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About the Author
Among E. H. Gombrich’s many writings are the international bestsellers The Story of Art and Art and Illusion. He was director of the Warburg Institute of the University of London from 1959 to 1976.
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A LITTLE HISTORY of THE WORLD
By E. H. GOMBRICH
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1985 DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag GmbH und Co. KG, Cologne, Germany
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOnce Upon a Time
All stories begin with 'Once upon a time'. And that's just what this story is all about: what happened, once upon a time. Once you were so small that, even standing on tiptoes, you could barely reach your mother's hand. Do you remember? Your own history might begin like this: 'Once upon a time there was a small boy' - or a small girl - 'and that small boy was me.' But before that you were a baby in a cradle. You won't remember that, but you know it's true. Your father and mother were also small once, and so was your grandfather, and your grandmother, a much longer time ago, but you know that too. After all, we say: 'They are old.' But they too had grandfathers and grandmothers, and they, too, could say: 'Once upon a time'. And so it goes on, further and further back. Behind every 'Once upon a time' there is always another. Have you ever tried standing between two mirrors? You should. You will see a great long line of shiny mirrors, each one smaller than the one before, stretching away into the distance, getting fainter and fainter, so that you never see the last. But even when you can't see them any more, the mirrors still go on. They are there, and you know it.
And that's how it is with 'Once upon a time'. We can't see where it ends. Grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's grandfather ... it makes your head spin. But say it again, slowly, and in the end you'll be able to imagine it. Then add one more. That gets us quickly back into the past, and from there into the distant past. But you will never reach the beginning, because behind every beginning there's always another 'Once upon a time'.
It's like a bottomless well. Does all this looking down make you dizzy? It does me. So let's light a scrap of paper, and drop it down into that well. It will fall slowly, deeper and deeper. And as it burns it will light up the sides of the well. Can you see it? It's going down and down. Now it's so far down it's like a tiny star in the dark depths. It's getting smaller and smaller ... and now it's gone.
Our memory is like that burning scrap of paper. We use it to light up the past. First of all our own, and then we ask old people to tell us what they remember. After that we look for letters written by people who are already dead. And in this way we light our way back. There are buildings that are just for storing old scraps of paper that people once wrote on - they are called archives. In them you can find letters written hundreds of years ago. In an archive, I once found a letter which just said: 'Dear Mummy, Yesterday we ate some lovely truffles, love from William.' William was a little Italian prince who lived four hundred years ago. Truffles are a special sort of mushroom.
But we only catch glimpses, because our light is now falling faster and faster: a thousand years ... five thousand years ... ten thousand years. Even in those days there were children who liked good things to eat. But they couldn't yet write letters. Twenty thousand ... fifty thousand ... and even then people said, as we do, 'Once upon a time'. Now our memory-light is getting very small ... and now it's gone. And yet we know that it goes on much further, to a time long, long ago, before there were any people and when our mountains didn't look as they do today. Some of them were bigger, but as the rain poured down it slowly turned them into hills. Others weren't there at all. They grew up gradually, out of the sea, over millions and millions of years.
But even before the mountains there were animals, quite different from those of today. They were huge and looked rather like dragons. And how do we know that? We sometimes find their bones, deep in the ground. When I was a schoolboy in Vienna I used to visit the Natural History Museum, where I loved to gaze at the great skeleton of a creature called a Diplodocus. An odd name, Diplodocus. But an even odder creature. It wouldn't fit into a room at home - or even two, for that matter. It was as tall as a very tall tree, and its tail was half as long as a football pitch. What a tremendous noise it must have made, as it munched its way through the primeval forest!
But we still haven't reached the beginning. It all goes back much further - thousands of millions of years. That's easy enough to say, but stop and think for a moment. Do you know how long one second is? It's as long as counting: one, two, three. And how about a thousand million seconds? That's thirty-two years! Now, try to imagine a thousand million years! At that time there were no large animals, just creatures like snails and worms. And before then there weren't even any plants. The whole earth was a 'formless void'. There was nothing. Not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of grass, not a flower, nothing green. Just barren desert rocks and the sea. An empty sea: no fish, no seashells, not even any seaweed. But if you listen to the waves, what do they say? 'Once upon a time ...' Once the earth was perhaps no more than a swirling cloud of gas and dust, like those other, far bigger ones we can see today through our telescopes. For billions and trillions of years, without rocks, without water and without life, that swirling cloud of gas and dust made rings around the sun. And before that? Before that, not even the sun, our good old sun, was there. Only weird and amazing giant stars and smaller heavenly bodies, whirling among the gas clouds in an infinite, infinite universe.
'Once upon a time' - but now all this peering down into the past is making me feel dizzy again. Quick! Let's get back to the sun, to earth, to the beautiful sea, to plants and snails and dinosaurs, to our mountains, and, last of all, to human beings. It's a bit like coming home, isn't it? And just so that 'Once upon a time' doesn't keep dragging us back down into that bottomless well, from now on we'll always shout: 'Stop! When did that happen?'
And if we also ask, 'And how exactly did that happen?' we will be asking about history. Not just a story, but our story, the story that we call the history of the world. Shall we begin?
Chapter TwoThe Greatest Inventors of All Time
Near Heidelberg, in Germany, somebody was once digging a pit when they came across a bone, deep down under the ground. It was a human bone. A lower jaw. But no human beings today have jaws like this one. It was so massive and strong, and had such powerful teeth! Whoever owned it must have been able to bite really hard. And must have lived a long time ago for the bone to be buried so deep.
On another occasion, but still in Germany - in the Neander valley - a human skull was found. And this was also immensely interesting because nobody alive today has a skull like this one either. Instead of a forehead like ours it just had two thick ridges above the eyebrows. Now, if all our thinking goes on behind our foreheads and these people didn't have any foreheads, then perhaps they didn't think as much as we do. Or at any rate, thinking may have been harder for them. So the people who examined the skull concluded that once upon a time there were people who weren't very good at thinking, but who were better at biting than we are today.
But now you're going to say: 'Stop! That's not what we agreed. When did these people live, what were they like, and how did they live?'
Your questions make me blush, as I have to admit that we don't know, precisely. But we will find out one day, and maybe you will want to help. We don't know because these people didn't yet know how to write things down, and memory only takes us a little way back. But we are making new discoveries all the time. Scientists have found that certain materials, such as wood and plants and volcanic rocks, change slowly but regularly over a very long period of time. This means that we can work out when they grew or were formed. And since the discoveries in Germany, people have carried on searching and digging, and have made some startling finds. In Asia and Africa, in particular, more bones have been found, some at least as old as the Heidelberg jaw. These were our ancestors who may have already been using stones as tools more than a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. They were different from the Neanderthal people who appeared about seventy thousand years earlier and inhabited the earth for about two hundred thousand years. And I owe the Neanderthal people an apology, for despite their low foreheads, their brains were no smaller than those of most people today.
'But all these "about"s, with no names and no dates ... this isn't history!' you say, and you are right. It comes before history. That is why we call it 'prehistory', because we only have a rough idea of when it all happened. But we still know something about the people whom we call prehistoric. At the time when real history begins - and we will come to that in the next chapter - people already had all the things we have today: clothes, houses and tools, ploughs to plough with, grains to make bread with, cows for milking, sheep for shearing, dogs for hunting and for company, bows and arrows for shooting and helmets and shields for protection. Yet with all of these things there must have been a first time. Someone must have made the discovery. Isn't it an amazing thought that, one day, a prehistoric man - or a woman - must have realised that meat from wild animals was easier to chew if it was first held over a fire and roasted? And that one day someone discovered how to make fire? Do you realise what that actually means? Can you do it? Not with matches, because they didn't exist. But by rubbing two sticks together until they become so hot that in the end they catch fire. Have a go and then you'll see how hard it is!
Tools must have been invented by someone too. The earliest ones were probably just sticks and stones. But soon stones were being shaped and sharpened. We have found lots of these shaped stones in the ground. And because of these stone tools we call this time the Stone Age. But people didn't yet know how to build houses. Not a pleasant thought, since at that time it was often intensely cold - at certain periods far colder than today. Winters were longer and summers shorter. Snow lay deep throughout the year, not only on mountain tops, but down in the valleys as well, and glaciers, which were immense in those days, spread far out into the plains. This is why we say that the Stone Age began before the last Ice Age had ended. Prehistoric people must have suffered dreadfully from the cold, and if they came across a cave where they could shelter from the freezing winds, how happy they must have been! For this reason they are also known as 'cavemen', although they may not have actually lived in caves.
Do you know what else these cavemen invented? Can't you guess? They invented talking. I mean having real conversations with each other, using words. Of course animals also make noises - they can cry out when they feel pain and make warning calls when danger threatens, but they don't have names for things as human beings do. And prehistoric people were the first creatures to do so.
They invented something else that was wonderful too: pictures. Many of these can still be seen today, scratched and painted on the walls of caves. No painter alive now could do better. The animals they depict don't exist any more, they were painted so long ago. Elephants with long, thick coats of hair and great, curving tusks - woolly mammoths - and other Ice Age animals. Why do you think these prehistoric people painted animals on the walls of caves? Just for decoration? That doesn't seem likely, because the caves were so dark. Of course we can't be sure, but we think they may have been trying to make magic, that they believed that painting pictures of animals on the walls would make those animals appear. Rather like when we say 'Talk of the devil!' when someone we've been talking about turns up unexpectedly. After all, these animals were their prey, and without them they would starve. So they may have been trying to invent a magic spell. It would be nice to think that such things worked. But they never have yet.
The Ice Age lasted for an unimaginably long time. Many tens of thousands of years, which was just as well, for otherwise these people would not have had time to invent all these things. But gradually the earth grew warmer and the ice retreated to the high mountains, and people - who by now were much like us - learnt, with the warmth, to plant grasses and then grind the seeds to make a paste which they could bake in the fire, and this was bread.
In the course of time they learnt to build tents and tame animals which until then had roamed freely around. And they followed their herds, as people in Lapland still do. Because forests were dangerous places in those days, home to large numbers of wild animals such as wolves and bears, people in several places (and this is often the case with inventors) had the same excellent idea: they built 'pile dwellings' in the middle of lakes, huts on stilts rammed deep in the mud. By this time they were masters at shaping and polishing their tools and used a different, harder stone to bore holes in their axe-heads for handles. That must have been hard work! Work which could take the whole of the winter. Imagine how often the axe-head must have broken at the last minute, so that they had to start all over again.
The next thing these people discovered was how to make pots out of clay, which they soon learnt to decorate with patterns and fire in ovens, although by this time, in the late Stone Age, they had stopped painting pictures of animals. In the end, perhaps six thousand years ago (that is, 4000 BC), they found a new and more convenient way of making tools: they discovered metals. Not all of them at once, of course. It began with some green stones which turn into copper when melted in a fire. Copper has a nice shine, and you can use it to make arrowheads and axes, but it is soft and gets blunt more quickly than stone.
But once again, people found an answer. They discovered that if you add just a little of another, very rare, metal, it makes the copper stronger. That metal is tin, and a mixture of tin and copper is called bronze. The age in which people made themselves helmets and swords, axes and cauldrons, and bracelets and necklaces out of bronze is, naturally, known as the Bronze Age.
Now let's take a last look at these people dressed in skins, as they paddle their boats made of hollowed-out tree trunks towards their villages of huts on stilts, bringing grain, or perhaps salt from mines in the mountains. They drink from splendid pottery vessels, and their wives and daughters wear jewellery made of coloured stones, and even gold. Do you think much has changed since then? They were people just like us. Often unkind to one another. Often cruel and deceitful. Sadly, so are we. But even then a mother might sacrifice her life for her child and friends might die for each other. No more but also no less often than people do today. And how could it be otherwise? After all, we're only talking about things that happened between three and ten thousand years ago. There hasn't been enough time for us to change!
So, just once in a while, when we are talking, or eating some bread, using tools or warming ourselves by the fire, we should remember those early people with gratitude, for they were the greatest inventors of all time.
Excerpted from A LITTLE HISTORY of THE WORLD by E. H. GOMBRICH Copyright © 1985 by DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag GmbH und Co. KG, Cologne, Germany. Excerpted by permission.
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