolution of life on Earth goes like this: There is steady progress in adaptation, driven especially by arms races, sometimes involving competitors, sometimes predators and prey. But this progress is interrupted from time to time by catastrophes – mass extinctions resulting from extrinsic causes, sometimes astronomical, but more often geological. (We’ll see much later in the year that a similar summary of human history goes like this: steady progress in the scale of cooperation driven by arms races, with occasional catastrophic interruptions, often associated with the spread of epidemic diseases.)

The geological causes of mass extinctions have been coming into focus lately. Many mass extinctions co-occur with the formation of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPS), regions where vast amounts of lava have flowed out of the earth, triggering a whole cascade of changes: the destruction of the ozone layer by halogen gases, global warming induced by CO2 and methane, and anoxic seas.

The mass extinction 260 million years ago, the Capitanian, is not one of the classic five greatest mass extinctions, and has been overshadowed by the mother of all mass extinctions, the end-Permian, which happened just 8 million years later. But it took a major toll on living things, from marine organisms to dinocephalians. (The dinocephalians – more closely related to mammals than to dinosaurs, ranging up to hippo sized, and including both herbivores and carnivores – went entirely extinct with the Capitanian.) The Capitanian extinctions coincide with, and were probably caused by, the formation of Emeishan LIP, now in southwest China.

dinocephalians

A book published recently, The Worst of Times, pulls together the latest evidence that the Capitanian was the beginning of an 80 million year period in which mass extinctions were exceptionally common. Apparently the formation of the supercontinent of Pangaea and the Panthalassic superocean made living things particularly vulnerable to volcanically induced extinctions. Once Pangaea breaks up, mass extinctions are less frequent, and generally have different causes.  The death of the dinosaurs had an extra-terrestrial cause, and the mass extinction we’re in the middle of results from the activities of one very unusual species.

pangaea

The world in 1600

1583-1607

World population, about 545 million

Pangaea reunited. In the century after 1492, Europeans mastered the winds and currents of the world’s oceans. The shock to the rest of the world would be comparable in some ways to the earlier shock resulting from the spread of nomadism on the Eurasian steppes. In the Americas, the immediate results were devastating, with the loss of most of the population to introduced diseases, helped along by conquest and enslavement. But the spread of new crops and animals in both directions also helped fuel a population boom in the Old World.

Mega-empires. In Eastern Europe and Asia, the results of European expansion by 1600 were less dramatic. There the landscape was dominated by huge empires: Russia, the Ottomans, Safavid Persia, Mughal India, Ming China. These have sometimes been called “gunpowder empires,” emphasizing the role of cannon in establishing centralized power. But they could also be considered the aftermath of the Mongol conquests, either arising from the overthrow of Mongol rule (Russia, China) or claiming direct Mongol descent (Mogul India). In other words, these empires developed in centrifugal fashion, with power collapsing at the old Mongol center, and new states arising along the Mongol marches.

Charlemagne + 800. Another centrifugal process took place in Western and Central Europe, on a smaller scale, over a longer period of time. As the Carolingian Empire disintegrated, new states arose along its marches, in Iberia, in France, England and Scandinavia, and in Eastern Germany, and neighboring Slavic territory, while the Western Germany and Northern Italy remained fragmented. By earlier Roman or Asian standards, medieval states in Europe, even when they controlled large areas, were feeble things. The state’s power to collect taxes had more or less collapsed, and Medieval monarchs were forced to concede substantial privileges to their subjects in exchange for their support. By 1600, however, military competition had produced more powerful absolutist states. Medieval liberties survived best in countries where military threats had been less intense, on islands (England and Scotland), on an isolated peninsula (Scandinavia), in the mountains (Switzerland) or soggy lowlands (Holland), or just far from the madding crowd (Poland).

Mythopoeia

16 kya. Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four

generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.

The worst of times

260 million years ago: the Capitanian mass extinction

A capsule summary of the evolution of life on Earth goes like this: There is steady progress in adaptation, driven especially by arms races, sometimes involving competitors, sometimes predators and prey. But this progress is interrupted from time to time by catastrophes – mass extinctions resulting from extrinsic causes, sometimes astronomical, but more often geological. (We’ll see much later in the year that a similar summary of human history goes like this: steady progress in the scale of cooperation driven by arms races, with occasional catastrophic interruptions, often associated with the spread of epidemic diseases.)

The geological causes of mass extinctions have been coming into focus lately. Many mass extinctions co-occur with the formation of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPS), regions where vast amounts of lava have flowed out of the earth, triggering a whole cascade of changes: the destruction of the ozone layer by halogen gases, global warming induced by CO2 and methane, and anoxic seas.

The mass extinction 260 million years ago, the Capitanian, is not one of the classic five greatest mass extinctions, and has been overshadowed by the mother of all mass extinctions, the end-Permian, which happened just 8 million years later. But it took a major toll on living things, from marine organisms to dinocephalians. (The dinocephalians – more closely related to mammals than to dinosaurs, ranging up to hippo sized, and including both herbivores and carnivores – went entirely extinct with the Capitanian.) The Capitanian extinctions coincide with, and were probably caused by, the formation of Emeishan LIP, now in southwest China.

dinocephalians

A book published last year, The Worst of Times, pulls together the latest evidence that the Capitanian was the beginning of an 80 million year period in which mass extinctions were exceptionally common. Apparently the formation of the supercontinent of Pangaea and the Panthalassic superocean made living things particularly vulnerable to volcanically induced extinctions. Mass extinctions still happen, but not as frequently, once Pangaea breaks up.

pangaea

Slow weather and the world inside

Inside planet Earth is another planet. Not quite the way Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined, but …

We live at the boundary between Earth’s solid surface, its liquid water surface, and its atmosphere. The sun pours energy into this boundary, and drives the circulation of water and air. The altitude of the surface varies. Events on this boundary rule our lives. We live at the mercy of weather, worry about climate change and rising sea levels, and (if we are Tibetans or Andean Indians) have genes adapting us to life at high altitude.

There is an equally dramatic landscape 1800 miles deep in the Earth, at the boundary between the silicate mantle and the iron core. The core-mantle boundary is as dramatic a transition as the Earth-atmosphere boundary. And the boundary is not smooth or featureless: We know from measuring the speeds of seismic waves that there is a complex uneven landscape at the boundary. There is a kind of slow weather in the mantle, driven not by the sun, but by heat from the core. The core-mantle boundary has cool uplands where material falling slowly through the viscous mantle from above has piled up. It has hot lowlands, from which hotter, less viscous plumes of magma rise, to generate hotspots far above. (Two of the major plumes nowadays are under the central Pacific and Africa.) And there may also be lakes and seas of liquid minerals at the boundary.

Long-term geological processes – the movement of tectonic plates, the formation and breakup of continents – are driven by this slow weather in the mantle. One theory is that things changed around the end of the Archaean and beginning of the Proterozoic — that the “weather” inside the Earth grew calmer, the lower and upper mantle grew more separate, and the modern pattern of supercontinent formation and breakup began. If this is true, then changes we see at the surface of the Earth, like the rise of an oxygen atmosphere, may owe something to events where mantle meets core.