Important events in the history of mankind

By Dr J Floor Anthoni (2001)
This page summarises the important events and discoveries that changed the world, its societies, populations and its environment.  By restricting the events to important discoveries, this page allows you to take note of the full development of mankind while not wasting your time. When learning about the history of Man, much emphasis is usually placed on nations, rulers and their military exploits. However, the real development of human society follows a pattern which is independent of its rulers, being entirely dependent on natural resources, knowledge and technology.


Having evolved to an erect, thinking and talking ape over millions of years of evolution, Man has found ways of evolving at an even faster rate by extending his faculties by means of technology. Ironically, the technology evolved following the same rules as the evolution of species, but much faster and more profound. Having given humanity the means to live longer, eat more and to live more comfortably in any place on the globe, human populations have risen above sustainable levels. At the same time, technology is causing lasting damage to the environment, which may ultimately destroy human civilisation. Is this the predictable path that intelligence takes? The predictable fate which has overcome all intelligent civilisations everywhere else in the universe, before they could seed themselves to other planets? Will humans be able to control themselves by the very intelligence that is threatening to destroy them?

Previous civilisations have risen and fallen, yet humanity has survived. But these were localised events. Present civilisation on the other hand, ranges world-wide, causing world-wide problems like the ozone hole, global warming, global pollution, weather changes and so on. It has exploited the minerals and energies found world-wide and changed the world environment profoundly. So this one is not a local event, and it could well be the last one.

Here is a schematic overview of the development of intelligence, be it on this planet or anywhere else:

The above is but a schematic time line, but notice how one invention could not have occurred without the previous, thus making the whole development of civilisation predictable (with hindsight). Most previously collapsed civilisations overextended themselves in their war machines and bureaucracies, at a time that their agriculture collapsed due to poor farming practices and sheer pressure to deliver. Our present civilisation managed to bypass this trap by developing world trade, exploiting other nations' agricultural and mineral resources (colonisation) and by discovering fossil fuel to subsidise everything we do. However, a new trap now presents itself. Will we be sucked in, is the question?
Warm and cool periods
warm and cool periods over 4 millenniaIn considering the history of mankind, often the most important influence, that of temperature, is overlooked. Having come out of an ice age, only 12 millennia ago, the growth of civilisations was possible only by increasing temperatures. The world of 18 millennia ago was very poor and very barren. Only some 6 millennia ago the planet warmed sufficiently to sustain growing populations, but even then some remarkable fluctuations in temperature occurred, all with similar results: during the warm periods, societies flourished while during the cold periods they suffered disease and famine.
The above chart was made by climatologists Cliff Harris and Randy Mann. Click on the image for a larger version and relate this to what follows below.

Philosophers often refer to the three major transitions of mankind, the developments that changed society profoundly. After three beneficial transitions, they are now seeing the fourth as troublesome:

    1. epidemiological revolution, medical knowledge, immunisation, hygiene, sanitation give longer and better lives: reduced death rates, increased birth rates (fertility), longer life spans, lower disease risks. It has doubled the human life span but also introduced new diseases of old age.
    2. green revolution, giving more food: fertilisation, irrigation, pest control, mechanisation and improved crops gave more and better food, and has allowed populations to grow fourfold in the twentieth century, also introducing unknown degrees of famine and suffering and inequality. It has changed the way of life of tribes, previously living in harmony with nature. It started the depopulation of the land and the overpopulation of cities.
    3. technological revolution, giving more material wealth and comfort: industrialisation, mass production, mining and transport caused new health risks due to changed lifestyles, like smoking-induced, obesity-induced and pollution-indused diseases. It also led to distribution problems, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, but average world incomes quadrupled. The global economy increased twentyfold. Tractor power displaced more people from the country to the cities.
    4. sustainability revolution, preventing further health risks due to an overload of the biosphere: humanity is facing increased risk of epidemics due to population densities (tuberculosis, cholera, typhus), spread of new diseases due to mobility (AIDS, Ebola, Dengue, Marburg, rinderpest, foot-and-mouth, mad-cow), spread of old diseases due to temperature change and irrigation (malaria, yellow fever), multiple-drug resistant (MDR) diseases, collapse of civility (poverty wars, dictatorships), deaths from wars and disasters, death and disease due to massive resettlement (fleeing war, crop failures, drought), irreversible loss of species, and so on.
Unlike the preceeding three revolutions which happened by themselves, the fourth revolution is one of prevention of serious risk, something which requires a co-ordinated effort, motivated by the most humane of human qualities. What chance does it have of succeeding in the face of so much injustice, disparity, dishonesty and avarice, while time is also running out?

Read the history of mankind below in this light, and be amazed at how much it accelerated in the most recent fifty years.

Colours show the advances in building, agriculture/food, technology/war/science/medical, information/learning, energy&distribution. Important discoveries are bolded. Note that discoveries were often made in different places of the world at different times. Use the Edit/search in page option of your browser to search for specific events.

Also read:
Diamond, Jared: Guns, germs and steel, the fate of human societies. 1997. W W Norton & Co.
Hellemans, A and B Bunch: The timetables of science, a chronology of the most important people and events in the history of science. 1988. Simon & Schuster.
McNeill, J R: Something new under the sun, an environmental history of the twentieth-century world.2000. WW Norton & Co.
Asimov, Isaac: Asimov's chronology of science & discovery. 1990. Grafton Books
Harpur, Patrick (ed): The timetable of technology, a record of our century's achievements. 1982. Marshall Editions London.
The Goat Island Sustainability Transition: a call for action by twelve concerned scientists. (4 pages)
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