Lecture Notes

Asian, African, and American Civilizations Before 1500

 Asian Civilizations, ca 200-1700

Readings:  Craig, World Civilizations, Chapter 8.

China During the Sui, Tang, Sung, and Ming Dynasties, ca 600-1644:  Chinese history is dominated by the rise and fall of Dynasties, interspersed with intervals of disorder, warfare, and foreign invasion.  220-581:  Age of Disunity, when disorder, warfare and foreign invasion plagued China; 581 and 618: two Sui emperors, Emperor Yang and his son ruled; 618-907:  the T’ang Dynasty, during which Chinese civilization reached new heights, especially in size and the realms of culture; 907-960:  an interlude of disorders; 960-1279: the Sung Dynasty; 1279-1368:  the Mongols under Kublai Khan established the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted until it was overthrown by rebellious Chinese; 1368-1644: the Ming Dynasty; and 1644-1911: the Manchu Dynasty, which ruled until overthrown in the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

Were the 1,000 years between the advent of the Sui Dynasty and the end of the Ming a period of disorder and chaos?  Chinese civilization was stable and continued traditional lines, and China was “the richest, most populous, and, in many ways most culturally advanced country in the world.”  China contrasts with Western Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire.  T’ang capital of Chang’an had a population of 2,000,000 in the 8th-9th centuries; Chang’an had broad boulevards, shrines, palaces, and was a cosmopolitan center of trade.

Wild Goose Pagoda Wild Goose Pagoda, Chang'an (Built AD 652).

But: Chinese political, social, and cultural stability as well as wealth and psychological security came at price.  Chinese civilization changed little.  Meanwhile, the West made great advances in technology, in economics (the beginnings of capitalism), and in politics, and it expanded overseas.  The West became a dynamic civilization that ultimately dominated the globe, came into contact with and then disrupted and ultimately destroyed traditional Chinese civilization.

Four Key Themes:

1.  Success and Failure of Buddhism:

Important prior to the re-unification of the Chinese Empire by the Sui Dynasty in 581 was the spread of Buddhism and artistic ideas which blended Greek, Roman, and Indian traditions.  Buddhist practices were joined to Confucianism and Taoism, and the religiously tolerant Chinese were able to practice all three simultaneously.  Cave temples were dug and filled with sculpted Buddhas, which reveal a blending of Greco-Roman, Indian, central Asian, and Chinese styles.  Some 142,289 Buddhist sculptures survive from these years and may be found near Loyang, once a capital with a population of 500,000-600,000 in 500 and some 1,367 wooden temples, all of which have been lost.

Buddhist Temple.

During the early years of T’ang rule, Buddhism spread, and Buddhist monasteries became important centers of learning and medicine.  The scholar Hsuan-tsang translated volumes of Buddhist texts into Chinese.  Nevertheless, over the years, Buddhism became sinicized.  During the sixth century, an early version of Zen Buddhism—with its emphasis on meditation and intuitive enlightenment—also developed.  By the mid-800s, the influence of the Buddhists frightened T’ang rulers and the Confucian scholars, and Buddhism underwent a period of severe persecution.  Shrines and monasteries were destroyed, and some 26,000 monks and nuns were forced to return to ordinary life.  Although Buddhism remained in China, its importance ended, and it did not remold Chinese society as Christianity did European.  Confucianism accordingly remained the dominant belief system.

2.  Chinese Intellectual and Cultural Achievements:  The T’ang and Sung Dynasties.

Map of T'ang China, ca AD 742.

T’ang cultural achievements were in lyric poetry, art, and sculpture.  Thousands wrote poetry, and the most famous was Li Po (701-762), author of “Drinking Alone by Moonlight.”

I take my wine jug out among the flowers
to drink alone, without friends.

I raise my cup to entice the moon.
That, and my shadow, makes us three.

But the moon doesn't drink,
and my shadow silently follows.

I will travel with moon and shadow,
happy to the end of spring.

When I sing, the moon dances.
When I dance, my shadow dances, too.

We share life's joys when sober.
Drunk, each goes a separate way.

Constant friends, although we wander,
we'll meet again in the Milky Way.

Li T'ai-po
tr. Hamill

Landscape painting flourished;

Chinese LandscapeTravellers amid Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan (Song Dynasty, 11th century).

 Buddhist statues were carved; secular sculptors made ceramic figures of animals, including horses and camels,  human figures, and other artifacts.  T’ang tombs, like that of T’ai Tsung, were filled with these objects.

T'ang Horse (Ceramic)

The Sung Dynasty presided over a period of innovation and cultural flowering.  Entrance in the Civil Service system was made fairer; examinations took place on a triennial basis, first at the local and then at the national level; fewer than 10% passed the local examinations; fewer than 10% of the survivors passed the national examinations.  Sung artists became expert in the art of calligraphy, and they painted natural scenes under the influence of Taoism, particularly mountains rising above misty hills and swift flowing rivers and waterfalls.

Also important was production of fine porcelain, much prized for its value as an export item.

Porcelain Bowl from the Sung Dynasty.

Inventions made earlier were perfected during the Sung Dynasty, including gunpowder, which was first used about 1100, and printing by movable type, although the block print (invented ca. 868)

The First Printed Book (AD *68)

was preferred because of the 40,000 Chinese characters; however printed, books were plentiful and inexpensive (books were needed by candidates for the Civil Service examinations).  Confucianism revived, largely the work of scholars like Chu Hsi (1130-1200) whose Neo-Confucianism was a blend of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  He taught that the universe was governed by natural law, which could be understood and respected; that people were good by nature; and that they could become more perfect; evil, he continued, resulted from neglect and an inadequate education; hence it could corrected.  Chu Hsi achieved the status in China that Thomas Aquinas enjoyed in the medieval west.  According to a scholar of the Ming Dynasty, “Ever since the time of the philosopher Chu, the Truth has been made manifest to the world. No more writing is needed: what is left to us is practice.”  Neo-Confucianism focused on ethical concerns, contending that “human fulfillment in this life is possible through self-cultivation.”  This interpretation of Confucianism shaped the school curriculum and the civil service examinations until the collapse of the Manchus in 1911.

3.  The Mongols and their Achievements.

The Mongols came from central Asia, and they were a nomadic people who raised horses and sheep; they were also sturdy and self-reliant, and they developed into fierce warriors who fought on horseback.  With strong ambitious leaders, they conquered vast territory.  Under their greatest ruler Genghis Khan (1167-1227), they conquered an empire from the Pacific to eastern Europe.  With a population of about two million and an army of 130,000 cavalry, the Mongols accomplished this feat using superior military technology and innovative battle tactics.  Mongol horsemen could travel up to ninety miles a day, they had saddles and stirrups designed so they could fire arrows accurately from horseback, and they developed the tactic of encircling their enemies.

Mongol Archer.

Under Genghis Khan and his grandsons Kublai Khan and Batu,

Kublai Khan

the Mongols captured China, Korea, central Asia, most of Persia, Russia, Poland, and Hungary.  The Mongol Empire was divided into four parts:  the Kipchak Empire (Golden Horde) included Russia and parts of central Asia; the Empire of Persia included the lands south of the Caucasus Mountains and the Oxus River and west of the Hindu Kush; the Empire of Chaghatai included central Asia, and the Empire of the Great Khan, which included Tibet, the Gobi Desert, and China.  Most splendid of the emperors was Kublai Khan (1214-1294), who ruled from a lavish palace in Beijing after 1264, which Marco Polo (1254-1324) visited and described for astonished Europeans.

Mongol China.

The Yuan Dynasty:  Established by Kublai Khan in northern China in 1271; in 1279, they defeated the last of the Sung Dynasty, and they ruled China to 1368.  Mongol achievements:  1) Peace permitted population growth; 2) Kublai Khan extended the Grand Canal to Beijing, so South China rice could be shipped to his growing capital city; 3) he built a paved road 1,100 miles in length so that messengers could travel north and south; other roads linked China to India and Persia, thus facilitating trade and other contacts.  4) paper money encouraged the development of trade.  Still, there was friction between the Chinese and their Mongol rulers, largely due to linguistic and cultural differences.  After Kublai Khan’s death (1294), several Mongol rulers governed; unrest led to revolution; in 1368, the last Mongol was overthrown by a former Buddhist monk named Zhu Yuanzhang; the new dynasty was the Ming, which united China under Chinese rule.

4.  The Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) and the Closing of China to the West:  Restore the glories of the past, conservative, and resistance to change.

Peace prevailed, and Chinese culture grew and flourished.  Characteristics of Ming Civilization:  1) the defeated Mongols were considered barbarians and savages, so the Ming emperors tried to eradicate any trace of their presence.  To do so, they sought to recreate the splendor of the past, that of the Han, T’ang, and Sung Dynasties.  2) the government was autocratic, with more power in the hands of the emperors than before.  3) the army, which was utilized for defense, reached a size of four million men, but there was little technological innovation and China lagged behind the West.  4) Neo-Confucianism was restored as the official ideology of the government, and the traditional examination system for entry into the Civil Service was reemphasized to the extent that reverence for tradition stifled innovation.  5) Confucian ideology divided Chinese society into four classes:  the land-owning gentry and scholar-bureaucrats who administered the empire in the name of the emperor, and both groups had a vested interest in preserving the status quo; the peasants; artisans; and merchants.  Chinese merchants did not have the potential of the urban dwelling European bourgeoisie.  Their lowly status revealed a lack of interest in trade as a means of increasing China's wealth.  Nevertheless, during the early Ming period, the emperors sent out great fleets of junks to India and the Middle East.  These trading expeditions were ended by an imperial order in 1433; the reasons behind it remain mysterious.

Contact with Europeans began in 1515; networks of trade developed, even though a one-way voyage required a year.  The Portuguese were established in Macao, and they sent tea, porcelains, silks, spices, lacquerware, and other luxury items home.  The Dutch also traded with the Ming Dynasty.

Ceramic from the Ming Dynasty.

Catholic missionaries arrived in the sixteen century, and the Jesuits won influence at court.  Beginning about the 1550s, the Ming rulers sought to isolate themselves from the rest of the world and to protect their land borders.  They moved the capital to Beijing, which is not far from the strengthened Great Wall.
 Ming rule lasted until the rise of the Manchus in the 17th century.  Nurhachi, a Manchurian chief, united small tribes into a single people.  He then led them in the conquest of Korea and Inner Mongolia in the 1630s, and the Manchus captured Beijing in 1644 and founded the Manchu, or Ch’ing, Dynasty.

Japanese Civilization from its Early History to 1467

Readings:  Craig, World Civilizations, Chapter 9.

Introduction:  The Chinese dominated the development of East Asian nations east and south of the steppes and deserts in a way unparalleled by any one nation in the West.  Absent thus is the political and cultural diversity characteristic of the West following the fall of Rome in the sixth century.  Hence, where Vietnam and Korea are now found, agricultural societies heavily influenced by Chinese civilization developed.  The history of Japan is different.  An island-nation over 100 miles distant from the mainland, Japan experienced less direct political and cultural influence from China than did either Vietnam or Korea.  This greater independence on the part of Japan allowed it to play a more significant role in Asian as well as world history.

Geography influenced Japanese history, much as it did that of Greece or Great Britain.  1) Japan is an archipelago, a group of islands, the largest and most populous of which are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu;

Map of Japan.

2) Japan also is mountainous, and little of its territory is suitable for farming; 3) its climate, however, is good for producing abundant crops, particularly of rice, which, with fish, is a Japanese staple; 4) Japan’s distance offshore shielded it from foreign invasion.  Before Japan’s defeat in World War II, only the Mongols had seriously threatened Japan; the Mongols tried and failed to invade Japan with a fleet of 3,500 ships and 140,000 men in 1281.  Thus:  the Japanese were close enough to benefit from the advanced Chinese civilization but removed enough to allow them to pick and chose what they wanted to import.  Hence the development of Japanese civilization is characterized both by a willingness to borrow from the Chinese and by a drive to develop along an independent path.

Early Japanese history:  Traditions like 1) Shintoism and 2) reverence for the emperor have distant roots.  Shinto = “the way of the gods”; based on the worship of spirits called Kami who reside in waterfalls, trees, and such natural objects; Mount Fuji is a Shinto holy place; it lacks scripture, specific doctrines, codes of ethics, or a priestly class; the main Shinto deity was Amaterasu (sun goddess), the protectress of the Japanese nation; hence Japan is known as the Land of the Rising Sun.  Shintoism was closely connected with the growth of the Japanese state and its rulers.  Early social and political organization was based on clans, each ruled by a hereditary priest-chieftain.  Over time, the Yamato clan was recognized as superior and its chief became the emperor; according to legend, Jimmu was the first emperor (ca. 660 BC).

Japanese Borrowings from China:  From the Chinese, the Japanese borrowed writing in the 5th century;  the Buddhist religion in the 6th (Shintoism and Buddhism peacefully coexisted, with many believing in both);

Shrine The Horyuji Temple(built in AD 607)

artistic styles; concepts of engineering; medical knowledge and practices; a system of weights and measures; the calendar; and concepts of government.  Important in encouraging this borrowing was Prince Shotoku (573-621), who brought Buddhism to Japan, along with the Confucian ideas that underlay his Seventeen Article Constitution (604), and who began the practice of sending embassies to China (607).

Idealized Statue of Prince Shotoku.

This influx of Chinese ideas and practices resulted in the Taika Reforms of 645, a major restructuring of Japanese institutions in accord with Prince Shotoku’s ideas; the model was the T’ang Dynasty.  A centralized government was created, with a bureaucracy similar to the Chinese; land was nationalized and then granted to peasant-farmers in exchange for payment of a land tax of rice and labor.  Japanese aristocrats retained a large amount of tax-exempt land and control over high government offices.  Japanese law codes, modeled on the Chinese, were proclaimed by emperors in the 7th & 8th centuries; they regulated every aspect of Japanese life and centralized power in the hands of the emperor.  They also built a new capital city named Heinan in about 794, which remained the Japanese capital until 1869 and which evolved into the modern city of Kyoto.

kyoto Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto).

Feudal Japan:  Major Characteristics:  1) about the middle of the 9th century, the Japanese stopped borrowing from China and began 350 years of assimilation and innovation; 2) power of the central government declined and Japan entered the feudal period;  an emperor continued to rule, but power fell to families like the Fujiwara, who held key offices and who married into the emperor’s family, thus enabling them to dominate the Japanese government from the early 9th to the mid-12th century; 3) great warrior-landowners living distant from the capital built up private armies; when law and order broke down, farmers and small landowners traded part of their land for protection, and the landowners became even more powerful.  Called the Daimyos, these lords were a bit like the feudal barons in England and France and they won the loyalty of the lesser samurai; 4) the Fujiwara were challenged by the Minamoto; after years of struggle, the latter emerged victorious in 1185 and held onto power until 1338.  In 1192, they introduced the office of the Shogun (= “Great General”); over time, the Shogun won control over the military, finances, the laws, the courts, and appointments to office, he was in effect a military dictator; 5) the power wielded by the Shogun made the office the target of ambitious men.  In 1338, the Ashikaga family seized the office and held it for over 200 years.  In brief, then, the structure of feudal Japan consisted of a figurehead Emperor, a powerful Shogun, the Daimyos, the Samurai, and, at the bottom, the mass of peasants, farmers, artisans, and merchants; 6) important were warriors called the Samurai (= “one who serves”); the Samurai's claim to power rested on the possession of land, on a tradition of descent from earlier local leaders, and on his prowess with the sword; their code of conduct was called Bushido, or the "way of the warrior," and it stressed bravery, loyalty, and honor; Samurai who lost their honor were expected to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide.

Japanese cultural and religious achievements:  feudal Japan witnessed a religious awakening.  Older Buddhist traditions taught that salvation came from contributions to monasteries and the study of Buddhist texts, opportunities that were available only to wealthy aristocrats.  New was Zen Buddhism, which arrived about 1200; it taught that salvation was achieved through enlightenment rather than faith, and enlightenment was achieved by lengthy periods of meditation and self-discipline.

A Zen Buddhist Priest.

Japanese Zen Landscape (Landscape of the Four Seasons).

Zen appealed to the Samurai who found that it helped them live in accordance with the code of Bushido.  The Ashikaga Shoguns actively supported the spread of Zen Buddhism by building monasteries and encouraging Zen.  During the 14th and 15th centuries, new art forms inspired by Zen teachings appeared in Japan, and they include landscape architecture, the art of designing gardens (a meticulous arrangement of rocks, trees, and water to represent the essential beauty of nature),

Zen Garden Japanese Zen Garden

the Japanese tea ceremony, and the No play.  The latter were highly stylized dance dramas, usually with religious subjects, performed—not unlike the Greek tragedies—by male actors wearing masks, while a chorus chanted the story.  Prominent works of literature were The Pillow Book by Lady Sei Shonago, a sketch of life, manners, and morals at court, and the Tale of the Genji by Lady Murasaki, a novel about the romantic life of a prince.

Establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate:  During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Japanese experienced a Civil War and ended it establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate, a blend of feudalism and a centralized monarchy which survived until 1868.  The Ashikaga family declined and finally lost control of the Shogunate; meanwhile powerful Daimyos fought for control of Japan.  Of these, the most important was Toyotomi Hideyoshi; by the 1580s, he had defeated and subdued most of his rivals; to control them, Hideyoshi reduced their land holdings and made it impossible for a peasant to become a warrior; the warrior class henceforth was hereditary.  In 1592, Hideyoshi invaded Korea.  Motives were varied; he aspired to create an empire; he also wanted to keep Japanese warriors occupied in Korea while he increased his power at home.  At first the campaign went well, but soon Korean resistance stiffened, and the Japanese abandoned the campaign after Hideyoshi died in 1598.

Castle Nijo-jo in Kyoto (Tokugawa Castle, 17th century).

The Reform of Feudalism:  Succeeding Hideyoshi was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who defeated his rival Daimyos and was named Shogun(1603).  Ieyasu did not destroy Japanese feudalism, but he reformed it by reducing the power of the great lords, much as William the Conqueror had done after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.  1) the Daimyos were permitted to keep their lands, but they were required to swear an oath of allegiance to Ieyasu and his family; 2) within their lands, the Daimyos exercised almost complete control, and they collected taxes from the peasants to support themselves and the samurai; 3) lands possessed by the Tokugawa family equaled about 25% of the land area of Japan; 4) over the lesser Daimyos, the Tokugawa exercised greater control:  they were forbidden to build castles and to make alliances with other Daimyos, thus preventing them from amassing enough power to challenge the central government; they were required to spend every other year in the Shogun's capital of Edo and to leave their families there as hostages when they travelled to their own lands; 5) an additional measure to limit the possibility of revolt was a continuation of the Hideyoshi policy of disarming the peasants.  In short: the Tokugawa Shogunate combined a strong central government with a limited feudalism.  Results: peace from about 1600 to 1868.

The Closing of Japan:  The Tokugawa also adopted a strict policy of isolation in the 1630s, and they closed Japan because they viewed outside contacts as a challenge to their authority.  Before the 16th century, the Japanese had limited trading contacts with China and Korea; some Daimyos also traded with the Portuguese, who introduced both the musket and Christianity to Japan.  Christian missionaries converted about a half million Japanese by the early 1600s.  But, because Christianity taught obedience to a power higher than the shogun, the Tokugawa opposed it's spread and then actually outlawed it.  They also first limited trade and then cut it off entirely, and they banned Japanese from travelling abroad.  The Tokugawa Shogunate was more successful than the Chinese in eliminating foreign contacts, largely because Japan was an island-nation.

Other Changes in Tokugawa Japan:  Cities grew, largely because of internal trade; various cultural practices also grew up within the cities, including Kabuki theater, Bunraku theater (large puppets acted in historical or realistic dramas), and the writing of haiku poetry, a three line poem limited to 17 syllables which gave the reader a momentary image of picture [“A trout leaps high—/below him, in the river bottom,/clouds flow by.”—a poem by Onitsura].

Conclusion:  The Tokugawa policy of isolation ended only in 1854, when the Treaty of Kanagawa opened Japanese ports to American ships.  As the subsequent history of Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries reveals, however, the conservatism of the Tokugawa merely concealed an underlying dynamic element in Japanese civilization.  Japan, therefore, and unlike China, was able to respond in a positive and creative manner to challenges from the West.  Japan quickly imported western ideas and practices, especially military ones, and adapted them to its own use.

Civilizations in Africa Before 1500

Readings:  Craig, World Civilizations, Chapters 5 and 17.

Introduction:  Much is known about African civilizations north of the Sahara Desert and along the Mediterranean coast—Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco; less is known about those south of the Sahara.  Why?  the absence of written sources, the type of records that historians are accustomed to use for the writing of specialized studies and books like our text.  Scholars who study the early history of Africa must therefore use other sources, including 1) the study of languages and their diffusion, like Bantu; 2) oral traditions; 3) archeological excavations, like those at Zimbabwe; 4) artifacts, like the Axum Stele, and 5) accounts by outside observers, like those by the fourteenth-century Ibn Battuta.  Information from such sources is often scanty and, more important, difficult to interpret.  Two examples.   1) The knowledge provided by the work of archaeologists is fragmentary since the tropical climate of sub-Sahara Africa destroys many artifacts.  Even when extensive remains have been found—as is the case with the ancient civilization of Zimbabwe—it is difficult to decipher their meaning or importance.  2) Equally problematical are the accounts of outside observers.  Most were Islamic or European in origin, and they are sometimes biased, thus creating unfortunate stereotypes about sub-Saharan Africa.  This said, it is also a fact that such sources, however fragmentary and problematic, must be used, since there are few others available.  Since it is impossible to make simple generalizations about a continent as diverse as Africa before 1500, we will survey it by geographical areas.

The Kingdoms of Kush and Axum:  In the area south and southeast of Ancient Egypt, two important kingdoms arose and flourished.  First, came the Kingdom of Kush, which arose along the Nile in the area called Nubia (origins may be as early as 3,000 BC) and reached its height between 250 BC and AD 150.  Cities in Kush were originally trading centers that supplied the Egyptians with everything from building materials to slaves, ivory, and ebonywood; in turn, Kush civilization was much influenced by Egyptian culture, especially after the Egyptian conquest.  By the 10th century BC, Kush had become a more or less independent kingdom, and their emperors briefly ruled all of Egypt between 712 and 663 BC.  Wars with the Egyptians, however, forced the center of Kush further south to the city of Meroë, and contacts with the Mediterranean world diminished.  Although the early leaders of Kush were Mediterranean-like peoples, it is thought that by the 6th century BC, they were black.  Meroë became an important center of trade between sub-Sahara Africa and Egypt and the Mediterranean world.  Meroë also became a center of iron smelting and produced weapons and tools.  Monuments from this era include rows of royal pyramids, palaces, and city walls.  The kingdom of Kush began to decline in the 2nd century AD, and it disappeared in the 4th century, possibly because of the rise of the competing state of Axum.

Axum Stele.

Axum was located in the Ethiopian highlands to the southeast of Kush, and it sat upon the great trade routes from the Red Sea northwest to Egypt and southwest to the interior of Africa.  One important development occurred during the 4th century when the Axumite king Ezana converted to Christianity, founding the Ethiopian Church.  From Axum, Christianity spread into central Africa.  Axum remained an important kingdom until the rise of Islam reduced its importance as a trade center by cutting its trade routes.

East African Civilizations:  Along the coast of the Indian Ocean a number of important city-states developed, but no kingdoms like Kush or Axum, and they dominated coastal trade.  These coastal Africans traded spices, slaves, ivory, rhinoceros horns, and tortoise shells for cotton cloth, copper and brass, iron tools, and gold and silver plates.  A unique culture developed, the Swahili, and its language was Bantu in origin but with Arabic and Persian influences.  How old these cities are is uncertain, but a first century AD merchant-seaman described them in some detail.  Following the Islamic conquest of Mediterranean Africa, trade became even more important along this coastline.  Because of the presence of Muslim traders, Islam secured an important foothold along the East African coast.  Important East African city-states include Mogadishu and Malindi; further south was Kilwa, the leading East African port in the 12th century.  According to Ibn Battuta, it was a large and elegant city with stone houses and rich decorations.  Trade linked the East African coast with India, China, and the Indies to the East.

South Africa and Zimbabwe:  Southern Africa remained untouched by outside influences, including those of the Mediterranean world and Islam, until the Portuguese arrived in the late 15th century.  In the 8th century, Bantu-speaking peoples arrived, settled down, and blended with the native peoples.  The most impressive monument in Africa south of Egypt and the Nile are the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, discovered in 1871 by a German explorer.

The Ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

The Interior of the Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe was built between 800 and 1500, although the site had apparently been occupied for centuries.  Remains consist of sixty acres on which are located two large complexes of stone buildings, a fortress, and a structure now called the Temple.  It was surrounded by walls 32 feet high and 17 feet thick, made up of 900,000 granite blocks.  The stones of the entire complex stay in place without mortar, and there are the remains of an extensive drainage system.   Zimbabwe was likely built because of the gold trade with the coastal cities; it was mined along the Zambezi River in Central Africa and shipped to the coast.  The people inhabiting Zimbabwe suddenly abandoned the area in the 15th century.  Causes are unknown, but it is possible that exhaustion of the soil led to such a drop in food production that an urbanized population could not be supported.

Kingdoms and Civilizations of West Africa:  Between Lake Chad and the Atlantic Ocean, a number of important Africa kingdoms flourished, including Ghana (ca. 800-1200), Mali (ca. 1200-1500), and Songhai (ca. 1350-1600).  Behind the growth of these kingdoms was the conquest of North Africa by the Muslims in the 7th century, which stimulated trade across the Sahara Desert.  This trade was made possible by the introduction of the camel before about AD 200.

Camel Caravan Caravan of Camels.

A camel could carry 500 pounds of cargo and travel 25 miles a day, often not drinking water for days on end.   Powerful and wealthy Arabs wanted luxuries, including West Africa's gold, ivory, slaves, and other goods.  Peoples living in the savannas south of the Sahara Desert took advantage of this demand and founded kingdoms to control markets and trade routes across the Sahara and to provide safety for traders from the north.  The little known about these kingdoms comes from oral traditions and from the writings of African scholars and Muslim merchants.

Map of Mali.

The Kingdom of Ghana:  Arose shortly after AD 800, and its purpose was to protect as well as profit from the trans-Saharan trade routes.  It was located between the Upper Niger and Senegal Rivers and the western boundary of the Sahara Desert.  Although its economy had a solid agricultural base which supported a population of about 20,000, its wealth came from its location as the trade center between black Africa and North Africa.  Its people traded gold from the south and west for salt, textiles, and other goods brought in caravans across the Sahara Desert.  Located in the capital city of Kumbi, the government controlled the amount of gold that could be traded and taxed the gold and salt that crossed its lands.  These revenues were then used to support the government and a sizeable army—the observer who claimed it consisted of 200,000 men, including 40,000 archers, no doubt exaggerated.  The ruler of Ghana also received tribute in taxes and goods from a number of smaller states.  According to a ninth-century visitor al-Ya-qubi:  Ghana’s “king is mighty, and in his lands are gold mines.  Under his authority are various other kingdoms—and in all this region there is gold.”  The ruling kings possessed absolute political and judicial power, and they governed with the assistance of a large bureaucracy composed of family members and appointed officials.  The kingdom of Ghana declined and then split into a number of small feuding kingdoms after Berber warriors destroyed its capital of Kumbi in 1076.

The Kingdom of Mali:  It took over Ghana’s role as protector of trade routes, and it built on foundations remaining from its predecessor.  In the 11th century, its rulers converted to Islam.  Important Mali rulers included Sundiata (r. 1230-1255); he expanded the kingdom by conquering his neighbors, built a new capital at Niani, and won control over the Saharan trade routes.  Mansa (= “emperor”) Kankan Musa (r. 1312-1337), either the grandson or grandnephew of Sundiata, was the greatest and most famous king of Mali.  According to accounts of his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324-1325, he took along some 60,000 other pilgrims, 12,000 slaves, 500 of whom carried six pounds of gold each, and 80 camels, each loaded with 300 pounds of gold.

Image of Mansa Musa from a Fourteenth-century Map.

The spending of this gold had the unintended consequence of producing widespread inflation.  From Mecca, Mansa Musa brought with him scholars, artists, and architects, and his capital of Timbuktu became an important center of Islamic learning and culture.  His mosques built of burnt bricks served as centers for the conversion of Africans to Islam.  The Kingdom of Mali began to break up shortly after 1400, due in part by raids by desert nomads and in part by rebellions in states subject to rule by Mali.

Facade of a Mosque, Timbuktu.

Ancient Manuscripts, Timbuktu.

Loaded Donkey, Timbuktu.

The Kingdom of Songhai:  It began when their king Sunni Ali captured Timbuktu in 1468 and then the remainder of the Niger valley.  The major items traded by Songhai were gold, ivory, and slaves, and this commerce brought in great wealth.  Important among the later rulers of Songhai was Askia Mohammed (r. 1493-1528), whose ambition was to create an Islamic empire.  Askia made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1496, and he had in his train 1,000 foot soldiers, 500 horsemen, and great amounts of gold.  Like Mansa Musa, he brought back scholars and teachers.  And, once again, Timbuktu became a center of Islamic religion and culture.  According to a contemporary:

In those days, Timbuktu did not have its equal . . . from the province of Mali to the extreme limits of the region of the Maghrib for the solidity of its institutions, its political liberties, the purity of its morals, the security of persons, its consideration and compassion towards foreigners, its courtesy towards students and men of learning.
Or, to quote the Moorish historian Leo Africanus:
Here are great stores of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men that are bountifully maintained at the king's cost and charges, and hither are brought divers manuscripts or written books of Barbary, which are sold for more money than other merchandise.
The Kingdom of Songhai lasted until 1591, when the Sultan of Morocco, aspiring to gain greater control over the trans-Saharan trade, sent a three-thousand man army armed with firearms to invade its territory, and this force won an easy and decisive victory.

Common Characteristics of the Kingdoms of Sudan, Mali, and Songhai:  1) each had an economy based on trade, and each sought to control both the import of salt from the north and the purchase of gold from the south; 2) governments derived their revenues from taxes imposed on the buying and selling of salt, gold, and other goods; 3) important for the Mali and Songhai kingdoms was the influence of Islam, for it furthered trade, provided administrators, and stimulated intellectual life.  Despite its importance, Islam was an urban faith, and it did not penetrate the countryside, where most people retained their traditional beliefs and gods.  Hence the reliance of ruling kings upon Islam was a short-term strength and a long-term weakness; 4) more important was the aggressiveness of Berbers to the north, who sought the sources of African gold and who wanted to impose their version of Islam.  Foreign invaders destroyed both the Ghanan and the Songhai kingdoms.  In the aftermath of the second, a 17th century historian in Timbuktu wrote:

From that moment everything changed.  Danger took the place of security; poverty of wealth.  Peace gave way to distress, disasters, and violence. . . .
Conclusion:  About 1500, the continent of Africa housed a wide variety of languages, cultures, and political and economic arrangements.  Along the Mediterranean coast, the influence of Islam was all-important, and it reached into the Sudan and along the eastern coast.  In the center, native traditions still predominated.  Important new developments during the 15th century were the presence of ships along the Atlantic and Indian coasts carrying European traders and missionaries from Portugal, Holland, Spain, and England.  Initially, the Europeans established trading and supply centers along the coast, making little or no effort to move inland.  Important consequences nonetheless stemmed from the arrival of the Europeans.  Their presence constituted the first step toward involving Africa in a new and expanding global trading system that would be created and dominated by Europeans.  Overall, unfortunately, this system has exploited rather than benefitted most Africans, as the infamous Atlantic slave trade illustrates all too well.

Civilizations in the Americas Before 1500

Readings:  Craig, World Civilizations, Chapter 14.

Introduction:  1) Paleolithic (hunter-gatherers) peoples probably came to the Americas as early as 40,000 years ago, while most migrated during the last of the great ice ages (about 10,000 BC), crossing the Bering Straits on a land bridge.  2) After the glaciers melted, these new Americans were cut off from cultural developments elsewhere.  3) Over time, these migrants settled down in widely dispersed and isolated groups, and they developed different languages and cultures.  4) Technological advances allowed them work softer metals like gold, silver, and copper, but they did not use bronze or iron; further, metal objects were made primarily for decorative purposes, while tools and weapons were made of stone (obsidian), wood, or bone.  5) Agriculture was probably invented in the Americas between 9,000 and 6,000 BC, largely because climatic changes reduced opportunities for hunting.  The earliest farm communities were located in Mexico, Central America, and the Peruvian highlands, and early Americans grew corn, beans, squash, and assorted root crops, like the potato.  Plows were not invented because no domestic animals large enough to pull them were available, nor were wheeled vehicles used.  6) By the time the first voyages of discovery reached the Americas late in the 15th century, agriculture had developed sufficiently to support towns, and advanced civilizations had grown up in Mexico, Central America, and the Andes Mountains along the Pacific coast of South America.  We will focus on the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas.

Olmec Civilization:  It originated about 1200 BC along the Gulf of Mexico in present-day Mexico.  The Olmec developed a written language using hieroglyphics, which unfortunately is unreadable today.  They also invented intensive agriculture, a number system and calendars derived from observing the heavens.  For religious purposes, the Olmecs built huge temples and they carved gigantic heads from volcanic rock.

An Olmec Mask.

Since these heads, which weighed as much as 18 tons, were transported some 80 miles from the quarry, the Olmecs must have had a sophisticated political and social organization and some technology.  Other religious rituals included a type of ceremonial ball game called pok-a-tok, at the end of which losing players were sacrificed to the gods.  Olmec civilization vanished mysteriously about AD 200; nevertheless scholars believe it greatly influenced later Central and South American civilizations.  Olmec carvings have been found throughout Central America, and later peoples adopted and improved upon the Olmec system of writing, number system, calendar, architecture, and ritual ball games.

Mayan Civilization:  It developed in the Yucatan Peninsula on the site of present-day Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize.  This advanced civilization reached its peak between AD 300 and 700.  Mayan civilization developed around religious centers, which became populous city-states housing thousands.

The population of Tikal was about 70,000.  Mayan cities traded and fought wars with each other, and government was in the hands of an absolute ruler.  The social structure consisted of upper classes made up of priests, nobles, and warriors who did not work, while the vast majority of people were peasant farmers.  Mayan religion was preoccupied with time.  The failure to perform ceremonies at the correct time, for example, could lead to destruction.  Hence the Mayans developed an extremely accurate calendar and a number system based on 20.  Like the Olmec, Mayan writing cannot be read today.   For mysterious reasons, Mayan civilization collapsed beginning about AD 850, and the people left the religious centers.  Their descendants still live in Central America, and the Mayan language is still spoken.

Toltec Civilization:  It flourished in central Mexico between the 7th century AD and the beginning of the 13th.  The Toltecs invaded from the north and conquered the great city of Teotihuacán, which had arisen in the 1st century AD.

At its high point, this great city covered 8 square miles, and housed a population of perhaps 200,000; at its center was the massive Pyramid of the Sun.  Toltec religion focused on the worship of Quetzalcóat, the Feathered Serpent god, who had brought the blessings of civilization.  The Toltec invaders, who had a lower level of civilization than the people they conquered, adopted much, and by about AD 1,000, they had built an advanced civilization centered on the capital city of Tula.  Around 1200, the Toltec civilization was ended by foreign conquest.

Aztec Civilization:  It originated in the migration of a nomadic tribe from the north to central Mexico.  Beginning about 1325, the Aztecs slowly extended their authority over the local tribes, and they received tribute from them in the form of gold, turquoise, corn, animals, and slaves.  They also built their capital city of Tenochtitlán on an island in a lake on the site of present-day Mexico City.

It was linked to the mainland with causeways and had aqueducts to ensure a supply of fresh water; sewers carried waste materials away.  Over the years, Tenochtitlán grew into a great city with open plazas and marketplaces.

Farming was done on artificial islands called Chinampas.  From the peoples they conquered, the Aztecs borrowed architectural techniques, the calendar, and a writing system, not to mention their social system, their religion, and many of their arts and crafts.  Aztec government was in the hands of an emperor who held absolute power and who was usually elected by the priestly and warrior elite.  Held in awe like a god, the emperor was head of state, commander-in-chief of the military, and head priest, and his word was law.  Aztec religion was polytheistic, and priests used a sophisticated calendar to determine the feast days of each god.  Priests also sought to predict the future by reading signs, much as did their Roman counterparts.  Blood sacrifices to the sun were necessary, and in times of difficulties, the sacrifice were human hearts.

Aztec Sacrifices on the Temple Steps.

Aztec Sacrifices.

In 1487, some 20,000 captives were sacrificed on the steps of Aztec pyramids.  Aztec civilization ended in the late 15th century, partly because subject peoples rebelled and partly because of the arrival of Spanish conquerors in 1519 under Herman Cortes.  The Aztec Empire was the last of the great Indian empires in Mexico and Central America.

Cortes Greeting the Aztec Leader Montezuma.

Inca Civilization:  It originated in the valleys of the Andes Mountains about the same time as that of the Aztecs.

Early peoples had developed the technique of terrace-farming, so that they could grow potatoes, squash, beans, peanuts, cotton, and other crops on the sides of mountains.  They also learned basic irrigation techniques.  Although a number of city-states grew up in these valleys after about 1,000 BC, none became the dominant power until the 15th century.  Then the Incas began the creation of an empire.  At its height, it ranged some 2,000 miles along the Pacific Coast of South America (present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina) and had a population of perhaps 6 million.

Inca Map The Inca Empire.

Its capital city was Cuzco.  Other great cities were like Machu Picchu, to which the Incas retreated following the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.

The Inca City of Machu Pichu.

 Like the Aztecs, the Inca emperor exercised total power, and he presided over a well-organized empire.  The Incas forced their conquered peoples to adopt the Inca religion, language, and dress.  Communications between parts of the empire were made possible by an elaborate network of roads and bridges.  People's lives were controlled by the government, which, for example, forced every one to marry and restricted travel.  Because the Incas lacked a written language, they kept records by using the quipu, a knotted string used to prod the memory; their spoken language of Quechua survives and is widely spoken.

Like the Aztec, the Inca civilization suffered a rapid decline following the arrival of the Spanish under Francisco Pizzarro in 1531.

Interaction Between European and Non-European Civilizations Begins



Text @Robert W. Brown

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown;
Last Update:  18.IV.2008

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