Book Review

Globalization has become a massive subject in both the economic and political arena. Differing cultures have become more and more interdependent through things such as increased international trade as well as the development of social media. As this interconnection increases, it is important to understand the causes of its development and how it has already shaped history. The history and environmental impact of this expansion of human interconnectivity is beautifully articulated in The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History would be highly beneficial to any classroom or reader who is interested in world history as it pertains to the environment.

It is written by J.R. McNeill and his late father, William H. McNeill. J.R. is a professor of world history, environmental history, and international history at Georgetown and has written multiple books on both world history and the environment.  His father William, a renowned historical author, was a professor of history at The University of Chicago from 1947 until his death in 2016. He published over 20 books and is best known for his works: The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963) and Plagues and People. His work also earned him the National Humanities Medal which was presented to him by President Obama in 2010. As one can see, these authors are highly credentialed and their work on this book lives up to their reputation.

J.R. and William McNeill begin the work with an introduction to the idea of a “web” which they define as “a set of connections that link people to one another [such as] chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic competition, [and] military competition” (3).  The thesis of the work is that “the exchange of… information, items, and inconveniences, and human responses to them [within the web], is what shapes history” (4). To support this thesis, the work is split into eight chapters each dealing with a certain timeframe. This efficiently breaks up each time frame and expansion of the human web to be much easier to understand as it is able to break down the concept into smaller, more comprehensible arguments. The structure of each chapter is also quite helpful as it begins by building upon the ideas expressed at the end of the previous chapter but then builds upon it

“The Human Apprenticeship” covers the evolution of early hominids like Homo erectus and the development of tools such as the hand-axe as well as the early social structures of hunter gatherer groups (0.2 mya – 11,000 b.c.).  “Shifting to Food Production, 1100-3500 b.c.” is devoted to the rise of agriculture and the shift from nomadic to sedentary life and the resulting societal changes It produced. Next, it covers the creation of the first great civilizations in “Webs and Civilizations in the Old World, 3500 b.c. – 200 c.e.” such as ancient Sumer, the Indus River Valley civilization, and the Roman empire. This also covered the development of trade and an expanding web between civilizations such as the development of trade amongst the Mediterranean cultures such as the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The fourth chapter, “The Growth of Webs in The Old World and the Americas, 200-1000 c.e.” covers the consolidation of the web developed by the trade and interconnection of the old world empires including the development of the silk road and greater trade between the east and the west through both the silk road through Central Asia and the spice trade throughout the Indian and Southeast Asian Oceans. Building upon the fourth chapter, “Thickening Webs, 1000-1500” details the growth of these webs from 1100 to 1500 which encompassed the age of discovery as well as the first contact between Europe and the New World which begins the entrance into a singular human web. The McNeills move on to further their development of the human web with “Spinning the Worldwide Web, 1450-1800”. In this chapter, they deal with the consolidation of this global human web through the age of exploration and conquests of the new world as well as the creation of vast empires such as the British and the French. Building upon the foundation of this web of empires, the authors examine the impacts of the solidification of this global web from the economic explosion of the Industrial Revolution, to the boom in population, the development of modern politics, and the beginning of the First World War in “Breaking Old Chains, Tightening the New Web (1750-1914). But after the solidification of the web, the McNeills examine the stressors put upon it by the development of new technology such as better communications and transfer of scientific knowledge and the effects of urbanization in “Strains on the Web: The World Since 1890”. It also examines the partial collapse of the web from the Second World War and its resurgence after the creation of the Bretton Woods system which created institutions such as the IMF, the UN, and WTO so as to unite the free world against communism. In the final chapter, “Big Pictures and Long Prospects”, the McNeills end with an advisement that as this web becomes more and more interconnected, it must become more cognizant of its own actions and how they affect the future.

The composition of the work is very readable and is written in terms that people who aren’t historians could understand. It is well organized, with each topic divided into subtopics which can be easily found within the table of contents. This efficiently breaks up each time frame and expansion of the human web to be much easier to understand as it is able to break down the concept into smaller, more comprehensible arguments. The structure of each chapter is also quite helpful as it begins by building upon the ideas expressed at the end of the previous chapter but then builds upon it to further substantiate the thesis. It also supplies extensive evidence to support its arguments without going to the point of losing the reader’s interest. Another feature which drastically helps the reader is the inclusion of multiple maps and charts to supplement the evidence provided. This allows the reader to visualize the concepts introduced by the reading and keeps more visual learners interested.

As a resource for teaching or for recreational reading, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History, is a fantastic option. It is easily readable for almost any audience, supplies multitudes of relevant evidence, and maintains a structure that is both informative yet entertaining.


Book Review

The Human Web: A bird’s Eye View of World History. By J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. xvii, 350pp. ISBN 0-393-05179-X; 0-393-92568-4.

One’s journey of learning history must start somewhere. One of the ways to do so is to start by learning about world history. This field of history does not bog the student down with a multitude of dates and names but rather highlights the larger concepts that have helped shape the history of mankind and the world. This is what J. R. McNeill & William H. McNeill have do very eloquently in their book The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History.

William H. McNeill has done extensive work in the field of environmental history and J. R. McNeill was is professor of History at Chicago University and a leading figure in the field of World History. This father-son pair has teamed up to combine their specialties into a history textbook in a way that is quite unique to the field of history.

The main argument posed by the two authors of this book is that human history has been determined and shaped by the “connection” between the people of the time. The term “web” is the choice name given to these connections. This leads one to speculate that the audience that the McNeill’s where going for with this book is most likely younger, and familiar with the World Wide Web/Internet. This choice of term in a clever tool chosen by the authors as a new way of illustrating to readers and students about the interconnectedness of past people and the affects these connections had on the course of history.

The authors lay their book out in a chronological order. Broken down into nine sections. Each of which covers a separate time period. I The Human Apprenticeship (covers human history up to 11,000 years ago) This section covers the hunter-gatherer period of human history. II Shifting to Food Production (11,000 – 3,000 years ago) This is a period of cultural change as domestication of plants and animals allowed humans to transition from hunter gathers to a sedentary lifestyle. III Webs and Civilizations in the Old World (3,500 B.C.E. – 200 C.E) This chapter pertains to the first civilizations and the formation of the Old World Web. IV The Growth of the Webs in the Old World and America (200 – 1000 C.E.) Expansion of the web facilitated trade and the proliferation of religion. V Thickening Webs (1000 -1500 C.E) The Old World Wed was shaped by the formation of dominant empires primarily the Mongols of Central Asia and China, The Islamic Empire of Southwest Asia and The Christians of Europe. VI Spinning the World Web (1450 – 1800 C.E.) This period dealt with increased globalization, through exploration and conquest, and increased power held by fewer states. VII Breaking Old Chains, Tightening the New Web (1750 – 1914) Looks at the affects that the industrial revolution, changes in political structure, and increased connection capabilities had on history and the environment. VII Strains on the Web: The World Since 1890, This chapter explores the influence of mass communication, Increased urbanization, Wars on a global scale, and decolonization. IX Big Pictures and Long Prospects.

Within these major sections of the book, which cover the development and changing of the webs in human history, the author’s cover several important themes that aided in the devolvement of the webs and where a direct consequence of the connections of the webs. These include: trade, Religion, disease, technology, militarization & conquest, natural resources, language, and climate change. Of these subtopics the ones that seemed to draw the authors’ attention more than the others were trade and religion.

As laid out by the authors it may be unfair to categorize trade as it’s own subtheme since the proliferation of trade subsequently spread the other subtopics listed above between coexisting civilizations. The religion of Islam spread throughout Asia and across the Indian Ocean to costal cities. Trade also facilitated the transport of goods and technologies of the day. We can see this in the technologies that were developed in China such as silk, the printing press, and gun powered all eventually making its way from eastern China across the continent to Europe. Trade also had a hand in the spread of disease throughout the Old World Web especially the plague, which was carried along the Silk Road between the civilizations of China and Rome.

The major topics of the text are broken down chronologically, but the subthemes or topics discussed within the chapters do not always follow a chronological order. In Chapter 5, Thickening webs, in the section Christens thickening web the authors discuss how the relative freedom of the people allow for economics & technological growth citing the a limited stock company that conquered the island of Chios in 1346. Then on the following page the authors say that until 1300 the emperor of Germany and the Pope laid claim on all of Latin Christendom, which was a time of “endless violence and rivalry” as local rulers contested such claims. The non-chronological order of the discussion does make it hard at times to clearly tell “when” the authors are talking about for a particular civilization. While this form of writing is necessary because in the real world events don’t truly happen one after another, there is a build up before the actual event. Even so, I feel that the authors do take some liberties in order to tie historical events and changes together and to make them fit into their “web” thesis.

Another aspect of the authors’ overall work that needs to be addressed in part as an issue with the work and also in just the limitations it poses to the potential audience for which the text will be useful is the lack of citation and reference material included with the book. This is not to say that there are not a plethora of footnotes included in the book and the inclusion of the further readings section located at the end of the book is a nice addition for one who’s interest may be stimulated by the author’s work, but overall this book contents are laid out within its pages as fact with practically no citations included. One glaring example is when the authors are describing the growth of the Islamic empire from its beginnings in Persia in the 600s CE, across northern Africa and up into Spain. The authors include a footnote pertaining to the development saddles for camels, which helped spur trade through the Islamic world. A few pages later the authors are concluding the chapter by talking about the scope of which the Old World Web covered and stated that around 1,000 CE the web included and connected 200 million people . This statement is presented as fact with no sourcing or explanation of methodology for estimating the population of the time. These two examples help to illustrate the inconsistency of which citing and sourcing is done within the text. I will concede that the shear amount of information presented within a world history text such as this, which is presented as an overview would be nearly impossible to be completed if every fact presented was also to be cited, but the lack of sourcing does limit the audience to whom this text will be useful.

While one can criticize the finer points of this text overall I believe that the McNeills have done a very good job in putting together a history book that combines both of their individual skill sets. The text does leave something to be desired for the more advanced students of history, with its lack of reference works and its moments that leave the reader looking for more details the authors thought not worth exploring deeper, but as a text for a beginner student or laymen who is interested in history this book will suit them perfectly. The reader will be very thankful that the Internet and Wikipedia exist and are easily accessible.

Book Review

The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History by J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill takes a broad look at human history from its very beginnings to the modern era. The authors are both professors of history, although with slightly different specializations. J. R. McNeill specializes in environmental history and his father William H. McNeill focuses on the history of Western Civilization. Their book does not limit itself to just environmental history and Western civilization, however. It might seem as though the authors may not be qualified to write about Asian and American history, but the book is so broad and general that this worry may be unnecessary.

The book seems to be written for the casual reader, someone who is not a historian. There is not a focus on small details, which at times is good but at other times leaves the reader looking for more. One example of this is when the authors write about the benefits of urbanization on page 50, “Except where mountains or marshes obstructed external attack, local groups of farmers could not match the organized violence that pastoralists and urban-based professional soldiers routinely exerted.” This is typical of the very general statements in the book that do not include specific examples to support the claim. In the authors’ defense, the book is meant to be a broad overview of history and providing specific examples for every claim would make the book excessively long.

Another example of the lack of detail in the book can be taken from its coverage on the empire of Alexander the Great (382-336 BC), which is limited to a few paragraphs. In class, more detail was given, for example Alexander’s education with Aristotle and how he founded new cities. An even more striking example of this comes from the book’s treatment of the arrival of Hernán Cortés to South America. The book’s coverage of the topic is limited to “The Spanish adventurer Hernán Cortés, with a few hundred men, the help of Aztec enemies, and a raging epidemic of smallpox, brought down the Aztec empire in 1519-21.” In class, much more detail was provided. For example, more detail was given about his translator La Malinche and how he took Moctezuma prisoner.

The authors introduce the idea of webs that connect the world. This is a major theme of the book, and the authors devote considerable time into explaining how this idea of webs works. Their idea of webs is outlined in the introduction, where they say that a web “is a set of connections that link people to one another.” They go on to give examples of these connections, which include “chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition.” Each chapter in the book supports this idea of webs, and the end of each section and chapter conclusions summarize how the content relates to the idea of webs.

The Human Web starts with a look at the early history of humans and their move out of Africa. The next section of the book is about the development of agriculture 11,000-3,000 years ago. Next, the authors tackle early civilizations from 3500 BC to AD 200. In the next section, the authors explain how webs were formed from AD 200 to 1000. The next chapter focuses on how these webs grew stronger, tying the world more together between 1000 to 1500. In the next chapter, which deals with the time period from 1450 to 1800, the authors show how “the peoples of the earth increasingly formed a single community.” The following chapter looks at the world from 1750 to 1914, and the one after that takes the dates from 1890. The last chapter gives the authors’ opinions on “big pictures and long prospects.”

One of the major themes of the course was how the environment and history are intertwined. As an environmental historian, J. R. McNeill brings some of these themes into the book. For example, in the chapter “Thickening Webs,” the authors write about how colder temperatures in Europe led to crop failures and famine. These ideas were thoroughly explored in class, and generally covered in the book, although not in as much detail as in class. For example, details of the medieval climate anomaly like the volcanic eruptions that helped to cause it are absent from the book.

The organization of the book is mainly chronological. The chapters in the book are ordered chronologically. Within each chapter, the subsections are organized geographically and topically. The sections are generally short, which makes it easy to pick up the book and read a few sections and put it down again. The short sections show that the authors took the saying about how to eat an elephant to heart when they wrote a book on such a broad topic. The summaries and concluding statements at the ends of each section and chapter are helpful to orient the reader back to the main ideas.

The writing style is easy to follow and read, not overly academic and filled with unfamiliar jargon. The lack of detailed examples may make it hard to use this book as a primary textbook for a class. Other sources are needed to supplement the material from this book if writing assignments are to be given. One thing the book lacks is citations in the form of footnotes. This may be because the authors only give general information and not citation is needed, but they would be helpful for future reading. Another shortcoming of the book is the lack of diagrams like timelines. These would be useful to put the information that is presented into perspective.

To sum up, The Human Web is a good book for general reading for someone interested in seeing the big picture in world history. It gives an overview of human history and focuses on a few broad themes, especially the idea of webs that connect people. The book does not give too many details of historical events, which may be good for the casual reader, but makes it hard to recommend the book for use as a textbook. If the book is to be used as a textbook, supplemental reading is required to fill in some details. Overall, the book is well organized and written and easy to follow.



Urbanization is good for people. Urbanization played a vital role in transforming the world from primitive hunter-gatherer societies to complex and interacting societies. One of the ways urbanization did this was by fostering the creation and spread of new ideas. Another way that urbanization led to the development of complex civilizations was that the higher population densities compared to non-urban civilizations led to increased immunity to epidemic diseases. Urbanization also provided clear military advantages over pastoralists, which supported the development of large and complex civilizations.

Hunter-gatherer to Complex Civilization

Trade was a necessary part of the growth of civilizations, and urban centers served as centers for trade. Cities were often build along rivers or close to the ocean to be in a good location for trade. For example, there were sea ports in the North Sea and Baltic Sea in 1200’s which engaged in trade with each other.[1] In China, cities grew during the Song Dynasty, as a result of trade. This growth of urbanization was supported by new agricultural techniques, for example early-ripening rice.[2] Having rice that could produce two harvests per year allowed more food surpluses to support urban living. In addition to exchanging goods, trade spread new ideas from one urban center to another.

New Ideas

Urban environments led to new ideas being developed more quickly. Whereas hunter-gatherers interacted with people outside their band infrequently, city dwellers lived near others constantly.

One example of a new idea coming from an urban environment is the development of the polis in Ancient Greece around 800 BC.[3] This new idea of citizens having power to help make decisions in society would lay the foundations for later ideas of democracy. An example of this came the 1700’s with the French Revolution, where there was the idea that the government should express the will of the people that it rules.[4]

Also in Ancient Greece, new ideas in medical and physical sciences began to take off.[5] The ideas of the Greek physician Galen would influence physicians for centuries to come. These ideas and others eventually would come to conquer many of the diseases people suffered from in the ancient world and drastically improve the quality of life. Advancements in physical science would lead to new technologies like steam power, electricity, and eventually automobiles and computers. The Ancient Greeks had some ideas about what matter was made up of, in fact the word atom has a Greek origin.

In the 12th century in Europe, the first universities were established. Some of the first universities included ones in cities like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford in the 10th and 11th centuries. These universities had some independence from the church and the rulers of the time and were an ant’s nest of new ideas. Universities continue to be the places where the newest ideas are thought of to this day.

Figure 1: Map of early universities in Europe and the dates of their founding.[6]

Another example of new ideas coming out of urban centers comes from around AD 800 Baghdad. Al-Khwarizmi was a mathematician and astronomer, among other things, who helped to spread the idea of the number zero and ideas of algebra in the Muslim world.[7] These ideas were vital to the advancement of science and technology. The city environment promoted interaction with more people than pastoral life. Interaction with other people inevitably leads to the creation and exchange of ideas.


Living in close proximity to other people and domesticated animals resulted in increased immunity from diseases. For example, Eurasia had many types of domesticated animals while only five were domesticated in the Americas.[8] This eventually led to Europeans having an enormous advantage over people living in the Americas when trans-Atlantic exploration began. An example of this is how the population in Hispaniola went from 8 million people to zero in less than 50 years after contact with Europeans.[9] The introduction of smallpox was a main reason for this dramatic population decline. The inhabitants of the Americas did not have as many urban centers, so they had not built up immunities to as many diseases as the Europeans had.

Military Advantages

Living in urban environments gave people military advantages over pastoralists. Urban dwellers were able to get bronze, which gave them superior weapons.[10] Bronze required lots of wood and extensive trade routes, as well as specialized labor to produce it. Farmers eventually were forced to pay for protection from professional armies since they were not able to compete with the professional armies of urban civilizations.[11] One example of this comes from Sumer about 2000 BC. McNeill writes that one of the roles of the early Sumerian kings was to lead armies to take goods from mountain people living nearby.[12]


From these examples, it is evident that urbanization is good for people. Urbanization was critical for the transformation of societies from hunter-gatherer tribes to complex civilizations. New ideas were quickly exchanged and shared in urban centers where people interacted with many different people. The dense living environments in urban centers gave urban dwellers more immunity to diseases than pastoralists. Urbanization also provided military advantages over pastoralists. These factors show how urbanization is overall a good thing for people.




“Early European Universities and their Foundation Dates.” Early European Universities. Accessed August 08, 2017.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher K., and Thomas D. Hall. Rise and Demise : Comparing World-systems. New Perspectives in Sociology (Boulder, Colo.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel : The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

McNeill, John Robert., and McNeill, William Hardy. The Human Web : A Bird’s-eye View of World History. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Murphy, Verity. “Health | Past pandemics that ravaged Europe.” BBC News. November 07, 2005. Accessed July 10, 2017.

Standage, Tom.  An Edible History of Humanity. New York and London:  Bloomsbury, 2009.

[1] McNeill, The Human Web, 118.

[2] Ibid., 122.

[3] J.R. McNeill and William McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 69.

[4] Ibid., 227.

[5] Ibid., 73.

[6] Early European Universities and their Foundation Dates,” Early European Universities.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 2005), 213.

[9] Jared Diamond, 213.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid., 50.

[12] Ibid., 50.

Man and the Environment

Humans have proven themselves to be stronger than their environment on multiple occasions shown in the rise of early civilization. Through agriculture, terraforming, trade and animal husbandry humans have been able to shape the environment to become more hospitable to life. We will go over all of these aspects as well as go into detail on specific civilizations and how they overcame problems localized in their areas.


Environment can be classified as many things, particularly flora and fauna. As seen in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, the appearance and taste of modern foods can be traced back to human influences on once natural plant life. Early peoples would seek out the most attractive looking foods for consumption. This led to the propagation of foods that were more desirable to humans. They were sweeter, larger and often grew faster than other plant species. Through a slow process these plants eventually became domesticated as humans started to settle down and move towards a more sedentary, agricultural based lifestyle.



  Another prime example of humans overcoming the environment would be the use of irrigation. Through this process they are able to change previously unfarmable land into useable soil to grow multiple products. Norte Chico is a good example of this with their “three sisters”. They cleverly used three different types of plants in a symbiotic relationship they created to further optimize crop yields. However the influence of nature is not limited to plants but also the domestication of animals.


Animal husbandry is a skill that is traced back to the earliest of civilizations. As groups of people settled down, they domesticated animals and began herding to increase food supply as well as increase labor productions. Other animals who are now common house pets such as dogs and cats were also domesticated by humans. Cats were primarily used to kill rodents as civilizations started to store large amounts of grain. Animals like oxen were used to pull ploughs to help till the soil and were breed to be strong and sturdy. As civilization advanced the decisions of breeding traits became more deliberate. Ultimately humans have dramatically altered the natural progression of many flora and fauna and have thus demonstrated their control over nature. However, in some cases the resources required to survive are not immediately available so instead humans turned to trade to fill the gaps.


The rise of trade networks is one of the distinct achievements of humanity in response to the environment. The existence of these networks is due to the breeding of caravan animals and rise of sea faring vessels  to help transport goods and thus allowed the limitations of civilizations to be overcome. Now they were not limited to what was available to them in their immediate surroundings but instead are able to obtain goods from all over to further stimulate the growth of their civilizations. “The Phoenician cities specialized in naval power and maritime trade to a much greater extent than did the Greek Cities. Phoenician cities, like later Italian city-states, had little capacity to produce their own agricultural goods. Rather, they relied on their ability to purchase food in exchange for goods they that they traded.”1 Here in lies the greatest benefit from the rise of the trade network. Societies could exist in areas that were mostly barren when it came to critical resources. Instead they could rely on being a trade hub to bring food and materials allowing them to grow despite the environmental handicap.

Trade not only helped those who were unable to produce their own food but also allowed large empires like China to add surplus to their food stocks allowing them to further expand the frontier. “Once trade began, it grew by expanding to other goods, and it led to general prosperity. It also led to some expansion of grain production and trade in order to feed the various officials and armies sent to the western borders…”2 Surplus food is critical to many civilizations due to warfare. When large armies are sent out to wage war, plundering conquered lands may not always be enough; supply caravans are a critical part of the process as well as having large amounts of food surplus when besieging large cities. All of this became possible as civilizations began to trade valuable materials in exchange for food.


The development and maintenance of the most famous trade network, the Silk Road, was done by the Mongols. Through the Pax Mongolica they created a safety that was unprecedented on the Silk Road. Merchants could travel unmolested allowing trade to flourish.  These people of the steppe were able to rise to power due to their utilizing their limited resources to overcome the barren terrain that surrounded them. The Mongols’ ability to ride for many days despite the lack of water around them came from their use of horses. “Marco Polo reported, perhaps with some exaggeration, that  a  horseman  could,  by nourishing  himself  on  his  horse’s  blood,  ‘ride  quite  ten  days’  marches  without eating any cooked food and without lighting a fire.”3 Another staple of the Mongolian diet, due to their lack of agricultural skills and infertile environment, was mare’s milk. The use of their horses milk to create cheese, yogurt, and their most important drink fermented mare’s milk. “If the horse dies, I die; if it lives, I survive.”4 This very much encapsulates the Mongol culture as well as drives home how critical their horses were to overcoming their environment.

Counter arguments to humans control over the environment are sometimes made with regards to shift in weather patterns upsetting the certain civilizations. Yes, weather shifts have caused humans to struggle however they have proven their ability to overcome this and much more to shape the environment to their needs. With the idea of unfavorable lands, humans have been able to adjust the land to their needs. As discussed in The The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History, “Wherever humans arrived they altered landscapes by their activities, especially by their use of fire.”5Slash and burn techniques were critical to creating useable farmland. Along with this cold conditions did not necessarily mean that humans were unable to survive without food stores. Inuit peoples in the Arctic coastlines were able to thrive due to their whaling techniques. “Whale meat was preserved by freezing and the frozen meat was stored underground”, and “Whale blubber yielded oil for cooking and for lamps that made the winter darkness tolerable.”6 Continuing on to the topic of nature’s destructive force, humans were capable of handling this as well.


Although flooding may have destroyed early civilizations there did exists other ones in Asia that were able to control the floods and dam rivers to limit the damage. In ancient Yao (2297 B.C.) channels and canals were dug to drain the floods.7 Furthermore, yes, as humans moved to a sedentary lifestyle diseases, such as plague, started to become rampant, however populations that survived passed down their traits to offspring. This would propagate immunity as time would go on and then herd immunity would mitigate the destruction caused by such things. It may appear at first glance the immediate destruction caused by the environment would indicate human’s lack of control, but given time they were able to quickly tame and overcome the obstacles.


In conclusion, it is clear that humans control their environment in a very direct manner. By influencing the growth of flora and fauna they are able to create stable food and labor sources. If resources are not immediately they branch out through trade to fill in the holes of their resource network. Weather, although often an obstacle, can be overcome by changing the very terrain they live on to circumvent issues such as flooding and drought.


1. Thomas D. Hall, Rise and Demise: Comparing World-Systems, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997, 164

2. Thomas D. Hal, 165

3. Morris Rossabi, “All the Khan’s Horses”, The Mongols in World History, (1994): 2

4. Morris Rossabi, “All the Khan’s Horses”, The Mongols in World History, (1994): 2

5.  J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History (New York:  W.W. Norton Company, 2003), 19.

6. McNeill and McNeill, 21.

7.  Charles Gould, Mythical Monsters,

The Importance of Water

There has been debate on what singular element has been responsible for the growing development of civilizations. This paper focuses on explaining what that vital element is: water. In other words, water is the most important factor in a civilizations development because it helped advance agriculture, enabled the development of useful tools, and furthermore enhanced the quality of life for people by improving their health.

Firstly, water became essential to advancing agriculture in civilizations. Various early civilizations unwittingly landed in locations that helped their crops thrive since these locations had access to water. What made certain locations more desirable over others was the amount of water it had access to naturally. Evidence of this is seen in the East-West Axis of Migration which is a latitude where many of the earliest civilization settled such as Egypt, Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and China (see Figure 1). These civilizations settled here because they would be located near rivers whose water was vital to the growing of their crops.

Figure 1

Growing these crops provided a substantial amount of food necessary to help sustain life. Civilizations began to develop due to the agriculture they cultivated which water made possible to happen.

Another piece of evidence that supports the argument that water is the most important factor to the development of a civilizations is seen with the Huaricanga (3500 BC) civilization. This civilization migrated more inland since El Niño was causing dryness which was unhelpful to their agriculture.  Without water, and therefore no food, this lead to the inability to collect a surplus of food to feed large groups of people who could work on new constructions. This depicts how necessary the resource of water is since it influenced an entire civilization to travel and follow where water would be present. Unlike the Huaricanga civilization, people were migrating towards the Indus Valley Civilization (2600 BCE). The Indus Valley Civilization brought people together because of how close it was to water. With this new surge in people the civilization could further advance in development. The use of water aids in the germination of crops providing fuel to groups of workers that construct new developments within the civilization to keep it growing.

Secondly, water is vital to a civilization’s development because its presence enabled the development of useful tools. Civilizations that lay on the East-West Axis had easy access to rivers and being near the river allowed for easier trade to occur between civilizations for materials and ideas. The materials and ideas exchanged caused growth of civilizations.

Water also made it possible for trade to occur from Mesopotamia to the Indus River Valley. The Indus Valley Civilization gathered resources from afar because of the easy access it had to the river allowing exchanges to be possible. This civilization advanced in tool technology since the river trade route allowed them to gather copper, tin, and wood to make bronze. Having bronze advanced tool technology because it was the first material at this time period that was hard, durable, and light in weight. Because of this, being able to make bronze yielded more advanced tools civilizations would benefit more from (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Thirdly, water is the most vital factor in a civilizations development since it enhanced the quality of life for people by improving their health. Some may argue the contrary and claim that water allowed seaborne trade to be possible which brought microbes into civilizations causing deadly epidemics that lead civilizations to decline. Some would further argue that these microbial-induced epidemics, like the Black Death that arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347, killed many people in the populations such as specialized workers, food-producers, and silk producers. Without the inflow of goods and production of food you do not have a thriving civilization. One could continue to argue that although seaborne trade had a lesser chance of harsher outcomes, South Asian states who were dependent on seaborne trade still suffered these consequences.[1] Being by these large masses of water, oceans, in this case did not help in their civilization advancement and instead caused a decline.

Microbial diseases did kill many people and this did inhibit civilizations to thrive; however, the answer to prevent microbial diseases from ever occurring involved the use of water. For example, in China, the Song dynasty (960-1279) found that, “…drinking tea, steeped in boiling water, undoubtedly reduced intestinal infections killing off most of the microorganisms that lurk in drinking water.”[2] This water helped the Song dynasty preserve its people, resources, and ideas which kept China developing. Also, the Song dynasty of China came up with the idea to use water to wash clothes which further helped reduce microbial disease within the civilization. The people of China used, “Washable cotton clothing [which] may also have a positive implication for health…certainly improved comfort for ordinary people.”[3] China was innovative in identifying different ways to manipulate water to produce beneficial outcomes. Using boiled water in combination with tea and using water to clean clothes decreased human suffering from these microbe-induced illnesses. The “ordinary ones,” who tend to be lower-class, could even use these water-methods for preventing disease. Keeping the lower-class people alive contributes to the stability of the civilization since they are usually farmers helping with agriculture production.

Another example on how water was used to prevent disease, to help keep a civilization prospering, was seen in 2500 BC with the Mohenjo Daro civilization. This civilization developed the first sanitation system that could flush toilets. The sanitation system allowed disposal of feces away from the civilization: many homes had deposit-holes where their waste would enter, water from the wells was gathered, and that water was then poured through the hole to ensure the waste went down. By doing this, all the waste would accumulate in an underground waste reservoir. If not for this sanitation system, fecal matter would be exposed anywhere causing bacterial infections to the people who touched it. This sanitation system, practice of washing clothes, and boiling water with tea leaves all involve water that helps increase the lifespan of its civilians. With limiting the amount of bacterial disease, the civilization can continue to move forward and the people can continue to pass their skills and knowledge to the new generations.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that water was the most important factor to a civilizations development. Without water the crops would not grow and no food would be able to sustain the civilization. Also, water allowed for sea trade that brought bronze and ideas into civilizations helping the development of more advanced tools to be created. Lastly, some argue that water introduced microbial disease into civilizations causing them to decline, but that claim was refuted with the evidence of the Song dynasty of China and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations. Both those civilizations were reliant on water to prevent microbial diseases from occurring and continue to advance their civilizations.

[1] Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall, Rise and Demise: Comparing World Systems. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), p.166-167.

[2] J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), p. 122.

[3] McNeill and McNeill, p. 122.


Chase-Dunn, Christopher K, and Thomas D. Hall. Rise and Demise: Comparing World Systems. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

McNeill, John Robert, and William Hardy McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View Of World History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.