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November 2002 * Historically Speaking1 1 Webs of Interaction in Human History J. R. McNeill and William H. McNeill One of the most pressing tasks world historians have had in recent years is to develop a more adequate conceptualization ofhuman history as a whole, one that combines the insights ofthe comparative history ofseparate civilizations with world systems analysis. Any schema, moreover, that fails to take into account the importance of humanity's encounters and collisionswith the organisms of the earth's ecosystem and the reciprocal impact ofclimate and environment on human history is clearly inadequate. Admittedly, the attempt to understand human history as a whole is a daunting task, but one that historians cannot avoid simply because ofits magnitude and complexity. With thatin mind, we advance the notion ofthe centrality ofwebs ofinteraction in human history as the basis ofa more satisfactory account ofthe past. The career of webs of communication and interaction, we submit, provides the overarching structure ofhuman history. Aweb, as we see it, is a set ofconnections that link people to one another. These connections may take many forms: chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship , rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition. In all such relationships, people communicate information and use that information to shape their future behavior. They also communicate, or transfer, useful technologies, goods, crops, ideas, and much else. Furthermore, they inadvertently exchange diseases and weeds, items theycannot use but which affect their Uves (and deaths) nonetheless. The exchange and spread ofsuch information, items, and inconveniences, and human responses to these, shape history. What drives history is the human ambition to alter one's condition to match one's hopes. But just what people hoped for, both in the material and spiritual realms, and how they pursued their hopes, depended on the information, ideas, and examples available to them. Thus webs channeled and coordinated everyday human ambition. Although always present, over time the human web changed its nature and meaning so much thatwe will speakofwebs in the plural . At its most basic level, the human web dates at least to the development of human speech. Our distant ancestors created social solidarity within their small bands through exchanges ofinformation and goods. Beyond this, even tens ofdiousands ofyears ago, bands interacted and communicated with one another, if only sporadically. Despite migrations that took our forebears to every continent except Antarctica, we remain a single species today, testament to the exchange of genes and mates among bands through the ages. Moreover, the spread ofbows and arrows throughout most ofthe world (notAustralia) in remote times shows how a useful technology could pass from group to group. These exchanges are evidence of a very loose, very far-flung, very old web ofcommunication and interaction: thefirstworldwideweb. Butpeople were few and the earth was large, so the web remained loose until about 12,000 years ago. With the denser populations that came with agriculture, new and tighter webs arose, superimposed on the loose, original web. The first worldwide web never disappeared, but sections within it grew so much more interactive that they formed smaller webs oftheir own. These arose in select environments where agriculture or an unusual abundance offish made a more settled life feasible, allowing regular, sustained interactions among larger numbers ofpeople. These webs were local or regional in scope. Eventually, after about 5,000years, some ofthese local and regional webs grew tighter still, thanks to the development ofcities that served as crossroads and storehouses for information and goods (and infections). They became metropolitan webs, based on interactions connecting cities to agricultural and pastoral hinterlands, and on other interactions connecting cities to one another. Metropolitan webs did not link everyone. Some people (until recent times) remained outside, economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, politically independent. The first metropolitan web formed 5,000 years ago around the cities ofancient Sumer. The largest, formed about 2,000 years ago by a gradual amalgamation ofmany smaller ones, spanned most of Eurasia and North Africa. Some of these metropolitan webs survived , spread, and absorbed or merged with others. Other webs prospered for a time but eventually fell apart. In the last 500 years, oceanic navigation united the world's metropolitan webs (and its few...


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