New Internationalist

The Facts

Issue 98

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CULTURE[image, unknown] The Facts

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The FACTS

History of Culture

The New Internationalist looks back at the world's past cultural influences and explains today's trend towards uniformity.

1. From farm to city - the first elites
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Between one and two million years ago recurrent ice ages forced our ancestors to live and work together. Kept warm in skins, carrying fire, and using stone and flint tools they managed to expand and survive. Some settled in larger groups, farmed the rich soil left by retreating glaciers, and kept animals for food, labour, and clothing (11,000-10,000 BP*). When irrigation was developed to allow farming beyond rainfed zones, organisation was needed to administer the water and distribute and exchange centrally-manufactured metal, wood, and stoneware. In four independent sites the first urban civilizations based on religion and the temple were born (from 6,000 BP) - see map.

In the new cities smelting was invented - first for ornaments and weapons, then for tools - pottery was made and decorated, and the first writing was developed for listing grain in centralised stores (5,100 BP). It was their centralised economies that set these early civilizations apart from their herding and farming neighbours. But the city also meant complex division of labour - a literate class, monumental public buildings, law-making, political and religious hierarchies, a kingship descended from the gods, armies - and ultimately a claim to empire.

* 'BP' is used throughout to mean Before Present. Subtract 2,000 years for BC equivalent.


2. From city to empire - conflict with barbarians

During the next 3,000 years, as civilizations spread and collided, cultural exchange took place. I n the West, before the rise of the barbarian Roman empire to its height in 1,900 BP, Greek influence extended at various times from Britain to India (3,600 BP). In the Easy, Chinese and Indian empires met and combined in Indo China. These links,forged and maintained by trade, also allowed for the diffusion of the great world religions.

But the band of urban civilization was still narrow and exposed to unrelenting pressures from roving barbarians eager to share the fruits of urbanisation. With the domestication of the horse, Indo European pastoralists (including Aryans) moved freely through the open landscapes around these early civilisations - taking their language (the basis of Sanskrit, French, Latin and many others) and sharing their skills wherever they went (3,550-2,500 BP). They were followed by vast bands of more hostile nomads (from 2,300 BP) from the north and west whose cavalry armies forced the collapse of the classical world.

The most dramatic fall was that of the Roman empire - but northern China was equally devastated, Persia was weakened, and Gupta rule crumbled in India. The civilized world continued in a state of disruption, with sovereign rivalries forcing increasing fragmentation, until the Mongols began their brief but bloody conquest of Asia (700 BP).

On the eve of European expansion there were seven main urban-based civilizations surrounded by less organised communities of nomads, hunter-gatherers and farmers.

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3. Prayer and the sword - the spread of the world religions

All the great world religions originated in Asia. About 2,500 years ago Confuscius and Lao-tzu in China, Gautama the Buddha in India, Zarathustra in Persia, Pythagoras in Greece, and the Hebrew prophet Isaiah were all claiming their followings. Monotheism surfaced - perhaps as a means of unifying each empire, perhaps as a logical extension of the city's hierarchy - and threatened the multitude of gods and goddesses whose spirits once stalked the earth.

Buddhism began as a reformist movement within the oldest world religion of Hinduism. Unusual in seeking deliverance by annihilation of personal desire rather than allegiance to one god, it spread into south east and central Asia along trading routes. It challenged but failed to eclipse national Shintoism in Japan (1,400 BP) and was soon ranked alongside ethical Confuscianism and mystical Taoism as the third of China's great religions (1,800 BP).

In Mesopotamia the Jews attributed their escape from oppression in Egypt to the divine Jaweh (3,200 BP) and Judaism was kept alive by a succession of prophets, one of which -Jesus Christ -wasthe founder of Christianity (2,000 BP). Mohammed too, the founder of Islam (1,400 BP) believed himself to be the latest in that same line of prophets. Meanwhile, in Persia (1,500 BP) Zarathustra founded the dualistic religion of Zoroastrianism which spread through the Roman empire until ousted by Christianity.

[image, unknown] Christianity, like Islam, appealed particularly to the poor who found in it a message of hope. As it became more organised a hierarchy developed, modelled on the structure of the Roman empire through which it spread until Islam - brought by energetic Arab and Turkish conquerors - claimed the eastern reaches of Christian influence in the wake of the tottering Roman and Persian empires. Islam was also the inspiration behind the great Mughal empire in northern India.

Although Christianity was almost entirely a European religion in 500 BP, Spain and Portugal, powers of the Catholic sect, were soon to impose it by prayer and the sword wherever their vessels touched land, and the AngloSaxons of the Protestant sect soon followed suit.

 

4. Migration and population - the multicoloured world

[image, unknown] Before 500 BP there was almost total racial segregation in the world. But less than 300 years later six major movements of people had forever altered the face -and colourof the earth. The biggest change occurred in the Americas where the native population declined by 90 per cent within a century - whole tribes being decimated by the settlers and replaced by white Europeans, black African slaves, and a mixed race of mestizos. There was also a steadily growing trickle from Russia across the Urals to Siberia, a substantial flow from India to east and south Africa and the Caribbean, and from China into south east Asia. The diffusion of races involved a corresponding diffusion of religion, plants, animals and food crops. This interchange of plants produced an enormous increase in food supplies, an unprecedented rise in population, and the start of worldwide trade.

 

5. A world of colonies - the European empires

In Africa independent cultural and political achievements were reaching their zenith 200 to 500 years ago, with flamboyant states in Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kongo, Zimbabwe and elsewhere while western Europe was still essentially an agricultural society of lords and peasants.

When the Europeans took to the sea from 584 BP in search of maritime routes to the treasures of Asia, they discovered a continent no-one suspected and found that the oceans were all connected. By 200 BP nearly all the world's coastlines had been explored.

The first casualties of European expansion were the isolated Aztec and Inca civilisations,which fell to the Spanish 350 years ago. With the Portuguese, the Spanish overran central and southern America. And the gold they plundered, some of which was captured by pirates, financed European governments for 200 years. England, too, grew wealthy on American and Caribbean trade further north as France began to withdraw,

But as Spanish and Portuguese power waned at home in Europe, control of their Latin American colonies weakened and by 1830 they had retreated from their transatlantic empires along with the British and the French.

Until they had the strength of the Industrial Revolution behind them, however, European influence and power in the rest of the world was confined to a few trading stations along the coast. But by 80 BP millions of Europeans had poured overseas and into Asiatic Russia. And Africa -- a continent four times the size of Europe - had been parcelled out among the European powers.

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Colinisation of the Americas in 1760
The colonies as they appeared in 1914

When the US annexed Puerto Rico and the Philippines and the other islands of the Pacific, and asserted a controlling voice in Latin America affairs, it seemed as though European expansion was turning into the white race over the coloured majority.

This age of expansive imperialism left a European imprint on the world.

 

6. Diversity to uniformity - the multinational mantle

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This map shows where just four multinationals, Nestle, Philips, British American Tobacco and IBM have subsidaries provides a local base for marketing MNC products in neighbouring countries.

Two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts spawned a rash of political alliances that have split today's world into power blocks like NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the Arab League, and the Organisation of African Unity. But trade still links a divided world-with more than 16 multilateral economic blocks like the EEC and OPEC throughout the world, and the rise of the giant multinational corporations (MNC's).

Of the 100 largest economic powers of the world, 53 are countries and 47 are MNC's. But while a country's power and influence tends to be restricted by political presssures and finite resources, the MNC's can range far and wide - quietly circling the globe with their own particular technoconsumer colonialism. And their power is growing - perhaps four times as fast as national powers. Although 21 of the top 50 MNC's are based in the US, with Japan (6), the UK (5), France (5), West Germany (4), and Holland (3) far behind, profits are accumulated throughout the parent company's subsidiaries worldwide, giving the MNC's added independence, flexibility and power.

Oil is the fountainhead of many of the biggest companies but food, tobacco, electrical products and cosmetics are important too. It is these goods that are beamed at Third World consumers (the penetration of four MNCs that concentrate on consumer products are shown on the map above). Though city dwellers are the main customers, it is to the city that the rural poor increasingly look for a new kind of civilisation). There to meet them is the uniform culture of the industrialised north and the unquenchable thirst of materialism.

Sources:
All maps are taken from the Peters projection.


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