Essentials of World History to 1500

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World History & Geography 1

Essentials of World History to 1500

Ver. 3.1.11 - Rev. 8/14/2013


The following pages describe significant people, places, events, and concepts in the story of humankind. This information forms the core of our study; it will be fleshed-out by classroom discussions, audio-visual materials, readings, writings, and other activities.

This knowledge will help you understand how the world works and how humans behave. It will help you understand many of the books, news reports, films, articles, and events you will encounter throughout the rest of your life.


The Student’s Friend

World History & Geography 1

Essentials of world history to 1500


What is history?

History is the story of human experience.
Why study history?

  • History shows us how the world works and how humans behave.

  • History helps us make judgments about current and future events.

  • History affects our lives every day.

  • History is a fascinating story of human treachery and achievement.


What is geography?

Geography is the study of interaction between humans and the environment.
Why study geography?

  • Geography is a major factor affecting human development.

  • Humans are a major factor affecting our natural environment.

  • Geography affects our lives every day.

  • Geography helps us better understand the peoples of the world.


Overview of history

Page 1

Some basic concepts

Page 2

Unit 1 - Origins of the Earth and Humans

Page 3

Unit 2 - Civilization Arises in Mesopotamia & Egypt

Page 5

Unit 3 - Civilization Spreads East to India & China

Page 9

Unit 4 - Civilization Spreads West to Greece & Rome

Page 13

Unit 5 - Early Middle Ages: 500 to 1000 AD

Page 17

Unit 6 - Late Middle Ages: 1000 to 1500 AD

Page 21

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The Student’s Friend: World History & Geography 1 may be freely reproduced and distributed by teachers and students for educational purposes. It may not be reproduced or distributed for commercial or other purposes without permission. See for more information and related teaching materials

Overview: waves of history
World history is the story of human experience. It is a story of how people, ideas, and goods spread across the earth creating our past and our present. To help us better understand this experience, we will divide history into four main eras: prehistory, ancient times, middle ages, and modern times. Our story begins during prehistory in east Africa where human life began. From Africa humans spread to Eurasia (Europe and Asia), to Australia, and finally to the Americas. Human migration was one of the great waves of history.
During most of history, most humans made their living by hunting and gathering. Then about 12,000 years ago, people in the Middle East learned how to cultivate a wild wheat plant, and agriculture was born -- another great wave of history. No longer were humans constantly on the move searching for food. People could settle in one place, build cities, and make inventions like the plow, wheel, and writing. The complex societies that resulted are what we call civilization, another wave of history and the start of ancient times.

In terms of a human lifetime, waves of change moved slowly, and much stayed the same amid the changes.

Waves of history were channeled over the earth by geography. The first civilizations arose in river valleys where rivers provided fresh water for raising crops and transportation for moving crops to market. Beginning in Mesopotamia, civilization spread west to Egypt and east to India. These three civilizations formed an early international trading network that eventually extended across the connected lands of Eurasia and North Africa, a vast region that lies in a temperate climate zone where most of the world’s people have lived since prehistoric times. More people meant more ideas, more inventions, and more diseases than in other parts of the world. Waves of change took longer to reach sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas because they were separated from Eurasia by physical barriers of desert and ocean.
As agriculture replaced hunting and gathering, human population increased. People in civilized societies divided themselves into unequal social classes with priests and kings at the top. Wealthy landowners collected rent payments from poor farmers, men came to dominate women, and slavery became common.

In the grasslands of central Eurasia, nomadic people chose not to settle down and raise crops. They lived by herding animals from pasture to pasture with the seasons. They learned to ride horses, developed cavalry skills, and attacked settled communities. Sometimes these nomadic raiders conquered great civilizations.

During ancient times people in Eurasia invented many things that still define civilization today such as money, armies, iron, math, literature, democracy, and major world religions -- to name a few. Ancient times lasted for roughly 4,000 years, ending about 500 AD after nomadic raiders brought down great classical civilizations in India, China, and the Mediterranean. The middle ages followed and lasted a thousand years.
Change spread to new places mostly through trading contacts. Some people welcomed change, while others avoided change and tried to maintain traditional ways. In the late middle ages, China was a superpower with the greatest navy in the world until China's rulers chose to reduce contact with the outside world and dismantled the fleet. This choice opened the door for Europeans to make the great voyages of discovery that connected the world and began the modern era around the year 1500. Change was moving faster now.
Three centuries later, Europeans learned how to power machines by burning fuels, unleashing the Industrial Revolution -- another great wave of history. Change moved even faster. At first, Europeans used their machines to dominate other peoples of the world who lacked advanced technology. Then Europeans turned their machines on each other, launching two suicidal world wars that ended European world dominance.
The stream of time flows on. As always, we humans face challenges to our survival, but in our time the challenges are global. Modern technology is consuming the world’s resources, threatening the earth’s environment, and it has produced weapons that could end all human life. The world is tied together through communications and trade, but the world remains divided between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
History created our past and our present, but the future is up to us. There is no instruction manual for the future, but we do have a guide that shows how the world works and how humans behave. That guide is history.
Some basic concepts of history and geography
1. primary and secondary sources

We learn about the past from historians. But, where do historians get their information? Usually, they study primary sources, which are sources created at about the same time as the event being studied, often by people involved in the event. Examples of primary sources include artifacts uncovered by archeologists, art works, government records, diaries, letters, speeches, and newspaper articles.

Historians also study secondary sources. These are sources created after the event by people not involved in the event. Examples of secondary sources include history books, textbooks, encyclopedias, and the Student’s Friend.

After historians examine their sources, they write histories based on their understanding of the truth. But, what they write may be influenced by their own opinions or by lack of information. It is not possible for historians to know everything about a past event, so they must rely on the evidence left behind in the form of primary and secondary sources. If new evidence is found, interpretations of history can change.

2. BC and AD

People in different parts of the world have adopted many ways to mark the passage of time. The Chinese calendar counts years from the reign of the mythical Yellow Emperor in 2698 BC. The Islamic calendar numbers years from 622 AD when Muhammad fled from Mecca. Both calendars are based on lunar cycles. The year 2000 in our calendar is 4697 in the Chinese calendar and 1421 in the Islamic calendar.

Our solar calendar comes from ancient Egypt. It was modified during the middle ages in Europe, and it has been adopted by most of the world for official purposes. Years are numbered from the birth of Christ: years before year 1 are designated BC for “Before Christ;” years after year 1 are designated AD, an abbreviation for the Latin term Anno Domini, which means “in the year of the lord.” AD years are counted forward from year 1; BC years are counted backward from year 1. Thus, 500 BC was earlier than 200 BC.

In recent years, people who wish to avoid the reference to Christ have begun using the term BCE (Before the Common Era) to replace BC and CE (Common Era) to replace AD. The terms BCE and CE are found in some history books. The Student’s Friend uses the traditional terms BC and AD because they are more widely known in our culture, because there was no Common Era in history, and because non-Christians may object to the suggestion that the Christian era is the “common era” of humankind.

3. hemispheres

A hemisphere is any half of earth’s surface; the term comes from the Greek word for half a sphere. The equator (zero degrees latitude) divides the earth into the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. The dividing line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres is not so well defined, but it is usually placed at the Prime Meridian (zero degrees longitude) or at 20 degrees west longitude.

North and South America and surrounding waters are considered to be in the Western Hemisphere, while the continents of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia are considered to be in the Eastern Hemisphere.
4. climate zones

The earth has three main climate zones: the tropics, the temperate zones, and the arctic and antarctic regions. Although local climates can vary considerably within zones, the tropics are generally the warmest areas of the earth because they are near the equator where the sun’s rays are most direct. The Tropic of Cancer is an imaginary line that circles the earth at 23-1/2 degrees north latitude, the northernmost point reached by the sun during our summer (on the summer solstice). The Tropic of Capricorn lies at 23-1/2 degrees south latitude, the farthest point south reached by the sun during our winter (on the winter solstice).

The arctic and antarctic regions are located near the earth poles where the sun’s rays are least direct and weakest: thus these are the coldest areas of the earth. The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line that circles the earth at 66-1/2 degrees north latitude; the Antarctic Circle lies at 66-1/2 degrees south latitude.

Those areas of the earth that lie between the tropics and the arctic/antarctic regions are called the temperate zones, meaning areas where temperature and climate tend to be more moderate. Most of Asia, Europe, and North America lie within the northern temperate zone, which is a good place to grow crops. This is where most of the world’s human population has been concentrated since prehistoric times.

Unit 1 - Prehistory: Origins of the Earth and Humans
LOCATIONS: Europe, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, North America, South America, Ural Mountains, Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Great Rift Valley, Bering Strait, the tropics, arctic and antarctic regions, temperate zones
5. Big Bang theory

Most astronomers agree the universe probably began with an event similar to an explosion, a big bang. The universe is a term for all of outer space including the planets, stars, and galaxies. Galaxies are clusters of hundreds of millions of stars, and there are hundreds of millions of galaxies in the universe. Our world, Earth, is located in the Milky Way galaxy, named after the milky-looking band of stars stretching across the night sky that is an edge-on view of our galaxy.

The Big Bang theory is supported by scientific observations that indicate galaxies in space are moving away from Earth. Astronomers use the speed of this movement to estimate the age of the universe at about 15 billion years. Many scientists accept a figure of about 5 billion years as the age of Earth.
6. continents

Geographers divide most of the land surface of the earth into seven large landmasses called continents. The continents are Europe, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, North America, and South America. Antarctica is the only continent not settled by humans. The Ural Mountains of Russia are considered the dividing line between Europe and Asia. Europe and Asia form a single large landmass called Eurasia.

The continents, however, cover less than a third of the earth’s surface. Earth is mostly a water planet, and 97% of that water is found in the earth’s four oceans, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian and the Arctic. Because ocean water is salty, it cannot be used for drinking, farming, or manufacturing. Far less than 1% of the earth’s water is fresh water, water that is not salty and can be used to grow crops.
7. plate tectonics

According to the theory of plate tectonics, the earth’s surface is composed of about a dozen plates of solid material that slowly move as they float on a bed of magma, or molten rock. In other words, the surface of the earth resembles a cracked eggshell, and the pieces of the shell are moving. These plates include both the ocean floor and the continents. The continents are simply high areas on the plates above sea level, so both the continents and the sea floor move with their plates.

Earthquakes and volcanoes often occur at boundaries between plates as the plates push together, spread apart, or slide against one another. For example, the Pacific Plate is slowly grinding past the North American Plate in California creating enormous pressures along the San Andreas Fault that are expected to produce a major earthquake sometime within the next few decades. Plate tectonics continues to shape the earth’s surface, as does erosion caused by wind and water. Scientists believe all of the present continents might have been together in a single large landmass long ago before they broke apart and drifted to their present locations on the earth. This super continent of the past is called Pangaea.

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