The ancient history timeline below, closely follows the historical highlights in part I of the fascinating documentary series history of the world. From the first civilizations to the present day, this series aims at telling the whole human story in an unique way. It takes footage from hundreds of different historical films, TV-series and documentaries and puts them together on a compelling soundtrack with explanatory captioning. The result is a historical narrative, unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Part I of the series covers a period in history commonly known as ancient history, an era defined by the earliest evidence of modern humans and the slow development of the first villages into competing continental civilizations. It ends before the Classical Era. Below is the timeline of major events depicted in the documentary, including direct links to other top-quality documentaries for further study.
Table of Contents
In the ancient world, when humanity slowly switched from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming, (around 12.000 BCE), it came at a price. Archeological evidence suggests that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were robust and healthy. Their diets – mainly raw fruits, leaves and vegetables, with some meat and fresh fish – where well attuned to the human body.1History – the definitive visual guide, Page 52, ISBN: 978 1 4053 1809 9, DK
Disease, War, Sacrifice
Despite the benefit of a farming lifestyle, which enabled the support of much larger communities, people also suffered ill effects. The diets of people were less varied and many killer-diseases arose for the first time in human populations. Smallpox and Anthrax are two good examples. In both cases and many others, the disease causing organisms evolved to cross species barriers from livestock, and where able to take hold because people were living so close together in mostly unsanitary conditions. Rats, fleas and lice thrived, and carried disease such as the plaque an typoid. In times of flood, draught or war, these problems worsened.2History – the definitive visual guide, Page 39, Health risks early village life, ISBN: 978 1 4053 1809 9, DK
No one in early civilizations could understand disease as modern medicine does. And so people were inclined to attribute the causes of disease to super-natural forses. Just as explanations for disease appeled to the super-natural, so too did most attempts to cure people. As a result organized religion took hold of societies. In most cultures priests were as important as physicians, and sacrifice to the gods commonplace.
With hindsight civilization has led to near perpetual warfare about resources, religion and power.
Ancient History Timeline
Evidence of the earliest human species, Hominins, the ancesters of modern humans, have been found in central and east Africa
Earliest known stone tools are found in Ethiopia. Meat is now apparently a central part of an energy-rich diet for hominins. The earliest stone tools were very basic and used because they were more durable than wood or bones
The control of fire enabled humans to live in cold environments, and in deep caves, and provided protection against predators. The use of fire to cook also led to a greater variety in diets.
The standard story is that Homo sapiens invaded Europe and the near east where Neanderthals were living and then we outnumbered, outsmarted and/or killed them. However new modeling evidence suggests differently - the guardian.
Science identifies 9 major glacial (icy) periods that have come and gone over the last 780.000 years, the most recent of them ending in abrupt and irregular global warming between 15.000 and 10.000 BCE.
The Ice Age witnessed dramatic shifts in global climate and major changes in natural enviroment. During Glacial period huge ice sheets covererd Scandinavia, Canada and parts of the United States. South of the Scandinavian ice sheets, huge expanses of barren landscape extended from the Atlantic to Siberia. These expanses suffered nine-month harsh winters and were uninhabitable by ancestors of the Homo Sapiens, who lacked the technology and clothing to adapt to the extreme temperatures.
The Neolithic Revolution—also referred to as the Agricultural Revolution—is thought to have begun about 12,000 years ago. It coincided with the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the current geological epoch, the Holocene And it forever changed how humans live, eat, and interact, paving the way for modern civilization.
Jericho was the first farming settlement to grow successfully into a serious village. By 8000 BCE it had become a small walled town, whose inhabitants lived in beehive-shaped houses with stone foundations and plastered floors. Another highly successful, long-lived and large settlement was Catal Hoyuk in Turkey which thrived from 7.000 to 6.000 BCE.
One of the key features of these villages, which marks them out, from early hunter-gatherer sites, is the existence of storage facilities for food. This indicates that communities were planning for the season ahead and storing grain over the winter. It further indicates a more complex social structure with demand for a greater variety of specialisms and more organization.
These early farmer-towns lived from harvest to harvest and the danger of starvation was always present as a result of failed crops or depletion of the earth. In some ways, they had been better off as hunter-gatherers as gathering food is less labour intensive than producing it yourself. They would have enjoyed more leisure time (with less comfort though) and less risk of deadly infectious disease due to overcrowding, the close proximity of animal stock, and insanitary conditions in villages. However, the benefits of farming, - the ability to support more people from a small area - allowed population to grow and society as we know it today to flourish.
The Birth of Civilization
The world’s earliest town agglomoration developed in Mesopotomia (4.800 BCE), probably as a result of the need to organize the construction of the irrigation canals feeding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The development from villages to towns was a slow process that took place over hundreds, even thousands of years. Although somewhat later, the same happened around the Nile River (4.000 BCE), the Indus and the Yangtze.
The wheel originated in Mesopotamia, probably as a result of intensified trading needs. The wheel is believed to have developed from the potter's wheel. It is one of the most important inventions in human history as it revolutionized transport.
By the 3rd millennium the use of wheels had spread east, where burials with wheeled carts took place. Chariots pulled by domesticated horses became in use around the Black Sea and northern Mesopotamia by armies on the move
Uruk was the first Mesopotamian town. It took almost 2000 years to develop into the world's first small-scale civilization - Sumer. By 2.800 BCE Uruk housed about 5000 people with many more living in surrounding villages.
Writing represents a massive step forward in the intellectual evolution of humans. Cuneiform writing was first practiced by the Sumerians to document trading activities. Yet, the development of writing occured independently in five different areas: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Mesoamerica. Writing marks the beginning of the Age of Empires
As humans began to band together in organized communities, more structured societies emerged. They began to develop greater powers of communication – writing, speech, trade – create complex belief systems, and form cultured urban civilizations, particularly in the Middle-East and India.3History – the definitive visual guide, Page 47, Rulers and Hierarchies, ISBN: 978 1 4053 1809 9, DK
The Downside of Civilization
Since the early civilizations, humanity has been haunted by decimating plaques, devastating natural disasters killing hundreds of thousand people and near perpetual warfare. All are the result of people’s desire to band together, expand and prosper.
Humans had made tools out of stone, bone and wood for thousands of years. The advent of copper working, around 6000 BCE was the beginning of a long association with metals and a significan watershed in human history, which led to further innovation.
The Bronze age is a period defined by the use of bronze as the most important material for tools and weapons. In the middle east it lasted approximately 3000 - 1200 BCE.
Copper was used earlier, but bronze is harder and therefore more durable. The Bronze Age is followed by the Iron age.
Mesopotamia, a fertile land embraced by rivers Tigris and Euphrates, was the site of the first complex societies. By 3.000 BCE, the area around the cities of Uruk and Eridu had developed into a number of competing city-states of great wealth and sophistication, with advanced irrigation and agricultural schemes, established trade, the first known writing and grand palaces. From 3.000 to 300 BCE these city-states were dominated by three consecutive dynasties: The Sumarians, Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
As in Egypt, Mesopotamian crops relied on rich silt deposited by the river waters, while marshlands provided fish for eating as well as reeds for roofing and baskets. Irrigation and land reclamation schemes required well-drilled marshaling of large numbers of people. The other important task of growing communities was defense against outside enemies, who were competing for resources. In addition there were priests who performed religious rites to prevent disease and to determine favorable times for sowing and harvist through prophecy, calculations and astrology. The increasing number and complexity of tasks led to social differentiation between farmers, craftsmen, warriors and administrators. This laid the foundations for what is thought to be the world's first layered society - reaching its height and sophistication slightly before Egypt.
The all-powerfull divine rule of the Pharaos contrasted with the balance of power between the Mesopotamian city-states. Therefore Egypt can be considered the first nation state in history.
The Indian subcontinent had substantial human occupation from the Stone Age onwards. Yet, in 2.500 BCE the Harappan Culture emerged with the developping cities Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Like the slightly older civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt it was based on flood-plain agriculture, as the cultivation of the fertile land on either side of the Indus was able to provide enough surplus to support a complex urban society. Like the other "cradles of civilization" the Harappan civilization developped writing and there is evidence of trade with Mesopotamia. as goods with Indus seals are found in Mesopotamia and vice-versa.
Floods an Climate Change
Around 1.700 BCE Harappan culture declined probably due to climate change causing uncontrollable floods.
The Minoans were the first Bronze Age culture to make its mark in Europe, located on the Island of Crete. By 2.000 BCE Minoan, culture had matured into a highly sophisticated sea-faring civilization, producing beautiful frescoes, grand palaces and a society where women played a unusual dominant role for the times.
Seafaring and trade
Given that water transport was, until the coming of railways, much more efficient than land transport over distances of more than a few miles, it was natural that the Mediterranean would from ancient times be a major conduit of trade. Several regional cultures emerged in the 4th millennium BCE in and around the Aegean Sea, which pioneered seaborne commerce. One of these evolved into the Minoan civilization.
As an island in the eastern Mediterranean, Crete enjoyed a strategic location between the centres of civilization in the Middle East and the sources of much-needed minerals in the Balkans, Italy, and as far west as Spain. The rulers of Crete were therefore able to make their land into a centre for international maritime trade.
Women in Minoan Society
Women played an equal role to that of men in Minoan society, and participated in all occupations and trades, including the priesthood. There is even evidence to suggest that Minoan society might have been matrilineal.
King Hammurabi of Babylon is considered to be the first to develop a detailed code of law. It presents a collection of cases in 282 provisions for all of the areas of law then recognized. Most punischments prescribed accorded with the principle of an "eye for an eye".
Adultry was punished with death of both parties by drowning, but if the husband was willing to pardon his wife, the king might intervene to pardon the paramour.
In China the Bronze Age began allong the Yellow River in what is known as the Shang Dynasty. The Shang Civilization was a rigidly hierarchical society, ruled by a supremely powerful, semi-divine king and his nobles. The people of the Chang believed that the king was invested with divine power from his ancestors whose spirits were able to shape comtemporary life if appeased with offerings.
The Shang's dynasty most significant contribution to history and culture was the creation of writing which has been the origin of Chinese distinctive writing today. At the time, the writings were etched on cattle bones (also referred to as oracle bones because they were used for divination)
With Thutmose III, Egypt entered a Golden Age of militiary superiority, intelligent governance and artistic excelence that would last for 400 years. During this period Egypt was the greatest empire on earth and was ruled by historical figures like Tutankhamun and Rameses II.
Apart from being the Greatest Emperor of antiquity, Rameses II introduced diplomacy on a scale never seen before. To consolidate peace and prosperity after the battle of Kadesh, he organised diplomacy like in modern times, with documented treaties, consulates, embassies and frequent international political meetings.
The Bronze Age Collapse
In the late Bronze Age, a diplomatic community of empires, led by Egypt, maintained a thriving international system based on bronze. Yet, between 1.200 – 1050 BCE, the system mysteriously collapsed. The records of these powers hint at widespread invasions from a band of raiders, referred to as Sea Peoples.3Souri Somphanith, Crisis in the Late Bronze Age Triggered by Environmental Change, PLOS
Although the sudden Bronze Age collapse is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, today we believe the following happened.
Correspondence from that time attributes the fall of Bronze Age empires, at least partially, to invasions from a band of raiders, referred to as Sea Peoples. Other scholars studying this period point to natural disasters, such as earthquakes or drought. Research recently published in PLOS ONE reveals a more insidious culprit: Climate change may have fueled drought, the invasions, and eventually the collapse of these civilizations in what historians call the Late Bronze Age crisis 4David Kaniewski ,Elise Van Campo,Joël Guiot,Sabine Le Burel,Thierry Otto,Cecile Baeteman, Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis, PLOS.
Key to the Bronze Age stability was the need for supplies of copper and tin to make bronze for weapons and tools. Copper was abundant, but the source of tin at the time was in distant Afghanistan. Long-distance trade in metals, therefore, needed to be maintained. The states in the Middle-East formed a diplomatic community, based on intensive correspondence, international treaties, dynastic intermarriage, and the exchange of gifts and courtesies. Whatever the political balance and regardless of who was fighting whom, tin for bronze was delivered.
The collapse began in 1.200 BCE and ended 300 years later with the rise of the Assyrian Empire. The first sign was the destruction of the Mycenaean citadels in Greece, most likely by northern invaders, climate change, droughts and earthquakes. It seems that dispossessed Myceneaens flooded outwards to new lands. This is probably the origin of the story of Troy. What follows in the scant records available seems to be a cascade of mass migration, disruption of trade routes and destruction. Around 1.180 BCE the Hittite Empire abruptly disappeared from history. The Egyptians fought of invasions by groups they called the “Sea Peoples”, who may have been bands of displaced Myceneans and Hittites plundering together.
The Iron Age
The Bronze to Iron Age transition took about 300 years to fully come about; its completion clearly marked by the rise of the Assyrian Empire that owed its success to the both violent and skillfull exploitation of new Iron Age warfare techniques.
During the Bronze Age, iron ore was more readily accessible than the ingredients for bronze. Yet, the great powers stuck with Bronze because the transition to an iron economy was highly disruptive. After they fell, iron came into common use.5Venkatesh Rao, The Disruption of Bronze, Ribbonfarm – constructions in magical thinking
Experts assume that a disruption in trade routes may have caused shortages of the copper and tin used to make bronze around this time . Metal smiths as a result turned to Iron as an alternative
Like the Assyrians, also the Phoenicians took advantage of the transition from Bronze to Iron Age. The phoenicians are considered to the most accomplished seafarers of antiquity. They revolutionized shipbuilding with new iron keels. With the decline of Mycenean competition, the Phoenicians controlled mediteranian trade. They founded numerous colonies, including Carthage around 814 BCE. The net of Phoenician trade relations reached beyond the Mediteranian to the British Isles and the Canary Islands. It is even possible that Phoenicians circumnavigated South Africa about 600 BCE.
When the Phoenicians developed the alphabet as a simple and easy way to keep track of their trades, it was exposed to everyone. And since money and wealth were involved, people were highly motivated to learn the system and make sure it was being accurately written down. This new method proved to be so much better than previous methods that it soon was being used by many people and many languages. It had been given so much momentum that it could not be stopped.
Canaan, the are of current day Israel, Palestine and Syria, were of great strategic importance as military, commercial and cultural crossroads between the early civilizations of Egypt, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and the Aegean Sea. The constant wresteling of control over the area by the bordering powers prevented the formation of a unified state. Only after the collapse of the Bronze Age and the upheavels caused by the Sea Peoples created a power vacuum, was it possible dor the kingdoms of Israel to emerge.
The Israelites who populated Canaan had in common the worship of the god Yahweh. The isolation of this God from the gods of the neighboring peoples and its proclaimed superiority defined their society. It would have a great impact on the world that would last to this very day.
Assyria was the first nation to make its military might its central policy and the first nation to torment its enemies with psychological warfare.
Life behind a city’s walls when the Assyrian army drew close was terrifying. Assyria made sure of it. They pioneered the use of terror as a weapon—and they made the lives of their enemies a living horror story.
Every Assyrian man, from the poorest to the richest, was required to serve in the army. This was the first country to make military service mandatory for every male citizen, no matter who he was.
The men worked in a three-year cycle. In the first year, they would build roads, bridges, and great projects to build up their strength and the strength of the empire. In the second year, they would go out to war. Then, in the third year, they would be allowed to live with their families—before starting the cycle again.
The result was one of the strongest armies in the world. When they came to your town, the men at the gates were vicious and battle-hardened . . . and there were a lot of them.
Conquered peoples were put to work as slaves. During their reign from 910 to 609 BCE more than 4 million people were relocated
The Neo-Babylonian Empire ushered in a period of cultural renaissance in the Near East. Babylon, their capital, impressed many contemporaries and was supposedly the greatest city of antiquity. The Neo-babylonians build the Ishtar gate and the hanging Gardens.
On the territorial margins of the great powers of Neo-Assyria and Babylonia, several small states and tribes resided. Among them the Medes and the Persians. Earlier in 612 BCE, the Medes had helped Neo-Babylonian to conquer Assyria.
While a vasal state of Media at first, in 550 BCE roles swapped and King Cyrus of Persia annexed Media, followed by Lydia, and Babylon in 539 BCE. Within a generation the Persians - once a small tribal elite from the Iranian plateau - had acquired a world empire. King Darius of Persia and his son and successor took Cyrus' conquests a step further and also annexed. Now Persia ruled all of the ancient world except Greece with whom the relationship was complicated.
First Truly Multi-Cultural Society
In the tradition of Babylonian rule, the Persians ruled the world allowing and even promoting cultural diversity within it reign. This somewhat contradicts the popular view - highly influenced by the biased Greek historian Herodotus - that judged Persian rule to be despotic and deeply dictatorial. However, this is to overlook the fact that under Persian rule an immense integrated cultural and economic region was provided with security and stability.