Africa is the setting for the long dawn of human history. From about four million years ago ape-like creatures walk upright on two feet in this continent. Intermediate between apes and men, they have been named Australopithecus. Later, some two million years ago, the first creatures to be classed as part of the human species evolve in Africa. They develop a technology based on sharp tools of flint, introducing what has become known as the Stone Age.
About a million years ago humans explore northwards out of Africa, beginning the process by which mankind has colonized the planet.
Out of Africa: more than a million years ago
Homo erectus is the variety of human who moves out of the continent of Africa, to spread through much of Asia and Europe. This move from Africa is usually dated to about a million years ago, but this may be too recent. First reports of two skulls found in 1999 at Dmanisi, in South Georgia, describe them as 1.8 million years old.
Fossil remains of this kind have been found as far afield as Java in southeast Asia (the first to be discovered, in 1891), Beijing in northern China, and within Europe in Greece, Germany and England – in addition to numerous sites in Africa. The European skulls differ from the Asian in various ways (larger brains, smaller teeth), causing some anthropologists to classify them not as Homo erectus but as an archaic version of our own species, Homo sapiens.
The spread of our species: from 60,000 years ago
After Homo erectus has spread through the linked central land mass of our planet (Africa and Eurasia), he is succeeded within that region by varieties of Homo sapiens – the Neanderthals and then modern humans. It is modern humans who take the next step in colonizing the habitable earth.
The dates are still uncertain and much disputed. But at some time after 60,000 years ago people cross from southeast Asia to Borneo, the Philippines, New Guinea and Australia. And at some time after 30,000 years ago humans make the short but difficult leap from northeast Asia to northwest America.
Temporary bridges: 60,000 – 10,000 years ago
The Ice Ages play an essential part in mankind’s advance from Asia into both Australia and America. The effect of an ice age is to lower the sea level by 100 metres and more. This narrows the gaps between many islands and sometimes even exposes a complete land ridge.
One such sunken ridge is the Sahul Shelf, under the largest stretch of sea between the Indonesian islands and Australia. Another lies between Siberia and Alaska.
The first Australians: from 60,000 years ago
The islands of Indonesia are like a string of beads pointing towards Australia. Stone Age hunter-gatherers no doubt find much of their food on the shores and in the shallows, and soon use rafts to reach offshore reefs. Probably the first people to arrive on slightly more distant islands have been carried there by accident rather than intention.
But there is a plentiful supply of food wherever they make landfall. With an ice age reducing the level of the Timor Sea (see Ice Ages), this series of hops for mankind sooner or later reaches Australia. The earliest traces of human habitation in the continent are now tentatively dated between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago.
The first Americans: 30,000 – 5000 years ago
During the most recent of the Ice Ages, lasting from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, an undersea ridge between Siberia and Alaska emerges from the sea. Known as the Bering Land Bridge, it lies partly south of the ice cap. It develops a steppe-like ecology of grasslands, grazed by large animals such as horses, reindeer and even mammoth.
Gradually, in many separate incursions, the hunter-gatherers of the Siberian steppes pursue their prey across the land bridge and into America. When the melting ice submerges the bridge, about 10,000 years ago, these northeast Asians become isolated as the aboriginal Americans.
Migrations: from 3000 BC
In historic times, since about 3000 BC, various clearly identifiable groups of people have moved from area to area of the globe. In doing so they have profoundly influenced the human story. There are several different senses in which such people can be identified as groups, but few involve racial distinctions.
In prehistory the movement of a group is usually evident through traces of a shared language, which the migrants bring to a new place. The spread of a cultural influence, such as styles of pottery or religious practices, will show that there was a close link between regions but will not necessarily prove permanent migration.
Sometimes large numbers of people arrive so suddenly, and with such hostile intent, that they are unmistakably recognizable as a group. They usually have a close tribal link with each other, and their names are likely to be remembered with distaste – the Huns, for example, or the Vandals.
On other occasions identifiable groups are moved in large numbers against their will. The transfer of Africans to America in the slave trade is the most notable example, and here race comes closest to being a defining factor. But groups of voluntary immigrants to America – the Irish, for example – remain almost as identifiable in later generations and have a similar influence on the patterns of history.
There are therefore infinitely variable facets to the movement of peoples. Colonial ambitions take the Spaniards to America, where they exploit the Indian population but also interbreed with them. The same impulse takes the British to America and Australia, where they persecute the original inhabitants but themselves remain separate and exclusive. Persecution causes the Jews to move again and again during the centuries, but their own exclusiveness enables them to survive as a group.
The story of the movement of peoples given here does not attempt to keep separate these many different strands. It merely records the fascinating sequence of who has moved where and when and why.
Semitic tribes: from 3000 BC
When prehistory shades into history, in the Middle East, there has already occurred the first identifiable movement of a group of tribes linked by their language – the Semitic tribes.
Probably originating in southern Arabia, Semitic people have spread by 3000 BC along the desert caravan routes, up through Sinai and into the Syrian desert. Five hundred years later they are an integral part of the culture of Mesopotamia, where there is a great Semitic dynasty as early as 2350 BC. Semitic tribes are the first to bring civilization to the coastal strip of Palestine and Phoenicia.
Indo-Europeans: from 2000 BC
The next great identifiable movement of a large number of tribes, using related languages, is that of the Indo-Europeans. By about 2000 BC tribes of this linguistic family are living as nomadic herdsmen in the steppes which stretch from the Ukraine eastwards, to the regions north of the Black Sea and the Caspian.
Over the coming centuries some of these tribes move south and west into more appealing areas – occasionally in a process akin to open warfare, and invariably no doubt with violence. But the development is much more gradual than our modern notion of an invading force.
India-Europeans in Asia: from 1800 BC
In Asia the first significant movement of this kind is by the Hittites, who establish themselves in Anatolia.
Subsequently the Medes and the Persians become the dominant tribes on the Iranian plateau. These Indo-Iranians are related in language and culture to the Aryans who move down into India, profoundly influencing the subcontinent. Their tribal religion contributes largely to Zoroastrianism in Persia and Hinduism in India.
At a much later date, one of the Indo-European tribal groups in India makes a further move south. They are the Sinhalese. They settle in Sri Lanka, probably in the 6th century BC.
In doing so, they isolate themselves from the Indo-Europeans of north India, for they move to the south of a different linguistic group – the Dravidians, whose origin is unknown but whose language has no links with Indo-European. After another lengthy gap, in about the 11th century AD, members of the largest Dravidian community, the Tamils, move into Sri Lanka from southern India and settle in the north of the island.
Indo-Europeans in Europe: from 1800 BC
In Europe the first Indo-European tribes to make significant inroads are the Greeks. They move south into Greece and the Aegean from the 18th century BC.
Gradually other tribes speaking Indo-European languages spread throughout Europe. From an early date Germans are established in Denmark and southern Sweden. Balts settle along the southern and eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. Tribes using an Italic group of languages descend into Italy. Across the centre of Europe the Celts move gradually west through Germany into France, northern Spain and Britain.
Another wave of migrating Indo-European peoples follows on behind, pressing westwards from Asia. The Slavs move into the region of Poland and western Russia, between the Vistula and Dnieper rivers. The Scythians establish themselves in the area to the north of the Black Sea.
Any map will oversimplify patterns of tribal migration, for it must attempt to separate groups which in reality intermingle and overlap. If there is not too much pressure on the available territory, different tribes often coexist within a region. Even so, in broad terms, the tribes mentioned here from the great majority of Europeans at the time when Greece and Rome dominate the Mediterranean region.