How the Winds Changed History

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a prolific and learned English-born historian of Spanish descent, begins his new book as follows:

History has two big stories to tell. The first is the very long story of how human cultures diverged—how they parted and developed differences, in ignorance or contempt of one another. The second is the main subject of this book: a relatively short and recent story of convergence—of how human groups got back in touch, exchanged culture, copied each other’s lives, and became more like each other again.

This arrestingly simple scheme was his own invention, though he acknowledges affinities with a recent article advancing a similar idea that appeared when his book was already in press. The notion gives an overall coherence to Pathfinders, making the myriad explorers with whom he deals agents of what another age would surely have called progress. Yet Fernández-Armesto is no Pollyanna. He admits but does not emphasize the destructive aspects of cultural encounters across the millennia and the unhappy fate of marginal peoples exposed to unfamiliar diseases and new weapons who, often as not, were compelled to labor for distant markets wholly beyond their control.

Of Pathfinders‘ nine chronologically arrayed chapters, only two, covering a mere sixty-eight pages, deal with exploration before 1000 CE. Since he begins “around a million and a half years ago” with the migration of Homo erectus and then of Homo sapiens from the African savanna, his treatment of human prehistory before the end of the last ice age is hasty, and concludes with a very dubious rhetorical flourish:

We think worldwide uniformities of culture are a new phenomenon of our era of globalization. Nothing could be more wrong: the great age of global culture—the most “globalized” era in history—was in the Stone Age. When that age ended, diversification accelerated. When some peoples began to abandon foraging and take up farming, and to forget nomadism in favor of urban life, there arose the sharpest differences of culture ever experienced by any species.

In view of the wide differences that still exist between, for example, Eskimo and Pygmy society, this vision of Stone Age globalism remains implausible. Amazing ingenuity in adapting to divergent climates and varied food resources is a better way to describe the impression given by the scant archaeological and anthropological evidence we have.

To be sure, diversity did increase with the emergence of farming and cities. Yet the next section of Pathfinders‘ initial chapter is headed “The Beginnings of Convergence,” and deals with traces of interregional trade among early farmers. He goes on to deal with “communication between civilizations” and cites Egyptian written records describing the first recorded human being—“Harkhuf”—“whom we can fairly call a specialized explorer.” Around “the middle of the third millennium BC” he made three expeditions into central Africa, whence he brought back a pygmy “who dances divine dances from the land of the spirits.”

The discussion of “trail finders” concludes with brief accounts of Phoenician and Greek explorers of …

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