asia-historyThe mountain ranges of Europe and

When the great land masses of Africa and India collide with Europe and Asia, about 100 million years ago, they cause the crust of the earth to crumple upwards in a long almost continuous ridge of high ground – from the Alps, through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to the Himalayas. This barrier will have a profound influence on human .

To the south and east of the mountain range are various fertile regions, watered by great rivers flowing from the mountains. By contrast, north of the mountain range is a continuous strip of less fertile grasslands – the steppes, on which a horseman can ride almost without interruption from Mongolia to Moscow.

This unbroken stretch of land north of the mountains, reaching from the Pacific in the east to the Atlantic in the west, means that the boundary between Asia and Europe is a somewhat vague concept. Indeed Europe is really the western peninsula of the much larger mass of Asia.

In the south there is a natural barrier, long accepted as a dividing line – formed by the waters of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. North from here the boundary is notional. In recent times it has been accepted as passing east from the Black Sea to the Caspian and then stretching north from the Caspian along the eastern slopes of the Ural mountains.

Out of Africa: more than a million years ago

Homo erectus is the variety of human who moves out of the continent of Africa, to spread through much of Asia and Europe. This move from Africa is usually dated to about a million years ago, but this may be too recent. First reports of two skulls found in 1999 at Dmanisi, in South Georgia, describe them as 1.8 million years old.

Fossil remains of this kind have been found as far afield as Java in southeast Asia (the first to be discovered, in 1891), Beijing in northern China, and within Europe in Greece, Germany and England – in addition to numerous sites in Africa. The European skulls differ from the Asian in various ways (larger brains, smaller teeth), causing some anthropologists to classify them not as Homo erectus but as an archaic version of our own species, Homo sapiens.

The spread of our species: from 60,000 years ago

After Homo erectus has spread through the linked central land mass of our planet (Africa and Eurasia), he is succeeded within that region by varieties of Homo sapiens – the Neanderthals and then modern humans. It is modern humans who take the next step in colonizing the habitable earth.

The dates are still uncertain and much disputed. But at some time after 60,000 years ago people cross from southeast Asia to Borneo, the Philippines, New Guinea and Australia. And at some time after 30,000 years ago humans make the short but difficult leap from northeast Asia to northwest America.

The unsettling and the settled: from 8000 BC

Only nomads can live on the steppes north of Asia’s mountain ranges, moving with their flocks of animals to survive together on the meagre crop of grass. It is a tough life, and the steppes have bred tough people – pioneers in warfare on horseback.

From the Indo-European tribes of ancient times to the Mongols and Turks of more recent history, the people of the steppes descend frequently and with devastating suddeness upon their more civilized neighbours. There are many tempting victims. Beneath the mountain ridges Asia offers ideal locations for civilized life.

The regions bordering the Asian shores of the Mediterranean are where mankind appears first to have settled in villages and towns – a development requiring at least the beginnings of agriculture. Two of the earliest settlements to deserve the name of towns are Jericho in Palestine and Catal Huyuk in Anatolia.

For the emergence of a more developed society, justifying the name of civilization, history suggests that there is one incomparable advantage, indeed almost a necessity – the proximity of a large river, flowing through an open plain. In several places Asia provides this.

On a map showing the fertile plains of Asia, between the mountains and the sea, three such areas stand out: Mesopotamia, watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates; the valley of the Indus; and the plains of north China, from the Hwang Ho (or Yellow River) down to the Yangtze.

Other waterways, such as the Ganges or the Mekong, are in areas too heavily forested to make agriculture easy. But in Mesopotamia, western India and northern China, great rivers flow through open plains, providing ample flood water for the nurturing of crops. These regions of Asia become the sites of three of the early civilizations.

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