Origins of Monotheism and World History

World History devotes much attention to the world’s belief systems and religions that shaped our past. One integral theme is the development and impact of monotheist religions, particularly the “Abrahamic traditions” -Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Polytheism (multiple gods) preceded these “One-God” religions that eventually came to predominance in much of the world. Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists seek to understand how and why monotheism happened. Recent studies over the last thirty years suggest that the three monotheistic religions evolved slowly from various historical circumstances. This evolutionary view challenges the traditional idea of monotheism as revolutionary insights from the likes of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammed.    

Polytheism

Polytheism predated monotheism and resided in the earliest civilizations, linking gods to various phenomena. Gods inhabited or controlled the forces of nature or more minute aspects of life. Historian Greg Woolf writes that Mesopotamians “recognized thousands of different divinities, each associated with a different aspect of the universal, from the sky and the sea to humbler implements such as the plow and the hoe – there was even a god of brick-moulds.” (Woolf, 84). Polytheistic deities possessed supernatural but not unlimited powers and displayed human foibles. Sumerian gods for instance, “ate, drank, lusted, quarrelled and intervened in earthly affairs.” (Woolf, 8). In the Greek pantheon, Zeus’s philandering evoked Hera’s jealousy, and various gods vied for power. Polytheistic systems also tended to be linked to localities – a stark contrast to the universal God espoused by later monotheistic traditions. 

Polytheism pervades most of human history, but at some point, monotheism evolved, espousing the belief that one uncreated, all-powerful, and all-knowing God created everything. How did monotheism evolve and grow? The answers remain elusive, but scholars generally began with Judaism. 

Judaism.

There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a saviour; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45: 21-3

The Old Testament of the Bible identifies Abraham (born.c.1800 BCE) as the first Hebrew and the first monotheist.   Abraham left Ur (Mesopotamia) and travelled west to Canaan (modern Israel) after God promised him a “land of milk and honey.” In Canaan, Abraham received the covenant from God on Mt. Sinai, the written and oral law established between God and the Jewish people. God, often referred to as Yahweh (by scholars but not believers), later led Moses and his chosen people out of enslavement in Egypt (an event known as the Exodus) and back to Canaan. In Canaan, Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai, and God gave him the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment specified, “You shall have no other gods before me.” However, some Israelites continued to worship other deities, but over time an increasing number established a covenant with the One God.

This God fundamentally differed from gods previous. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “Unlike the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but a realm apart” (99). In other words, God transcended the limited role ascribed to geography or function (e.g. Ares, God of War). As Robert Wright writes, Yahweh “was Lord of nothing in particular and everything.” (100) 

Interestingly, recent scholarship suggests that forms of monotheism, such as that espoused by the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten (c. 1353-1335 BCE), predated Judaism but did not survive. On the other hand, Judaism demonstrated incredible resilience as it spread with Jewish merchants to various communities and trading centres in Europe and Southwest Asia. As Christine Hayes writes, “Judeans survived even after the more numerous and powerful people like the Sumerians and Babylon and Hittites and “carried with them new ideas, a sacred scripture, a set of tradition that would lay the foundations for the major religion of the western world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” (2)

Almost 2000 years after Abraham left Ur, a Jewish prophet would inspire what eventually became the most widespread religion in history – Christianity. 

Christianity.

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet for us there is one God. Paul, Corinthians. 8: 5-6.

Christianity evolved from the Jewish notion of a “messiah,” foretold in the Old Testament. Christians identify Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Christ is the Greek word for messiah. This belief fundamentally differs from Judaism and Islam; both recognize Jesus as a prophet but not as a divinity.

A Jew born in or near Nazareth, Jesus continued the Jewish tradition of prophets who mediated the earthly world with the spiritual. A “charismatic faith healer,” Jesus offered his teaching in Roman-controlled Palestine and attracted devoted followers until Romans crucified him (around 29 BCE) – an event Christians believe was a sacrifice of God’s son for the sake of humanity. After his death, Jesus’s followers recorded his teachings in the Bible’s New Testament Gospels. Christian missionaries and merchants spread these teachings via a vast network of Roman roads and overseas trading routes. “Jesus groups” and prophets like St. Paul gain coverts by offering an inclusive religion that promised salvation through faith in Jesus.   Christianity, as Huston Smith points out, “sought converts more provocatively than Judaism and would rapidly spread over the following centuries.  

This rapid spread, as Karen Armstrong writes, “certainly would not have succeeded without the Roman Empire.” (106). Rome initially persecuted Christians, who they saw as an obscure Jewish cult, as disloyal to the emperor but legally recognized Christianity in 313 CE, allowing Christians to own property and worship freely. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 272-337 CE) organized the first ecumenical council of bishops of the Roman Empire ” to unify canons of doctrinal orthodoxy and define a common creed for the Church.” As Scott Vitkovic points out, this step offered the first uniform Christian doctrine” that would bind Christians and foster Christianity’s growth. (5) By 380 BCE, Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion, a status that allowed Christians a significant advantage over competing belief systems.

When the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, the Christian Church filled the power vacuum, ostensibly providing political stability, social order, faith, and hope. The Pope became the spiritual and political leader of much of Europe. The Church established a hierarchy of regional bishops overseeing more local priests administer this growing influence.   Christianity continued to grow into the next millennium until 1054 when it split into the Western Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox. A more profound split occurred with the Protestant Reformation, encouraged by Martin Luther in 1517. Numerous Christian denominations evolved, but scholars tend to identify three main groups – Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic. 

Christianity’s meteoric rise as a global religion would foreshadow the rapid rise of another monotheistic religion centuries after Christ’s death– Islam. 

Islam.

He is the One God; God, the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of all being. Koran 112.

More than 500 years after the death of Jesus Christ came Muhammed (570-632), the prophet of Islam, who lived in Mecca, a commercial center in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. Polytheism still predominated Arabic society, but by this time, Judaism and Christianity had developed well-established traditions and a growing influence. As historian Ira M. Lepidus points out, monotheistic religion was “introduced into Arabia by foreign influences: Jewish and Christian settlements” and “travelling preachers and merchants…” (19). Accordingly, by “the sixth century, monotheism had a certain vogue.” (19)

At 40, Muhammed experienced a series of revelations through Allah’s angel Gabriel. Through these revelations, he identified himself as the last in a line of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammed saw these revelations as the completion of Judaism and Christianity that had lost their way. According to Islam, Muhammed and all prophets possessed no divine qualities but were mere messengers of God. In this sense, Islam agrees with Judaism by denying Christ’s divinity as the Son of God and the Messiah. Muslims see the period before Muhammed, including the polytheist and monotheistic religions, as a period of ignorance. Islam, in short, is a pristine monotheism.    

When he died in 632 BCE, Karen Armstrong writes, Muhammed “had managed to bring nearly all the tribes of Arabia into a new united community, or ummah” – an incredible feat. (135). He did not leave any writings, but his successors recorded his teachings in the Qur’an (Koran). Two main groups, the Sunni and the Shiite, evolved from disputes over the rightful successors to Mohammed. By the end of the 7th century, despite divisions, Muhammed’s followers had conquered Armenia, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Isreal, North Africa, and Spain. Today, it stands as the world’s second-largest religion.    

How did monotheism happen? Traditional religion asserts that monotheism began before history and the creation, with God the uncreated and that God (or Allah) first revealed himself to Abraham. However, historical evidence suggests that monotheism did not begin with Abraham of Ur. Scholars of the Ancient Near East generally agree that monotheism grew out of various historical processes but dispute how this happened. Biblical scholar Yehezkeh Kaufman sees the Hebrew God as more revolutionary than evolutionary, rejecting monotheism as “an organic outgrowth of the religious milieu” of the Middle East. Instead, he sees “an original creation of the people of Israel…absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.” (Wright, 100)

Kaufman published his works in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, new scripture analysis and archaeological finds seem to reveal a more evolutionary process. Regarding the more traditional view that identifies monotheism as early as Abraham, scholars such as Karen Armstrong suggest that “we tend to project our knowledge of late Jewish religion back onto these early historical personages.” (14). Evidence indicates that Abraham and other biblical figures – Isaac and Moses – likely recognized multiple gods. Ancient Hebrew scripture refers to many Gods before gradually focusing on one God – Yahweh. Initially, Yahweh faced competition from the gods such as Baal, Enlil, Mardele and Amon-Re. Over time the Hebrews came to regard Yahweh as the only God, thus laying the foundations for a monotheistic religion.  

While the precise reasons for this evolution to monotheism remain elusive, scholars suggest various reasons. Historian Ira M. Lapidus links the development of monotheism to a growing and increasingly connected Middle Eastern population that could see a larger world beyond their local experience. So, instead of a god for a small community, why not gods (and eventual God) for the vaster world? (19?) Lapidus suggests that these religions, Judaism (and later Christianity and Islam), offered salvation and a sense of universal order in an often-unstable world.     Scholar Reuven Firestone reinforces this view, suggesting that monotheism “removed the universe and all its people from the fractions and uncertain rule of often bickering deities and placed them under the grace of One Great God. (20). 

Besides monotheism’s appeal for some, scholars point to the persecution of polytheists, later labelled as “pagans.” The term “pagans,” writes Jonathan Kirsch, “is a word invented by early Christians to describe anyone who refused to recognize the One True God.” (19).   Some monotheistic believers actively sought to rid the world of pagans. In 529 BCE, for instance, the Roman Emperor Justinian closed the school of philosophy in Athens, what Karen Armstrong calls “the last bastion of intellectual paganism.” (125).   Some nine centuries later, the Renaissance would see the revival of classical Greek and Roman philosophical works in Europe.  

Exploring the reasons for the growth of monotheism requires more space than we have with this blog which outlines the origins of the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three claim to follow the only God, a claim that has led to many conflicts among monotheistic religions (e.g. The Crusades) and against “pagans”. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that monotheism evolved very gradually after Abraham. The scholarship also presents evidence that even with their monotheistic foundations, these religions evolved much slower than we once believed. Scholars such as Karen Armstrong argue that Christianity, for instance, grew out of disparate Jesus groups and did not consolidate until centuries after the death of Jesus. 

What is certain is that these monotheistic religions profoundly impact our past and our present. Future blogs will further explore these belief systems and others such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. 

Bibliography.

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1993.  

Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. W.W. Norton, 2007.

Bowker, David et al. World Religions: The Great Faiths explored and explained. New York: Penguin Random House, 2021.

Firestone, Reuven. “A Problem With Monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Dialogue and Dissent.” Heirs of Abraham: The Future of Muslim, Jewish and Christian Relations. New York: Orbis, 2005 20-54.

Hayes, Christine. Introduction to the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 

Kagan, Neil ed. Concise History of the World. An Illustrated Timeline. Washington, D.C. National Geographic, 2006.

Kirsch, Jonathan. God Against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.

Lapidus. Ira M.  A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Oxtoby, William M. and Alan G. Segal. A Concise Introduction to World Religions. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Perry, Marvin. ed. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society. Volume II, From the 1600s. Sixth Edition. 2000. 

Rosenberg, David.   Abraham: The First Historical Biography. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 

Sayem, Md. “The Monotheistic Concept of Judaism and Islam in the Light of their Basic Creeds: A Comparative Analysis.” The Dhaka University Studies. June 2012. p. 127-137.

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Our Great Wisdom Traditions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991

Vitkovic, Scott. (2018). The Similarities and Differences Between Abrahamic Religions. IJASOS- International E-journal of Advances in Social Sciences. 4. 2018, 455-462. 10.18769/ijasos.455673.

Woolf, Greg. Ancient Civilizations: The Illustrated Guide to Beliefs, Mythology, and Art. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005. 

Wright, Robert. The Evolution of God. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009.

Oceans, Seas, and World History: An Introduction

Oceans and seas make up about two-thirds of our planet, yet historical attention to such bodies has been minimal at best. Rainer F. Buschman.

With the rise of world history, more people view the past through a lens that brings a broader range of global interconnections to light. Essential to these linkages are geographical features such as waterways (oceans, seas, and rivers) and landforms (e.g. mountains, deserts, and forests) that help shape the formations of societies and their interactions and exchanges, including trade, culture, flora and fauna, and disease. Understanding these geographical features is critical to understanding our past.  

Traditional world history tends to be “terrestrial-focused,” but this is changing as historians display an increasing tendency to study the world’s waterways. Maritime history enriches our understanding by highlighting world history trends and patterns in unique ways. As Eric Kjellgren writes, “favorable prevailing winds and fish suddenly seem as influential as access to fresh water and arable land. Shipbuilding and skillful navigation challenge the prominence of building roads and canals. (1)  World history returns the favour by encouraging maritime history into a global approach that moves away from seeing oceans as barriers to human interaction to conceiving them as important interconnected regions. In short, a blending of maritime and world history can lead to more sophisticated understandings.  

Oceans. It would be a severe understatement to say that the world’s oceans and seas that comprise about two-thirds of the planet play an essential role in unfolding world history. Oceans and seas facilitated the migration of people, animals, flora, disease, culture and technologies. As maritime historian Lincoln Paine writes, “Before the locomotive in the nineteenth century, culture, commerce, contagion, and conflict generally moved faster by sea than by land. Besides transport, people used oceans and seas to provide food and other vital goods. Whale blubber, for instance, served as lamp fuel, lighting a growing world population. Waterways have imbued culture. Poseidon and Neptune, Moby Dick, the Ancient Mariner, various folk songs, and countless varieties of seafood reveal how waterways help shape the world’s cultures.

Beyond a Eurocentric Focus. World history encourages maritime history to move beyond a Eurocentric approach. As S. Arasaratnam points out, world history fosters a move “away from a view of the ocean as primarily the playground of European naval and commercial powers with indigenous actors providing minor roles for the lead up to the period of empire in the nineteenth century. (246)  Of course, studying the European powers remains vital to our understanding of the unfolding of global history. How, for instance, could we understand the monumental developments in the Atlantic community without carefully studying its most impactful player – Europe? But an exclusive focus on these players can limit our understanding. David Abulafin argues that “the European presence around the shores of the oceans can only be understood by taking into account the less well-documented activities of non-European merchants and sailors, some of whom were indigenous to land in which they lived.” (xx) For instance, the “Silk Road of the Sea” that connected people as far as China and the Roman Empire involved a blended relay of major powers such as Rome and China with more local merchants indigenous to the shores of the Pacific and Indian oceans. 

Conclusion. As Lincoln Paine writes, “maritime history offers an invaluable perspective on the world and ourselves. (599). Waterways such as the world’s oceans, seas, and rivers are integral to our past. Interestingly, recent historiography has questioned whether we can consider the oceans as separate entities. As David Armitage writes, “the oceanographic connections among the oceans ensure that any attempt to separate them will be artificial and constraining.” (359). This is particularly true after developments such as da Gama’s navigation around the Cape of Good Hope, and later, the Suez and Panama canals connected major bodies of water. 

We are writing four upcoming blogs, each focusing on one of the world’s four oceans – the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic, and the Arctic. The first focuses on the world’s largest, the Pacific, but will include its relationship to other bodies of water, including the Indian Ocean. These blogs will reflect the fruitful mingling of maritime and world history that highlights regional and global connections.  

Stay tuned. 

Bibliography

Abulafin, David. The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Ocean. London: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Arasaratnam, S. “Recent Trends in the Historiography of the Indian Ocean, 1500 to 1800.” Journal of World History 1, no. 2    (1990): 225–48.                            

Armitage, D. (2019). World History as Oceanic History: Beyond Braudel. The Historical Review/La Revue Historique, 15(1), 341-361.

Ashin Das Gupta and M.N. Pearson eds. India and the Indian Ocean 1500 to 1800. New Dehli, 1987.

Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours. Cambridge, Mass, 2005.

Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Buschman, Rainer F. “Oceans of World History: Delineating Aquacentric Notions in the Global Past.” History Compass 2 (2004) WO o68, 1-10. 

Crosby, Alfred. The Columbine Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westpoint; Conn, 1973.

Duiker, William J. Twentieth Century World History. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

Martin J. Peggy, Beth Bartolini-Salimbini, Wendy Peterson. 5 Steps to a 5: AP World History 2019. McGraw-Hill Education, 2018

Mukherjee, Rita. “Escape from Terracentrism: Writing a Water History,” Indian Historical Review 41 (2014), 87-101.

Paine, Lincoln. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Disease and European Expansion to the Americas 

After Christopher Columbus landed in San Salvador in 1492, Europeans settled and eventually conquered the Americas. How did Europeans overwhelm an Indigenous population that scholars have estimated to be between 60 and 100 million? An essential factor involves the drastic population decrease of Native Americans over the following two centuries. The estimated numbers are staggering, ranging between 70 to 95%!

Scholars cite numerous reasons for this devastation, including superior European technology (e.g., weapons), brutal European tactics, and disease.  Of these factors, diseases carried by Europeans stand as the main culprit of the Native American decimation. Europeans also succumbed to illness but not nearly to the extent of the Indigenous population.

Why did the exchange of germs between Europeans and Native Americans lead to such lopsided results? What gave Europeans a more resilient immune system? To find answers, we need to venture back thousands of years.

Farming and Livestock. Scholars like Alfred Crosby and Jared Diamond argue that Europe’s biological advantage stemmed from the Agricultural Revolution that scholars estimate began c 8000 BC. This gradual transition from hunting and gathering to farming led to significant changes that would facilitate European expansion many centuries later.

Two overarching factors come into play. The first is the domestication of diverse animal species. Alfred Crosby points out that the Old World domesticated a wider range of animals than New World communities. Compare, he writes, “the American assemblage of livestock (dog, lamas, guinea pigs, and some fowl), with that of the Old World: (dogs, cats, cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, goat, reindeer, water buffalo, chickens, geese, ducks, horses and more.” (19)

Ancient Sumerians (c4500-1900BC), residing in the southern part of Mesopotamia, in the flatlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now south-central Iraq), stood as the eminent domesticators of animals in their time. Animal power allowed people to farm more land than human muscle could muster. Livestock provided a consistent food source – meat and milk – essential during poor cop seasons. Both factors yielded more food, more surplus and facilitated population growth.

More livestock also meant more interspecies exchange of a broader range of microbes. Animals and people died or became quite sick, but sustained contact gradually led to immunity to a comprehensive range of diseases. Smallpox, the flu, influenza, measles, and other ailments evolved from human and livestock interactions. Poxviruses, Crosby points out by way of example, “oscillated back and forth between humans and cattle to produce smallpox and cowpox.” (Crosby, 31) 

Population and “Crowd Disease” Secondly, higher and denser populations exacerbated this interplay of livestock and human. As technologies improved, more people (and animals) could live in smaller areas and encouraged greater microbial spread. The rise of cities further encouraged the spread of germs. More people breathe the same air, spend more time in proximity and are more likely to contact human waste and disease carriers like rodents and insects that thrived in dense human populations.

Of course, these increasingly immunized people from cities and large villages did not stay put. Sumerians and subsequent civilizations traded, travelled, moved, and fought battles and wars, leading to contact with other peoples, including hunter-gathers who lacked sophisticated immune systems. 

Centuries later, when Columbus reached the Americas, Europeans had developed an incredibly resilient immune system that could withstand the likes of smallpox, yellow fever, diphtheria, influenza, chickenpox, and a host of other diseases bred over centuries. Native Americans lacked the immune systems to cope with the microbial onslaught. American populations, new studies show, were higher and denser than previously assumed but still not comparable to European ones. As previously mentioned, a less diverse American livestock inventory meant a narrower field of microbial exchange.  

Disease alone did not decimate America’s Indigenous population, but it seems to be the main culprit. “Far more Americans died,” Jared Diamond writes, “in bed from European germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords.” (201). Other factors certain exacerbated their impact. Thomas Benjamin points out that diseases “were accompanied and made more deadly by war, exploitation, slavery, and missionaries who brought dispersed people together in a large community.” (321). We must also note that diseases did not uniformly impact the Americas. Denser and higher populations saw higher mortalities. Some Native communities in the northern reaches of Canada did not feel the impact of Old World disease until the 19th and 20th centuries.    

Scholars still debate the topics such as population numbers and whether Europeans, at times, intentionally infected Native people. However, there is a growing consensus that Old World diseases led to the European conquest of the Americas more than any other factor. 

Glossary

Columbian Exchange. Alfred Crosby coined this term to describe the transcontinental transport and exchange of plants, animals, and diseases. 

Crowd Disease. A disease that can only be exchanged from person to person and therefore thrive in crowded populations.

Influenza. Flu, contagious respiratory disease.

Measles. A viral disease marked by red spots on the skin.

Microbes. A microorganism. Often referring to bacterium causing disease.

Pathogen. An agent that causes disease.

Smallpox. Viral disease became more virulent during the Renaissance (coinciding with Columbus’s voyage to the Americas). Arguably the most devasting disease to Native Americans. 

Selected Bibliography.

Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians, and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Crawford, Dorothy H. Deadly Companions: How Microbes Shaped our History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. New Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2017.

Hopkins, Donald R.  The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Kiple, Kenneth F. ed. The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Martin, Charles. A Short History of Disease: Plagues, Poxes and Civilizations. Harpenden, Herts: Pocket Essentials, 2015. 

Watts, Sheldon. Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

AP World History: 6 Themes Explored

World history explores many topics and themes. As Jay P. Harmon points out, “The AP World History test developers want you to see the big picture.  They want you to make connections across the globe and across time and to analyze common human experiences like migration, trade, religion, politics and society.” (6)  Chronology remains essential, but the focus is on various themes over time and space. 

 The Advanced Placement (AP)World History program identifies six broad themes. 

Human-Environment Interaction.  Here we focus on the mutual impact of humans and their environments.  Environments largely determined what people ate, how they travelled, what they built, and organized themselves. Access to water, for example, facilitated trade and travel and enabled farming.  The earliest civilizations arose near major waterways (Mesopotamia and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Egypt and the Nile River).  Water also divided people.  The Americas and Eurasia lived unaware of each other (on a large scale ) until the 15th century. Topography impacted human societies. The mountainous terrain separating various fertile basins in Greece encouraged the formation of city-states rather than the more centralized polities.Humans, of course, impacted the environment.  People manipulated waterways – irrigation, dams, canals – to facilitate farming and transport. Agriculture, the rise of cities, and a rapid rise in consumption drastically altered the global landscape.        

Cultural Development/Interaction.  Cultural elements such asreligion, belief systems, arts and architecture, and ideas profoundly impacted human history.  Religious belief informed the fundamental institutions of marriage, childhood, and the family.  Politics often reflected preeminent intellectual traditions. Confucianism, for instance, reinforced respect for Chinese traditions.  The political ideas of Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Locke, Marx shaped political thought and institutions.  The fact that various communist movements in the 20th century – the Soviet Union, Cambodia, to name a few  – distorted Marxian theories do not discount the global influence of his ideas.  Cultures mingled through trade, travel and war.  Mesopotamian and Egyptian architecture inspired Greek builders.  Religions reached as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity spread over water and land, attracting new converts.  Evolution, the brainchild of Charles Darwin, made people think differently about their origins and place in the world.  Subsequent pseudo-scientific claims of Social Darwinism offered justifications for imperialism and industrialization in the 19th and 20 centuries. 

Statebuilding, Expansion, Conflict.  Essentially this is about politics.  How do people govern?  How do people develop, expand, and resist political control?  We examine various political forms, including city-states, provinces, states, empires, and dynasties. How did polities differ, and how did they resemble each other?  Athens and Sparta, for instance, city-states that shared a language and belief system, held different ideas about statehood, gender roles, and education.  How did Rome evolve from a republic to an empire, and how did it rise to become one of the most powerful polities in history before declining then falling? Political revolutions, of course, deserve attention.  The French and American Revolutions of the 19th century and later the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Mao Tse Tung’s communist revolution in China in 1949 profoundly shaped the 20th century and beyond.  Conflict, of course, occurred between states.  AP history examines conflicts such as the Peloponnesian Wars, the World Wars of the 20th century and the Cold War.

Creation, Growth, Interaction of Economic Systems.  As John Tosh writes, economic history includes “all those activities that have to do with production, exchange and consumption. (81). A basic example – Greeks grew olives and exchanged them for wheat that they could not produce in sufficient quantities.  Changes in production technologies and practices profoundly influenced the course of history.  The Agricultural revolution brought about a fundamental shift from hunting and gathering to farming, led to drastic population growth and encouraged the specialization of labour.  Later, the Industrial Revolution, beginning in Britain, led to more fundamental changes, including population increases, urbanization, and middle-class growth. Goods, ideas and technologies were exchanged along established trade routes like the Silk Roads and waterways.  Chinese technologies such as papermaking and gunpowder travelled westward.  Compromised access to these routes encouraged western European nation-states to send expeditions across the Atlantic, eventually settling into the Americas.

Development and Change in Social Structure. John Tosh writes, “Social structure essentially means the sum of the social relationships between the many different groups in society. (85)  Here, we explore concepts such as gender, class, and race. Gender roles played a central role in social organizations pervaded by patriarchy.  Men dominated the public sphere – politics, trade and commerce – while women focused on domestic matters like child-rearing and managing the household.  Race played an integral role in human affairs.  Social Darwinism of the 19th century fed justifications for imperialism, slavery, segregation and other exploitive practices culminating with Nazi Germany’s pseudo-scientific racial theories that inspired horrific atrocities.  Class played a vital role in historical events. Slavery existed in most ancient societies. India’s caste system determined one place in society, setting strict conditions of what people could do and how they interacted with each other.  Feudalism dominated medieval Europe, and landowners enjoyed a relatively easy life to the peasantry who laboured the land.  Class struggle, often inspired by desperation and a sense of unfairness, fomented numerous rebellions and revolutions. 

Technology and Innovation. The word technology, writes James E. McClellan III, derives from the Greek techne having to do with practical arts, craftsmanship, and techniques. (1)  World history offers innumerable examples of influential technologies and innovation. For example, irrigation and canal building facilitated farming in the earliest civilizations. The advent of writing and, later, the printing press accelerated the spread of ideas.  The printing press, for instance, played a vital role in the Protestant Reformation of the fifteenth century by spreading Martin Luther’s critique of Catholic interpretations and practices.  Agricultural innovations forever altered our relationship with our natural environments and further changed with the advent of industrialization.  Factory work encouraged a different approach to time as days, weeks, and months were measured to maximize production.   Medical technologies increased life expectancy via vaccines, operational procedures and more sanitary practices. As a result, infant mortality and maternal death drastically decreased.  The 20th century saw an accelerated technological change.  The world wars stimulated innovative industrial processes, communication, transportation and, of course, weaponry.   Flight, space travel, and computers, once confined to science fiction, became a reality.    

The Advanced Placement (AP) program recognizes that history involves the interplay of many factors. Therefore, themes offer an effective organizing principle to explore, compare and contrast societies of different times and places.

Explore and enjoy! 

Selected Bibliography.

Bartlett, Kenneth.  The Experience of History. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2017

Harmon, Jay. P.  AP World History: Crash Course.  New Jersey: Research and Education Association, 2018.

McClellan III, James E. and Harold Dorn.  Science and Technology in World History.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2015                                                   

Tosh, John.  The Pursuit of History. Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 1999.