Digging up the Eurasian connection to human civilisations’s development

Jaipur, Jan 21 (IANS) Climate change is a fact and accounts for Eurasia, stretching from what is now Central Europe to China, becoming the centre of the world from the earliest times to the 13th century and guiding the course of human civilisation till now, says a distinguished British archaeologist.

“Climate change happens and is important”, Sir Barrington Windsor “Barry” Cunliffe, who is one of the world’s pre-eminent archaeologists and headed Oxford’s European Archaeology department for over three decades, said at a session titled “By Steppe, Desert and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia” at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017’s second day on Friday.

Cunliffe who described himself as a “dirt archaeologist” who likes to get his hands dirty digging up evidence of earlier civilisations, observed that humans are characterised by certain traits, such as imagination (which helps them to construct myths which transform eventually into religion), being acquisitive, geared towards acquiring knowledge and the need to be mobile, which also helps his subject and explains the reason for this area’s importance.

Showing a map which puts the Asian part of Eurasia at the centre with Europe towards the periphery, he said the importance of the area came because its mountain ranges run east to west and close to the latitudes which determines climate. In contrast on the American continents, they run north to south.

Noting that urban civilisation arose, soon after the human race moved out of Africa, to settle in what is known as the “Fertile Crescent” in the Middle East, he said changes in temperature, as it got colder and wetter, led to a change in society, further movement of people began and agriculture started to develop.

It is then the Eurasian region, particularly its steppe belt which extends from the Great Hungarian Plain to Manchuria began to acquire importance, said Cunliffe, but added this has always remained “understated”.

“It was in these grasslands which are harsh to live in and not for staying but moving through where the horse was domesticated in around 4500 BC and began to be ridden in 3000 BC, making the human more powerful for they could now travel a larger area and it was here only that the wheel was developed, though first as solid wooden ones,” he said.

These developments made possible the accumulation of larger groups and then in what is now Mongolia and northern Siberia, predatory nomads started appearing – youth who could leave home to pillage leaving wives and other women to grow food and take care of the household.

This, Cunliffe postulated, came because of some good weather since temperatures changed and led to more fertility in crops, and more energy for people to move These predatory nomads comprised the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, which moved into Europe, China and India, then the Turks and finally the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors. And while the steppe section was being used for movement of people, trade was being undertaken through the Takla Makan desert.

On why the movement took place from east to west, he said this was possible due to the better climate westward in Europe due to the Atlantic Ocean’s effect and possibly also due to the human fascination with the direction of the setting sun.

But this ended in the 13th century and other circumstances, including the discovery of the Americas and its riches, took over, he said.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)